The Uttarakhand elections have grabbed far more eyeballs than its 70-member Assembly would warrant, more so when the politically significant and deeply fractious Uttar Pradesh will go to the hustings around the same time in seven phases. However, just six weeks before the hill State goes for elections on February 14, a ‘dharma sansad’ (religious conclave) in Haridwar in December 2021, where self-proclaimed seers called for use of arms against Muslims, made it to the headlines and intensely debated prime time news hours. Many political observers are of the view that this may be a well-thought-out ploy to divert attention from real issues of unemployment, inflation and the COVID mismanagement of last year and turn the elections into an ideological battle which the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is more likely to win.
Between December 17 and 19, members of right-wing Hindu organisations and various “religious leaders” gathered in Haridwar at an event they named “dharma sansad”. Some of them relayed explicit hate messages against Muslims, exhorting the police, politicians and people to arm themselves against the minority community. Said Swami Prabodhanand Giri, one of the speakers at the event: “You have seen this at the Delhi border, they killed Hindus and hung them. There is no more time, the case now is that either you prepare to die now, or get ready to kill, there’s no other way. This is why, like in Myanmar, the police here, the politicians here, the Army and every Hindu must pick up weapons and we will have to conduct this cleanliness drive [implying expulsion of Muslims]. There is no solution apart from this.”
Uttarakhand Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami’s reluctance to act against the hatemongers strengthened the perception that the BJP was trying to get electoral mileage out of a polarised environment. It was only on January 13, after a nudge from the Supreme Court, that Jitendra Narayan Singh Tyagi, one of the hate-speech accused, was arrested. The arrest of another accused, Yati Narsinghanand, followed on January 15.
BJP on the back foot
So far, the BJP has been on the back foot, with some big names from its fold defecting to the Congress camp. Yashpal Arya was among the early defectors. 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 the former MLA from Karauli.
Another setback for the BJP came with the expulsion of Harak Rawat from the party following his mutinous public posturing. Harak Rawat was expelled from Dhami’s Cabinet and also as a primary member of the BJP (for six years) on January 16 for anti-party activities. He had been in the news for threatening to resign from the Cabinet if his demand for a medical college in Haridwar was not met. After his removal, Harak Rawat announced his intention to rejoin the Congress. In 2016, he had led a rebellion against Harish Rawat, the Congress Chief Minister at the time.
Harish Rawat has indicated that he would be willing to take the BJP rebel back into the Congress. “If he [Harak] accepts his mistake, he is most welcome in the party. He committed a crime against democracy. He must admit the crime against democracy which he committed,” Harish Rawat said, adding, “In a democracy if anyone accepts his mistake, his apology must be accepted.”
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The BJP’s problems are compounded by its own tumultuous tenure that saw three Chief Ministers in 2021. Trivendra Singh Rawat, who led the government since 2017, was replaced by Tirath Singh Rawat in March 2021. Tirath Rawat’s reign was short-lived; in July, Dhami, took over from him. This prompted the Congress to come out with an election punchline, “ Teen Tigada Kaam Bigada, Uttarakhand mein nahi aayegi ab Bhajpa dobara ” (Three Chief Ministers made a mess. The BJP is not coming back a second time.)It is a potshot at the BJP’s unstable leadership in Uttarakhand, implying that too many cooks spoil the broth, and hence, the BJP is unlikely to be voted back to power.
Harish Rawat, the Congress’ campaign head, has centred his campaign on a development plank, urging the electorate to vote for change. He said: “Today, we are seeking change not only for power but preservation of democracy, to fight the concept of development which has been distorted. The Centre has also acknowledged the failure of the double-engine government [referring to the BJP governments at the Centre and in the State] by changing Chief Ministers thrice. One Chief Minister was piloting the State Budget as Finance Minister when he was changed. This was an insult to parliamentary conventions. The people were never told why he was changed.”
He further said: “Uttarakhand is feeling a sense of insult. Uttrakhand reported the highest COVID death rate in the country. We are proud of the Kumbh, but during the Kumbh the BJP government mismanaged COVID and indulged in a testing scandal. In inflation and unemployment our State is number one in the country. When the Congress comes, we will work for social welfare and inclusion, mitigation of the impacts of inflation. We will not only offer subsidies but also become the support system of the poor and the disadvantaged.”
