Assembly Elections: Uttarakhand

‘Modi magic’ on test

Print edition : March 03, 2017

Uttarakhand Chief Minister Harish Rawat at an election campaign road show at Kashipur in Udham Singh Nagar district on February 2. Photo: PTI

The rally addressed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at Dehradun on December 27, 2016. Photo: Virender Singh Negi

Although the BJP has projected a chief ministerial candidate in Uttarakhand, it has been dropping hints that Satpal Maharaj, a former Congress leader who is now with the BJP, may be the Chief Minister if the party wins. Here, Satpal Maharaj (right) with BJP national president Amit Shah at the party's Samarasata Sammelan at Haridwar in April 2016. Photo: Virender Singh Negi

Uttrakhand Chief Minister Harish Rawat releasing "Rawat Ke Sankalp" (Rawat's Resolve) at the Congress office in Dehradun. Rajkumar Chauhan, a former Delhi State Minister, is also seen. Photo: PTI

The overall stakes are very high for the BJP in Uttarakhand, where the party’s mascot is the Prime Minister himself. But for the Congress, it will only be Harish Rawat whose image takes a beating if the party loses.

“YOU should have seen the crowd frenzy at [Prime Minister Narendra] Modi’s rally in Dehradun. People are going crazy for him, and that should swing the votes in our favour,” said Ravikant Uniyal, election-in-charge of Subodh Uniyal, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) candidate in Narendranagar constituency.

Jyoti Gairola, vice president of the BJP in Uttarakhand, when asked why people should vote for the BJP, said: “Modi’s appeal is intact. Modi’s name evokes trust, people know he can deliver.” Huge posters with pictures of the Modi-Amit Shah duo stare down at people all over Uttarakhand, all promising something or the other. Pictures of State leaders figure at the bottom of the posters in postage stamp size.

In an amusing turn of events, it has become a fight between Prime Minister Modi and Chief Minister Harish Rawat in the tiny State of Uttarakhand. The State BJP unit was demoralised after its failed attempt to unseat Rawat in 2016. There is also resentment in the party over the way former Congress leaders have been given the party ticket for the Assembly elections. With no other straw to clutch, State BJP leaders now pin their hopes on “Modi Magic” to swing the elections in the party’s favour. Even BJP voters seem to share the sentiment. In many constituencies, this correspondent asked voters loyal to the BJP whether they found it discouraging that the party had not announced its chief ministerial candidate and whether they would be comfortable voting for candidates who were earlier with the Congress. The gist of what they said was: “We don't care who the candidate is, we don’t care who the Chief Minister will be. We trust Modi and know whoever he selects as a candidate or as the Chief Minister will be good. Nothing else matters.” In this context, a defeat in the elections will become a failure of the “Modi Magic”.

Pitch for Rawat

The Congress, meanwhile, has made it a Harish Rawat show all the way. If the party wins, good; otherwise, it is only Rawat who loses. The stakes are not so high for the Congress party high command per se. The ruling party has nothing much to show by way of achievements or development work. It banks on Rawat’s “boy next door” image—he has been engaged in grass-roots politics since the creation of the State in 2000. He may not enjoy a squeaky clean image, but he is not associated with any major scam. Even his BJP detractors concede that he is a good man. Pradip Mehta, a shop owner in Rishikesh and a staunch BJP supporter, said: “Rawat did not get too much time, but he has shown that his intentions for the State are good. He is the top choice for the Chief Minister’s post.” However, he said he would vote for the BJP because he trusted Modi.

While the BJP hopes that Modi’s image will win the election for it, the Congress hopes that the lack of anti-incumbency sentiments and Rawat’s own image will work in its favour. That neither of the possibilities can be discounted makes this election a neck-and-neck contest.

When the Congress unexpectedly won the election in 2002, Rawat was widely expected to be the Chief Minister. However, in a style of functioning characteristic of the Congress, N.D. Tiwari was hoisted as the Chief Minister, and this left Rawat sulking for a long time. In 2007, the BJP formed the government. But when the Congress emerged as the single largest party in 2012, Rawat was again expected to form the government with support from the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and others. Once again he was given short shrift, and the party high command installed Vijay Bahuguna as the Chief Minister. But the 2013 Kedarnath deluge sealed the fate of Bahuguna’s controversial tenure. He was replaced with Rawat shortly after the 2014 Lok Sabha election.

Troubled tenure

Rawat’s tenure was not trouble-free. He was beginning to settle down in government when Congress MLAs rebelled in March 2016. The government was sacked, and President’s Rule was imposed for the first time in Uttarakhand. But Rawat was reinstated following the Supreme Court’s intervention in the matter. The Congress now hopes that Rawat, who has weathered such rough patches, will be able to beat anti-incumbency and stay in power. That the Congress dissidents contesting on the BJP ticket are the same people whom the BJP attacked for corruption and inefficiency in the last election is what gives the Congress confidence. The BJP has no face to criticise Rawat for anything and can only make general allegations of governance failure. The Congress, on the other hand, claims that Rawat hardly got an opportunity to work and the people should give him another chance.

Rawat admitted that he was not able to achieve much for the State for reasons known to everyone. He said that if he got a full five-year term he would fulfil the pledges made in the party manifesto. “I am a very small servant of the people. I have not been able to achieve too many big things, but I have taken small steps to help the people of Uttarakhand so that they can earn their living in their own villages, without having to migrate to big cities. I am trying to do small things for women, children, destitute people, ex-servicemen, and young people. Our manifesto is not a jumla [trick], it is my promise to the people, and I will do everything to fulfil these promises,” he told Frontline.

