Assembly elections: Uttarakhand

Errors of judgement

Print edition : February 17, 2017

Chief Minister Harish Rawat with MLAs after the floor test on May 10. Photo: Virender Singh Negi

The BJP’s failed attempts to topple the Rawat government and its overt support to Congress rebels could sound the death knell for the party’s prospects in the upcoming Assembly elections.

THE tiny hill State of Uttarakhand has been swinging like a pendulum between the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress ever since its creation. There has always been a close contest between the two major parties during Assembly elections, and the upcoming elections will be no different, despite the fact that the BJP made a clean sweep of all five Lok Sabha constituencies in the 2014 election. According to BJP insiders, a string of missteps by the party in recent months has queered the pitch for it in a battle which otherwise looked favourably settled in favour of the saffron party until a few months ago.

The party’s first major faux pas was the overt support it extended to nine Congress rebel Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) to topple the Harish Rawat-led Congress government in March last year. Just a day before the Rawat government was required to prove its majority, the Centre dismissed it and imposed President’s Rule. But this move was quashed by the Nainital High Court. The political battle then reached the Supreme Court, which, in an unusual and unprecedented move, “suspended” President’s Rule for three hours to facilitate the Rawat government’s floor test on May 10, 2016. The apex court also barred the nine rebel Congress MLAs from voting. With the House strength reduced to 61, Rawat, who had the support of 27 of his own MLAs and six others, sailed through the floor test and his government was reinstated (“Rawat’s return”, Frontline, June 24, 2016).

The other error of judgement, according to party insiders in Uttarakhand, was allowing the nine rebel Congress MLAs to join the party and allotting them the BJP ticket, along with some other Congress defectors who were given the ticket barely hours after they switched sides. The most glaring example was that of senior Congress leader Yashpal Arya, Revenue and Irrigation Minister in the Rawat government, who was given the ticket on the same day he defected. “We have been attacking these very people for the last five years and suddenly we have been asked to go and ask people to vote for them. With what face can we do that now? These actions have left the cadre thoroughly frustrated,” said a senior BJP leader and former Chief Minister of the State. According to him, the party has wasted at least 15 such seats in this manner. “Maybe in one or two seats we can still compensate, but we are going to lose 12-14 seats because of accommodating the defectors.”

According to these leaders, giving the ticket to Congress defector Vijay Bahuguna and his son Saket Bahuguna, who were considered the masterminds of the failed coup in March last year, was a disastrous decision because Bahuguna was the Chief Minister when the Kedarnath deluge happened in 2013 and thousands lost their lives. “We had criticised Bahuguna so bitterly during that time, now we are saddled with the task of campaigning for him and his son. How can we face our supporters now?” they said.

Senior BJP leaders told Frontline that none of them, including former Chief Ministers Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank, B.C. Khanduri and Bhagat Singh Koshyari, were consulted by the party high command before the ticket was given to the defectors. “We don’t understand why this was done. It has really queered the pitch for us,” said a senior leader.

Another factor that can go against the party is the fact that it has failed to come up with a chief ministerial candidate owing to factionalism. “Projecting a face helps, as we saw in the last Lok Sabha election. The craze for Modiji was such that we won even those seats which we never imagined we could. Similarly, in Assam, projecting [Sarbananda] Sonowal helped us win the State for the first time. Now, of course, it is too late,” a senior BJP leader said. Having Rawat as the chief ministerial candidate of the Congress had made it more difficult because he was a grass-roots worker, having worked in the State since 2002, BJP leaders said. Besides, in the wake of the BJP’s miscalculated move to topple him, he has emerged as a martyr and is expected to have garnered people’s sympathy. This could make people overlook his government’s failures and give him another chance, they added.

The Congress, which made a mess of itself during the rebellion, has surprisingly put up a neat act this time, declaring Rawat the chief ministerial candidate and giving him a free hand in ticket distribution. Although the Congress headquarters in Dehradun witnessed unruly scenes after the candidates’ list was announced, senior Congress party leaders dismissed them as the natural anger of those who were denied the ticket. “After all, everyone cannot get the ticket, and those denied would definitely feel hurt and express their anger. But we will win the State with a comfortable majority because despite the short time he got, Harish Rawat has tried to do his best,” said Surendra Kumar Agrawal, Rawat’s close aide and media adviser. According to him, while the BJP wanted the char dham yatra to be discontinued for a few years after the Kedarnath tragedy, the government did its best to restart the yatra. “We managed to organise the yatra the very next year without any hitch. Tourist arrivals in 2015 were the largest ever. We have provided social security to all, including even the unborn child. We have started many small development projects and, given a second chance, we will make the State a model State once again,” Agrawal said.

As for Rawat himself, he has been in campaign mode ever since he was reinstated, going on pad a yatras and explaining the “conspiracy against him, a commoner”, as he prefers to describe himself. “It is good that those who were toppling my government have gone to the other side, including the king of all scams [an indirect reference to Vijay Bahuguna]. It was because of these people that my government was being accused of corruption, it is good riddance from bad rubbish,” he tells voters.

Congress leaders are also hopeful that the problems people faced because of demonetisation and its effect on tourism, which is the mainstay of Uttarakhand’s economy, will make them vote for their party. In fact, in order to capitalise on demonetisation woes, Rawat constituted a committee which came to the conclusion that the State suffered a loss of Rs.500-600 crore because of the fall in tourist arrivals. This is a major talking point in election speeches.

The BJP, on the other hand, expects its announcement of One Rank One Pension (OROP) for defence personnel will work in its favour as more than 40 per cent of the State’s population consists of serving or retired defence personnel. The party also hopes the appointment of General Bipin Rawat as Army chief will boost its chances because this is the first time someone from Uttarakhand has occupied the high post. “Not only the Army chief, even the RAW chief and the DGMO [Director General of Military Operations] are from Uttarakhand, which is a matter of pride for all of us,” a senior BJP leader said.

These do not figure in speeches, but all BJP leaders mention them in informal conversations. Political observers said that even the holding of the Army commanders’ conference in Dehradun this time was a covert message to the people.

“We are forming the next government, there is no doubt. The Congress government has failed on all fronts. The crime rate has seen the highest ever increase during 2015-16 (as per the National Crime Records Bureau), development is at a standstill, roads are in a shambles, victims of the 2013 deluge are still living on roads, there is no rehabilitation. Even the Rs.700-crore fund the Centre sent for rehabilitation purposes has remained unspent,” said Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank.

With both parties keeping their fingers crossed, it is indeed going to be a keenly contested battle, especially because the margin of victory or defeat could actually be very thin. In 2012, the Congress formed the government although it won just one seat more than the BJP: it won 32 seats while the BJP won 31. The vote margin was just 0.66 per cent—the Congress’ vote share was 33.79 per cent and the BJP’s 33.13 per cent. The fact that the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) also has a fair share of votes tends to go in the Congress’ favour. The BSP, which won three seats in 2012 and 12.19 per cent of the votes, supported the Congress government and may do so again. The same goes for the Uttarakhand Kranti Dal (UKD), which will find it easier to support the Congress than the BJP. Three independents and one UKD member supported the Congress government in 2012 and all of them remained with the Congress government through Rawat’s tribulations. This definitely gives the Congress a bit more confidence.

The State goes to the polls on February 15 and the results will be known on March 11.

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