The Congress is also not free of internecine feuds in the party, with its members divided between the Harish Rawat camp and that of Devender Yadav, All India Congress Committee (AICC) in-charge for Uttarakhand. On December 22, Harish Rawat set the alarm bells ringing for the party high command by tweeting, “The powers that be have left crocodiles here. People on whose orders I have to swim, their nominees are tying up my hands and feet.”
Harish Rawat’s pressure tactic worked, and the party high command named him the head of the campaign committee. But he was not projected as the party’s chief ministerial face, which has kept the power tussle between him and Devender Yadav raging. Apparently, this has also slowed down the ticket distribution process.
Harish Rawat, on his part, has made sure not to come across as hostile in public. When recently asked why he was not the party’s chief ministerial face, he gave a calculated response: “People of Uttarakhand will be the face of the Congress in the upcoming elections…. In the Congress, after the election is completed, the legislature party meets to decide their leader. They send their recommendation to the Congress president, and then the president decides who will lead the legislature party. We will follow the same procedure in Uttarakhand too.”
Political observers feel that by not elevating Harish Rawat, the Congress may be repeating the mistake it committed in Haryana where the Hoodas (former Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda and his son) were denied importance until the elections were just around the corner. The Congress narrowly lost that election, with the general opinion being that had the Hoodas been in command for at least six months before the election, the grand old party would have easily won the State.
Harish Rawat has been denied his due despite his noteworthy performance as the party’s manager in other States. In Punjab, where he was the in-charge, the Congress managed to nudge Chief Minister Amarinder Singh out and install Charanjit Singh Channi, despite the former’s public vehemence. Amarinder Singh had regularly taken potshots at Congress leader Navjot Singh Sindhu despite the latter having the backing of Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi. Later, the former Chief Minister publicly lampooned Rahul and Priyanka as inexperienced.
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Devender Yadav, a former Delhi legislator, has little exposure to the hill State’s politics. The tug of war between him and Harish Rawat was out in the open when the Uttarakhand Pradesh Congress Committee’s media adviser Surendra Aggarwal, known to be a Rawat loyalist, told the media that “there is too much interference by the AICC State in-charge in PCC activities and decisions.”
The Congress too had its own share of defections too. Recently, Uttarakhand Mahila Congress chief Sarita Arya switched over to the BJP. She was unhappy at not being given the party ticket to contest from the Nainital constituency which she represented between 2012 and 2017. The Congress also relieved its former State unit chief Kishor Upadhyay from all his posts as he was seen moving around with BJP leaders.
The BJP’s plank
The BJP is banking heavily on the plank of a “double-engine” government. In a virtual rally in Dehradun on January 18, Chief Minister Dhami credited his government with completing development and infrastructure projects in a time-bound manner.
He said: “You [Congress] only laid the foundation stones of projects during your time and left them at that while we begin and complete them. Work is under way on a war footing on all the projects that the BJP took up after taking over, whether it is Kedarnath reconstruction, Chardham all-weather road or the much-awaited Rishikesh-Karnaprayag rail line.”
The Chief Minister also sought votes over speedy reconstruction work at Badrinath, upgradation of Dehradun airport to accommodate 1,600 people from its earlier capacity of 250 people, and “unprecedented work done in the road sector”, all of which he underlined were made possible because of BJP governments in both the State and the Centre.
The BJP’s (yet-to-release) manifesto is believed to be centred on women, youth, farmers, employment, agriculture and tourism. Apparently, its theme would be “sabka saath, sabka vishwas and sabka vikas” (Together, for everyone’s growth, with everyone’s trust).
The BJP is also relying heavily on the distribution of freebies. On January 1, Dhami launched a free mobile tablet scheme aimed at benefiting nearly 2,65,000 students of Class 10 and 12. Dhami, who is contesting from the Khatima Assembly seat, is confident of returning to power.
“This time, we have given a slogan ‘Abki Baar 60 Paar’ [This time, 60 plus],” he said confidently after a core committee meeting of the party on January 15. One has to wait to find out whether Dhami would succeed or whether the hill State would uphold its past tradition of never returning an incumbent to power.