As for the BJP’s allegation that his government had failed on all fronts, he said all those who were responsible for this failure were now in the BJP and the party would do well to ask them about this. The exodus, he said, had been good for the Congress.

The Congress manifesto has promised, among other things, an unemployment allowance of Rs.2,500 a month for one unemployed young person in each family, for three years. “By 2020 we are promising that at least one person in each family in the State will have a job in the State itself,” Rawat said.

BJP woes

The BJP finds itself pulled down by its 2016 misadventure of trying to topple the government and then its embrace of the Congress rebels who are now contesting under its banner. Senior party leaders admit that the central leadership has made things difficult for itself. One of them said: “We should have just waited for the Rawat government to totter to its end. We should not have interfered in the first place. Now we don’t have the face to ask our cadres to vote for those very people whom they have been criticising for so many years.” He added that grass-roots party workers were in a rebellious mood. The party has been constrained to expel some 50 disgruntled leaders, but the rebellious mood persists. The absence of a chief ministerial candidate does not help. A senior leader at the party headquarters in Dehradun said: “Announcing a name would have helped the voter decide better, now we have left them confused.”

‘Modi will deliver’

Jyoti Gairola claimed that all this would not matter and ultimately people would forgo their small grudges for the bigger goal of bringing the BJP to power. “Eventually our supporters will understand that forming the government is the most important thing and will vote for us,” he said. “We have Modi’s face. What more is needed? Modi will deliver.” He claimed that the people’s overwhelming support for Modi in his Dehradun rally was a pointer. Four more such rallies were planned.

Echoes of Jyoti Gairola’s claim were heard during this correspondent’s interactions with people claiming to be BJP supporters. “We are only looking at the lotus. We don’t care who represents that lotus. We know if Modi has taken a decision, it will be for our good,” said Raj Kumar Suri, a small trader in Rishikesh. He deals in military uniforms and other things used by soldiers.

In Narendranagar constituency, where former Congress MLA Subodh Uniyal is contesting on the BJP ticket, many voters said it was Modi who was important to them. Tilak Raj, a small shopkeeper, said: “Modi will have the remote control. Who the candidate is, or who becomes the Chief Minister is immaterial. It is in a way good that the BJP has not announced a name. That would have invited trouble.”

Party insiders said that a chief ministerial candidate had not been announced to prevent alienating people in a State sharply divided on caste lines, between Thakurs and Brahmins. A candidate belonging to either caste was sure to alienate the other.

“Eventually, whoever becomes the Chief Minister will get accepted, but announcing a name would have invited internal sabotage,” said a senior leader, citing the 2012 example when the party announced its serving Chief Minister B.C. Khanduri as its chief ministerial candidate and lost the election. The BJP lost to the Congress by one seat ( BJP-31, Congress-32). Khanduri, who was assumed to be immensely popular, lost his seat because of “internal sabotage” according to his own claim at that time.

But though the BJP stops short of announcing a chief ministerial candidate, it has been dropping hints that the former Congress heavyweight Satpal Maharaj, a Thakur by caste like Rawat, might be the Chief Minister if the BJP is voted to power. People, especially those who would like a Thakur to be the Chief Minister, are apparently falling for it—why else would a senior person and former Union Minister like Maharaj contest if not to become the Chief Minister? Maharaj also fits into the BJP’s larger scheme of things. As the head of a spiritual organisation, Divine Light, he already has the support of thousands of people across the world. He has a comparatively clean image and administrative experience from his stint as a Union Minister.

Demonetisation impact?

As for issues, while the BJP harps half-heartedly on Rawat’s failures, the Congress hopes demonetisation and the hardships it has caused will work in its favour. It does not actually have much to show by way of achievements, except for the relaunch of the “char dhaam yatra” after the 2013 tragedy, expansion of the social security net and popular incentives for environmental protection and planting of trees. Kumari Selja, Congress leader and former Union Minister who has been camping in Uttarakhand to oversee the campaign, said: “People may not be saying so openly because they are scared, but demonetisation has completely ruined small traders, farmers and workers in the unorganised sector. Small businesses have been destroyed, lives have been lost. Don’t you think people will remember all this when they vote?”

In the absence of any major issues, demonetisation might have an impact on the election in a State where people take pride in the way they have always chosen their MLAs from a national perspective. The Congress hopes that this, along with its emphasis on “Uttarakhandiyat”, reflected in the humble persona of Rawat, will help it clinch the crucial floating vote. Here it is important to remember that the margin of victory has always been narrow in this State: it was just 0.6 per cent in the last election. So even a slight swing may be critical.

Muslim factor

The Muslim factor is crucial for the Congress in the 20 seats of Haridwar and Udhamsinghnagar. This segment had deserted the Congress in the past and was crucial in the BSP’s winning seats in Uttarakhand. The BSP won three seats with 12 per cent of the votes in 2012. But this time the Congress hopes that the Uttar Pradesh effect will make Muslims vote for it. The Congress has tied up with the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh, and the S.P. is perceived to have a strong base among Muslims. “Because of U.P., Muslims are looking at the Congress again,” said Amir Hassan, a small-time building contractor in the Doiwala seat in the Dehradun region.

The overall stakes are certainly higher for the BJP in Uttarakhand, where the party’s mascot is the Prime Minister himself. If the party loses, it will be seen as a verdict on Modi. But if the Congress loses, it will only be poor Harish Rawat whose image takes a beating.

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