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UTTARAKHAND ASSEMBLY ELECTION

‘People are rooting for the Congress’

Print edition : Mar 11, 2022 T+T-
Harish Rawat, former Congress Chief Minister, addresses a gathering in Haldwani on February 8.

Harish Rawat, former Congress Chief Minister, addresses a gathering in Haldwani on February 8.

Interview with Harish Rawat, former Chief Minister of Uttarakhand.

HARISH RAWAT is hopeful that the Congress will return to power in Uttarakhand capitalising on the Bharatiya Janata Party’s failure to address issues such as unemployment and price rise. Hitting the campaign trail in Lalkuan constituency, he asserted the Congress’ election promise of providing four lakh government jobs and fixing the price of LPG cylinder at Rs.500, were not enticements; the party was working out the specifics. He exudes confidence that people have faith in his leadership and, in the process, appears to be sending out a message to the party high command as it did not name him as the chief ministerial candidate. Excerpts from an interview:  

How is the Congress’ preparedness for the Assembly election? Are you hopeful of returning to power?

We are very well prepared. Congress cadres are enthusiastic. There is a yearning for change. People are determined to oust the BJP and bring the Congress to power. We are just the medium, as Arjun was Krishna’s medium in the Mahabharata. It is the people who are waging a battle against the BJP’s arrogance and lack of performance. 

The BJP is aggressively marketing its “double engine” government idea.

The people of Uttarakhand find that catch-phrase repelling. In the past five years, the three BJP Chief Ministers stifled people’s aspirations and hurt the State’s esteem. There is a palpable rage against the BJP’s non-starter “double engine” government. What better proof of this can there be than the BJP’s decision to remove its first Chief Minister after keeping him in office for three-and-a-half years? The BJP then experimented with a second Chief Minister, who was replaced soon, leaving the people bemused. Then came a third Chief Minister, whom the party did not even find worthy of a ministerial post earlier. 

The third Chief Minister, sensing that his regime may be short-lived, wasted no time and opportunity in mining every river, stream and drain in the State not caring about the environmental consequences of such activities. The people have started referring to him as “khanan-priya” [mining freak].  

There was widespread COVID-19 mismanagement in the State, but the Congress has failed to turn the failure on the public health front into a major election plank.

Uttarakhand reported the second highest number of deaths due to COVID after Uttar Pradesh, in terms of deaths to population ratio in 2020. People were left to fend for themselves in the absence of hospital beds, oxygen support and life-saving drugs. Similar mismanagement of the health crisis was witnessed during the Kumbh mela in 2021. There was also a massive testing scam. The Kumbh event, which is the pride of the State, was referred to as “corona spreader”. The people of the State will avenge that indifference on polling day.  

Uttarakhand enjoys geographical proximity to western Uttar Pradesh, where polarisation on communal lines is rife. Are you apprehensive of a spillover of communal passions into Uttarakhand, more so as the Dharam Sansad held in Haridwar in December 2021 witnessed the relaying of messages with communal overtones. More recently, there was a controversy surrounding your promise to open a Muslim university in the State if elected to power?

Kath ki handi bar bar nahi chahadti . [You can’t sell the same lies again and again.] In 2017, Prime Minister Narendra Modi sold the “shamshan ghaat-kabristan” myth to the people, belittling the dignity of the office that he holds. The BJP reaped its electoral dividends not only in Uttar Pradesh but also in Uttarakhand, where the Congress was surprisingly routed after being the front-runner. However, if you look at the voting trends of the 2017 election closely, you will find that the Congress has retained its traditional voters who elected it to power in 2012. It was voters supporting small regional parties who switched allegiance to the BJP. 

This time anti-incumbency is marked. The problems of unemployment, non-governance and inflation have peaked. These issues are affecting the common man. The BJP will find itself on an unsteady wicket if it attempts to sell communal narratives to people. People are comparing the BJP government with that of the previous Congress rule, which had provided a stable economy, introduced wide-ranging welfare schemes and made a sincere effort at appointing a Lok Ayukta. People are disillusioned with the BJP’s empty promises and are rooting for the Congress. 

Manifesto has strong vision for Uttarakhand

The Congress manifesto promises four lakh government jobs and a cap on the price of the LPG cylinder. Critics may point out that these are populist announcements aimed at capturing votes without any thought given to the maths behind fulfilling the promises.

Our manifesto is a comprehensive document. It contains a strong vision for Uttarakhand. It is also armed with effective solution models to repair the economic damage brought about by the BJP government. Our thrust is not only on chaar dham [four pilgrim sites] but also relentless kaam [work]. We have committed ourselves to providing four lakh jobs, subsidised gas cylinders and economic assistance of Rs.40,000 a year to five lakh families and upgrading health facilities and reaching health care to people in the hinterland. The strong points of the Congress manifesto have left the BJP feeling threatened and the party has since been postponing the release of its manifesto.  

