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UTTARAKHAND ASSEMBLY ELECTION

Close contest

Print edition : Mar 11, 2022 T+T-
Sumit Hridayesh, Congress candidate from Haldwani, campaigning in his constituency on February 6.

Sumit Hridayesh, Congress candidate from Haldwani, campaigning in his constituency on February 6.

Jogendra Rautela, the BJP’s Haldwani candidate, addressing a public meeting at K.V.M. Public School, Hira Nagar, Haldwani on February 6.

Jogendra Rautela, the BJP’s Haldwani candidate, addressing a public meeting at K.V.M. Public School, Hira Nagar, Haldwani on February 6.

Villagers barricade their fields in Lalkuwa to keep stray cattle away from destroying crops.

Villagers barricade their fields in Lalkuwa to keep stray cattle away from destroying crops.

The Congress leaves no stone unturned to gain power by capitalising on discontent over unemployment and price rise and its ‘soft Hindutva’ strategies. But the BJP is using shrill campaigns to create hostility between communities and to vilify the Congress leadership.

SPRAWLING farmlands hem either side of the uneven stretches of Lalkuan, which became an electoral hot seat after former Chief Minister Harish Rawat of the Congress entered the fray. A line of unpainted brick houses and kiosks separate the road from the fields. Openings into the fields have been barricaded by structures of concertina wire. 

Manohar, a peasant in his early fifties, recounts his daily ordeal: “Stray cattle is destroying crops. Some of us have incurred losses in tens of thousands. The ban on cow slaughter has increased their numbers manifold. We take turns to guard our fields at night.” Manohar is joined by a young man who complains in a sullen tone that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government has no time to build gaushalas (cow sheds), even as it stirs up audiences with the call to protect the “holy animal”. Other young people grumble that they have no jobs and that their future is bleak unless they migrate to other States.  

Seizing the moment

The mutterings resonate everywhere in the hill State of Uttarkhand that goes to the hustings on February 14. The Congress, which is eyeing a comeback after the successive election routs of 2017 and 2019, is leaving no stone unturned to use the discontent to its advantage. Its ‘Swabhimaan Pratigya Patra’ promised 4,00,000 jobs, cooking gas cylinders at a subsidised rate of Rs.500, and 40 per cent police postings for women.

The Congress launched its manifesto ahead of other parties on February 2, parachuting its general secretary, Priyanka Gandhi, to Dehradun from neighbouring Uttar Pradesh, where her intrepid street confrontations with the Adityanath government have boosted her image. The party hopes to capitalise on it in Uttarakhand, especially among young voters and women in particular. 

At a virtual rally live-streamed across the State’s 70 constituencies, Priyanka attempted to woo the target audience. “It is the women of Uttarakhand, especially in the hilly areas, who have to do the maximum hard work. During the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, they suffered the most but hardly any political party talks about them. Our party promises to work for their empowerment, if voted to power,” she said.

Be it in the scattered, impoverished settlements atop the hills or among the urban populace living in the plains, there is no dearth of people who are responsive to the Congress’ assertion on creating jobs and its enticing list of sops. At first glance, it appears that the grand old party is set to write an epitaph of the five-year-old BJP regime that saw three Chief Ministers in quick succession, betraying the party’s fear of anti-incumbency. But then there are shrill campaigns to create hostility between communities and vilify and demonise the Congress leadership.

Shrill campaigns

At the heart of it were the controversial incidents in Haridwar between December 17 and 19, when members of right-wing Hindu organisations and various “religious leaders” assembled for a “dharma sansad”. Some of them relayed explicit hate messages against Muslims, going to the extent of asking the police, politicians and people in general to arm themselves against the minority community. This was followed by a row surrounding Harish Rawat’s alleged commitment to Uttarakhand Congress’ vice president, Akil Ahmad, to build a Muslim university.  

Even though the Congress and Ahmad himself clarified that the accusations were untrue, the BJP latched on to it. At a virtual rally on February 8 in Udhamsingh Nagar, Prime Minister Narendra Modi engaged in provocations. “How dare they even think of speaking about such a [Muslim] university? This is the proof of their appeasement politics.” The BJP’s State unit tweeted an image portraying Harish Rawat as a Muslim cleric. That audacity fetched it a notice from the Election Commission on February 5. 

The BJP’s cadre admit that religious fervour is predominant among the people of Uttarakhand, a “dev boomi” or land of gods, and they are tasked with leveraging it by nurturing and perpetuating online myths aimed at stirring Hindu pride. A polling agent for the party in Haldwani, who requested anonymity, told this reporter, “There is polarisation, though it is not palpable. It will help us at the hustings.”  

At a petrol filling station at Umedpur village in Chorgalia, Haldwani, a 30-something Pratap relates to Modi’s Hindu nationalism. But when asked about the Assembly election, he said he was unsure. “Unemployment and price rise are real,” he said. “I might vote for the Congress.”

