UTTARAKHAND is proof that a “double-engine government” (provided by the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government at the Centre and the BJP Chief Minister Trivendra Singh Rawat in the State) can become counterproductive. Confident in the knowledge that the party high command was watching his back, Trivendra Singh Rawat had shrugged off any attempt at consensus building while taking major decisions concerning the State.
About two years ago, a video showing the Chief Minister shouting at a schoolteacher who had beseeched him to cancel her transfer went viral. The incident happened at one of the janata durbars, a sort of open house. Trivendra Singh Rawat not only insulted the teacher, but irked at her persistent plea, he ordered her immediate suspension and threw her out of the meeting.
The video sparked outrage on social media, forcing Trivendra Singh Rawat to rescind the suspension order. He did not cancel her transfer order.
That was perhaps the beginning of the end for Trivendra Singh Rawat, who was increasingly seen as arrogant, rude and impervious to public opinion. The incident had added insult to injury because a few weeks earlier the BJP government had ordered a lathi charge on protesters, consisting mainly of women who were protesting against the widening of a road in Garsain. Informed sources in the BJP said the resentment within the party had grown to such an extent that had Trivendra Singh Rawat not been replaced, the government would have fallen as some of the BJP MLAs had decided to vote against the Budget. This could have resulted in the government failing a floor test in the House. “It was to avert this disaster that a quick-fix solution was found by replacing him,” the source said.
So the change of guard in Dehradun on March 10 did not come as a surprise but the choice of the successor, Tirath Singh Rawat, was puzzling because, like Trivendra Singh Rawat in 2017, he was not the frontrunner for the post. The State goes to polls early next year. Prominent Congress leaders such as Vijay Bahuguna, Harakh Singh Rawat, Yashpal Arya and Satpal Maharaj, who had crossed over to the BJP shortly before the Assembly election in 2017, were seen as prospective candidates, besides Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank (Union Education Minister) and Dhan Singh Rawat of the BJP. But the BJP leadership chose a dark horse, with a long background in the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), to lead the State in the election.
Although immediately after taking the oath of office, Tirath Singh Rawat declared that he would carry forward the good work done by his predecessor, a few hours later he was busy announcing a review of some of the major decisions taken by him. The first and foremost one was dropping the decision to bring all major religious shrines under government control. In 2020, Trivendra Singh Rawat had announced the formation of the Devasthanam Board, which allowed the government to take control of the administration of all major shrines, including the char dham (Kedarnath, Badrinath, Gangotri and Yamunotri) centres in order to improve the management of these shrines and provide better amenities to devotees. The board was to be on the lines of the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams (TTD) Trust Board. The move was opposed by lobbies of priests, sants and seers and BJP MLAs. The MLAs were unhappy that there was no consultation on any platform, let alone taking them into confidence.
A senior State BJP leader, who was a Minister in the Trivendra Singh Rawat Cabinet, said: “Uttarakhand’s economy is dependent on religious tourism. While taking such a significant decision, he should have taken everyone on board, but there was no discussion. The powerful priests and sants were upset because they were deprived of control over these shrines.” The decision would have come into effect this year, beginning with the char dham shrines, which open for pilgrims in May.
Another decision that proved counterproductive was the formation of Garsain as a third commissionerate in the State along with Kumaon and Garhwal. This was widely seen as a precursor to making Garsain the new capital. Though this has been a part of the BJP’s manifesto ever since the State was created in 2000, the move has no takers. When the decision was announced, again without any consultation within the party, it angered the powerful leaders from the Kumaon region. It was felt that Garsain was being promoted at the cost of Almora, and nobody liked the idea, said a BJP leader.
Also read: Himalayan tragedy in Uttarakhand
Yet another decision of the previous government, which was made at the Centre’s directive, was the strict adherence to COVID-19 safety protocols, such as an RT-PCR test, for attending the mahakumbh at Haridwar which began in mid January and will conclude by end April. But the pandas-sants lobby and local traders opposed the protocols saying the measures would dissuade devotees from visiting the holy city for the ritual bath in the Ganga. After a visit to the kumbh area, Tirath Singh Rawat did away with the condition of compulsory RT-PCR test reports for pilgrims attending the kumbh.
“Although the previous government, by following strict safety protocols, had handled the coronavirus outbreak efficiently, pressure groups have now got an upper hand,” said a senior bureaucrat who did not want to be named.
Other complaints against Trivendra Singh Rawat was that he had cut himself off from party workers, was not accessible even to his senior colleagues, did not take stakeholders into his confidence while taking key policy decisions and was in total control of a group of powerful bureaucrats. “He had started operating from an ivory tower,” a State BJP leader said. Interestingly, although a predominant party in the State, the BJP has never been able to find a leader who could complete his term as Chief Minister. It is a fact that changing the Chief Minister just before election has not helped the BJP much.
Change of guard
Nityanand Swami, who became Chief Minister amid high drama after the creation of the State in 2000, was replaced by Bhagat Singh Koshyari in October 2001. The BJP was defeated in the 2002 election. This paved the way for the Congress to assume power with N.D. Tiwari at the helm. He is the only Chief Minister to have completed his term. In 2007, the BJP came back to power. Yet again there was high drama when B.C. Khanduri’s name was announced as Chief Minister, much to the chagrin of senior State party leaders. Khanduri functioned as Chief Minister for two years. In 2009, he was replaced by Nishank. However, Nishank was removed after 27 months, and Khanduri was reinstalled as Chief Minister to lead the party in the 2012 Assembly election. But the Congress came back to power with Vijay Bahuguna (now in the BJP) as Chief Minister. Bahuguna was removed after the June 2013 Kedarnath flood disaster, and Harish Rawat was brought in as Chief Minister. He remained in office until the 2017 election, with great twists and turns that were of the BJP’s making. In 2017, the BJP romped home, winning 57 of the 70 seats. Now, with just over a year left for election, the party has once again effected a change of guard.