As for those who are doubting whether our promises are deliverable, we have a chapter in our manifesto focussing on resource mobilisation and increasing people’s purchasing power. The Congress’ performance during its stint in office in 2012-17 is its strongest testimonial. When a natural calamity devastated 80 per cent of the State’s geographical spread in 2013, we surprised everyone by reconstructing the State and rehabilitating the homeless in a record time of one and a half years. We achieved this despite a general slowdown of the economy at the time. Today the State’s economy is in tatters, but the Congress’ pledge is to revive it and bring all-round relief to people.

Women’s representation

Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi’s “ladki hoon, lad sakti hoon” campaign has grabbed headlines in Uttar Pradesh. The Congress has given 40 per cent of the seats to women candidates in Uttar Pradesh. Why did this model not find endorsement in Uttarakhand, a State where the Congress is in a better position to ensure that women candidates will win?

The call for women’s representation in politics or their overall emancipation cannot be placed within the narrow confines of ticket distribution. It is a call to build an India where women’s rights and representation are guaranteed in every sphere of life. It is a call to inculcate a sense of commitment in people at the grass-roots level to accord primacy to women’s issues and create an enabling environment for women to realise their full potential without prejudice.  

It has parallels with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s garibi hatao campaign. Although poverty could not have been alleviated with one slogan, it was instrumental in envisioning a form of government that had poverty alleviation as its agenda. Priyanka Gandhi’s call for women’s participation in politics in a big way has a similar objective. It aims at building consensus for a stream of politics that accords primacy to women’s emancipation and instils confidence in women to be their own protectors.  

The defence staff and their families wield considerable influence in several pockets of Uttarakhand. The BJP has successfully limned an image of itself as the sole protector of the national interest. Are you apprehensive of a consolidation of support for the BJP?

This is a State where every twentieth family has given a martyr to the country. Most of these families are associated with the Congress, although we choose not to make an exhibition of that. My son-in-law, an Army major, lost his life in the Kashmir operations. In my extended family, there are close to 70 members serving in the Army, from soldiers to brigadiers. Standing up for the country and making supreme sacrifices is part of Uttarakhand’s tradition and cultural ethos. The BJP cannot play the nationalism card here as people see though that charade. 

Moreover, it is the BJP that stalled recruitment in the Army for the past five years. When I was in office, I opened an additional recruitment centre in Pithorgarh. You will be surprised to know that the BJP, when it came to power in 2017, closed the centre. The Congress government had relaxed the education criteria for recruitment in the Army, the BJP overturned that. People here know the BJP’s true face. 

‘People will not fall for AAP’

The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is trying to sell its Delhi model of good governance in Uttarakhand. It is also eying the influential defence community by naming Ajay Kothiyal, a retired colonel, as its chief ministerial candidate. There is a perception the AAP will cut into the Congress votes.

The AAP entered the electoral fray very late. Unlike Delhi, Uttarakhand has a complex and diverse geographical, economic and social terrain. One cannot understand the region or carve a space for oneself in a matter of a few months. The AAP’s inexperience in Uttarakhand, coupled with a general sentiment in favour of the Congress, has led to a situation where the AAP is being seen as a vote-cutter, tasked to bail out the BJP.  

The AAP has made promises, such as free power consumption up to 300 units, that are next to impossible to implement. People know the party has not upheld a similar promise made in Delhi, despite the Union Territory having a budget that is five times bigger than ours. People will not fall for the AAP. 

The Election Commission has prohibited large public meetings and road shows. With electioneering going digital, how prepared is the Congress to connect to its core voters, many of whom are from underprivileged backgrounds? Is there a design to help a particular party by banning physical campaigns?

We welcomed the Election Commission’s decision and decided to give our best. I am the only politician in the State who has addressed 59 constituencies through virtual public meetings. We are using all social media platforms to disseminate information relating to our party manifesto and connect to the electorate. 

It was the responsibility of the Election Commission to conceive alternative platforms for reaching out to the electorate given that a large section of the State’s populace does not have Internet access. But our workers have taken it as a challenge and are focussing on one-to-one campaigns. 

You were initially nominated from Ramnagar and subsequently fielded from Lalkuan, following the opposition to your candidature in the former Assembly segment. What was the controversy all about?

There was no controversy at all. I was initially supposed to contest from Ramnagar but in hindsight the party felt that coordination [of election campaign] would be better if I contested from Lalkuan. When I spoke to the potential candidates for Lalkuan, they welcomed me with open arms. Lalkuan is as much a home to me as Ramnagar. Additionally, Lalkuan is the hub of Uttarakhand’s culture, and as someone who takes great pride in our cultural heritage, it was my natural choice. 

The infighting in the Congress has been in the news, with the organisation apparently divided between your camp and the All India Congress Committee coordinator Devendra Yadav’s. 

There are two factors in this election. One is change. People want a change of guard in the State, as they are tired with the BJP for reneging on all its promises and failing to address unemployment and price rise. The other factor is the choice of Chief Minister. So even if there are organisational misgivings, people’s determination for change and their belief in my leadership will propel them to vote for the Congress. 

Whereas the Congress named a relatively inexperienced Charanjit Singh Channi as Punjab’s chief ministerial candidate, you had to contend with being the campaign in-charge in Uttarakhand.

Our campaign is going smoothly and there are no issues within the party.