Yet, when it comes to the national election of 2024, the grand old party has much to worry. People overwhelmingly said they would vote to return the Modi government, citing general distrust in Rahul Gandhi’s leadership. 

In the immediate context, however, the Congress maintains that the BJP’s Hindu-Muslim card has become a spent force. In an exclusive interview with this reporter, Harish Rawat averred, “This time anti-incumbency is marked. Unemployment, non-governance and inflation have peaked. These issues are affecting the common man’s households. The BJP will find itself in a very inhospitable terrain if it attempts to sell communal narratives to the people.”

Congress’ soft Hindutva

But party insiders admit it is not easy to prevent the BJP from turning the election into a mandate on communal lines. Perhaps that is why the Congress’ dalliance with “soft Hindutva” continues. During his visit to Uttarakhand on February 5, Rahul Gandhi performed “Ganga aarti” to full media glare at Haridwar’s Har ki pauri ghat, while his party men made loud salutations to “Maa Ganga”. In a bid to woo Brahmin voters, Harish Rawat has announced that a commission would be set up to assess the economic and social condition of the community. He has also pledged to install idols of Lord Parashuram at all religious centres in the State.  

The BJP is alarmed. At the Udhamsingh Nagar rally, Modi reminded people that “they [Congress] were in power in Delhi and Uttar Pradesh for years, used to travel to Uttarakhand for leisure, but never thought of its pilgrimage, tourism, or char dham” .  

The BJP leaders are trying to wreck the Congress by recirculating the notion that they are the sole protectors of the national interest. In his first physical rally in Uttarakhand on February 11, at Srinagar’s NIT grounds, Modi accused the Congress of “disrespecting the late Chief of Defence Staff, General Bipin Rawat, when he was alive”. The accusations are not without premeditation. Uttarakhand is home to a large number of defence staffers. Their families wield considerable influence in several pockets of the Garhwal region.  

Many political observers are of the opinion that the BJP’s astounding success in the 2017 Assembly election, when it won 57 of the 70 seats, was because of it elevating Uttarakhand natives Bipin Rawat and Ajit Doval to high positions in the security apparatus. Doval is the National Security Adviser, whereas Bipin Rawat was the Chief of Defence Staff until December 8, 2021, when he died in a helicopter crash. 

The Congress is not far behind the BJP in trying to exploit people’s patriotic sentiments. In December last year, soon after Bipin Rawat’s demise, Rahul Gandhi addressed a “Sainik samman rally” (glory to the soldiers). What captured people’s attention were large cut-outs of the former defence chief and other soldiers who perished along with him in the fateful chopper ride. The grand old party also heralded a “veer gram parikrama yatra” (valour parade) from Bipin Rawat’s native village.

AAP’s overtures

A relief of sorts for the BJP is the Aam Aadmi Party’s (AAP) boisterous campaign across all the 70 constituencies and its wooing of the defence community, both of which threaten to scupper the Congress’ prospects. The AAP has nominated former colonel Ajay Kothiyal as its chief ministerial candidate. There is a general consensus that the AAP’s overture to the families of the armed staffers is more likely to hurt the Congress than the BJP.  

Jogendra Rautela, BJP candidate from Haldwani, told Frontline , “Our core voters are ideologically embedded with us. It is the Congress whose votes will be split.” At various pockets in Lalkuwa and Khatima, where the incumbent Chief Minister Pushkar Dhami is contesting, a battery of autorickshaws carrying Arvind Kejriwal’s hoardings flood the streets, marketing his “model governance”.  

The BJP, on the other hand, is marketing what it calls a “double-engine” government, arguing that the same party at the Centre and in the State can function as two engines to expedite development. The party’s A-lister leaders are cataloguing its development work of the past five years: construction of 5.22 lakh toilets, annual health coverage of Rs.5 lakh for the poor under the Ayushman Bharat scheme, and distribution of 3.5 lakh gas connections. 

But the BJP is battered by serial defections. On February 2, the party’s senior leader Narendra Nagar became the latest to switch to the Congress. Om Gopal Rawat, another of its leaders, also joined the Congress. The defections began in October last year, with State Minister Yashpal Arya and his son jumping to the Congress fold. In the first week of January more defections followed, with Deepak Bijalwan and Malchandra of the BJP also shifting allegiance to the Congress. Malchandra is a former MLA from Karauli.  

The educated youth are disgruntled. Even the BJP’s ardent supporters admit that the contest is close. But there are considerable impediments to a Congress victory. First, Modi has retained his sway with a section of the poor. A tea seller in Jeolikote said, “We got free ration during the lockdown, there are several other sops. We have nothing to complain.” This has diminished the sense of fatigue with the BJP. Second, the BJP’s mammoth election machinery, disproportionate capital and an infallible ability to mobilise emotion with powerful expositions of Hindu nationalism are also likely to thwart the Congress’s rebound.