Uttarakhand: High fives may not happen this time

The BJP is going all out to retain its grip on the hill State, but the Congress is countering with a sharp focus on local grievances.

Published : Apr 18, 2024 08:42 IST - 6 MINS READ

Congress leader Harish Rawat during a rally in support of the party’s Haridwar candidate on March 27.

Congress leader Harish Rawat during a rally in support of the party’s Haridwar candidate on March 27. | Photo Credit: RAMESHWAR GAUR/ANI

In the bustling streets of Haridwar, a sacred Hindu city on the banks of the Ganga, the air is thick with the fervour of campaigning. The Lok Sabha election in Uttarakhand, a small hill State with five parliamentary constituencies, is important to the BJP’s “core agenda” because it is home to the “char dham” or four sacred Hindu sites. Haridwar borders the three Uttar Pradesh districts of Saharanpur, Muzaffarnagar, and Bijnor. All five seats go to the polls on April 19.

The BJP’s aim is to retain all five seats, reaffirming the stronghold it has established in the hill State since 2014. To that end, its campaign is led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Home Minister Amit Shah, and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh.

Also Read | Byelections in Uttarakhand and Jharkhand: A tale of diverging electoral fortunes

Uttarakhand’s politics has been bipolar since the State was carved out of Uttar Pradesh in 2000, with power alternating between the Congress and the BJP in all elections until 2022, when the BJP won the Assembly election for a second consecutive term.

In the Lok Sabha election this time, the BSP is also in the fray in all five seats, and as a result the victory margins may be tight. The BSP is a marginal player but with a significant vote base in a few Assembly segments. It is expected to corner a major chunk of the Dalit vote, which accounts for 18 per cent of the electorate.

In Haridwar, the only constituency in the plains, the BJP’s Trivendra Singh Rawat is up against the Congress’ Virendra Rawat, party vice president in the State and son of former Chief Minister Harish Rawat. Talking about him, a Haridwar resident said: “Harish Rawat is launching his son this time, but it is like it is Harish Rawat himself.”

Rawat, who replaces former Chief Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank, is a surprise entrant. He resigned as Chief Minister in 2021 and was succeeded by Pushkar Singh Dhami. It was speculated that he was removed to stem the growing dissent against him among MLAs and Ministers following several controversies, including the mismanagement of affairs in the aftermath of the floods in Chamoli in February 2021.

No space for issue-based politics

Dinesh Juyal, a Dehradun-based senior journalist, told Frontline that issue-based politics had taken a back seat in Uttarakhand, as in other parts of the country. “The electoral bonds scheme is not an issue; it has hardly had any impact on the ground.” Juyal said that the Modi factor was going strong, aided by the construction of the Ram temple in Ayodhya. “The fact is Ramesh Pokhriyal, who was Education Minister, has not worked for the education of the people in Haridwar. He should have created new educational institutions here.”

The BSP candidate, Maulana Jamil Ahmad Qasmi, according to analysts, might cut into the Congress’ Muslim votes. However, Qazi Nizamuddin, Congress secretary and three-time MLA from Manglaur, which comes under the Haridwar Lok Sabha seat, said the Congress was confident of victory even if the Muslim votes were split.

The constituency has sizeable Scheduled Caste and Muslim populations, with Muslims accounting for nearly 30 per cent of the population. Udham Singh Nagar has about 23 per cent Muslims and Nainital about 13 per cent.

Umesh Kumar, a former journalist and independent candidate in Haridwar, seems to have emerged as the dark horse. According to local residents, he is popular because of his “Robin Hood” image, helping the poor in time of need such as in conducting weddings.

Resentment against royals

In Tehri Garhwal, there is pronounced resentment among residents against the Tehri royal family, which has wielded considerable influence over this seat for several decades. The BJP’s candidate is Mala Rajya Laxmi Shah, a daughter-in-law of the royal family and three-time winner (2012 byelection, 2014, and 2019). The Congress is fielding Jot Singh Gunsola, a two-term former MLA from Mussoorie who is said to be a non-controversial figure. There is palpable resentment against Mala Rajya Laxmi Shah among residents, who allege that she does not engage with the public, but Prime Minister Modi’s popularity seems to trump all.

However, the entry of Bobby Pawar, an independent who has the support of young voters, has made things even more interesting. The 26-year-old runs an organisation called Berozgar Sangh (Association of the Unemployed) and is known to have led several protests in the region against unemployment. He has a vote bank that could damage the chances of the BJP candidate.

In Pauri Garhwal, the BJP has replaced former Chief Minister Tirath Singh Rawat, who won in 2019, with Anil Baluni. He is up against Ganesh Godiyal of the Congress. Baluni, a national BJP spokesperson, is considered close to Modi and Shah.

In 2019, he defeated the Congress’ Manish Khanduri by 3,02,669 votes. Beena Devi, a resident of Chamoli in Pauri Garhwal, said Baluni was a “Delhi man” who does not understand Garhwali traditions.

A senior BJP leader in the area told Frontline that Pauri Garhwal was the one seat where the BJP sensed some danger. “This constituency was marked for the most focus, based on the party’s surveys,” he said.

Tamta vs Tamta

In the Kumaon region are the two seats of Nainital-Udham Singh Nagar and Almora, the only reserved (SC) seat in the region. In Almora, the Congress’ Pradeep Tamta is up against the BJP’s Ajay Tamta, who won in 2014 and 2019; in 2019, he defeated Tamta by 2,32,986 votes. Voter fatigue is prevalent in this seat as the same candidates have been facing off each other in the past three elections.

In the Nainital-Udham Singh Nagar constituency, spread across the two distinct districts of Nainital and Udham Singh Nagar, the BJP has fielded two-time MP Ajay Bhatt, who helped create a stronghold for the party by defeating Harish Rawat in 2019 by 3,39,096 votes. The Congress candidate is Prakash Joshi, and his road shows are reportedly attracting huge crowds. He is trying to capitalise on the Congress’ promise of securing an MSP for farmers.

Modi’s popularity

While the Congress campaign is focussed on highlighting local woes and grievances, the BJP is using Modi’s popularity to its advantage. Thus, memories of the Ankita Bhandari murder and other regional tragedies such as the sinking of Joshimath in 2023, take centre stage in the Congress’ campaign against the backdrop of Modi’s rhetoric of religion and national development.

The Prime Minister has made several visits to the State, particularly to the Kedarnath shrine. He launched his campaign in the State in Nainital-Udham Singh Nagar’s Rudrapur on April 2, where he presented Uttarakhand as his government’s success story and highlighted “unprecedented development” in the State over the past decade.

However, opposition leaders allege that the State is being treated as a “test lab” for Hindutva. Just weeks before the election dates were announced, the Assembly passed the Uniform Civil Code Bill, the first such Bill passed by a State since Independence.

Also Read | Uttarakhand Assembly election results: The BJP's winning ways

Environment continues to be a major talking point in this Himalayan State owing to several disasters over the years such as the 2021 Chamoli floods, in which more than 200 lives were lost and several people went missing; the 2022 Draupadi Ka Danda avalanche that killed more than 25 people; and the tunnel collapse near Barkot in 2023.

Experts have attributed these to unplanned and irresponsible urban development and road projects. Whether these issues will impact the election is not clear yet.

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