Uttarakhand Chief Minister Harish Rawat's decision to announce a special 90-minute break once a week for Muslim employees to offer prayers has created a political storm in the hill state.
Soon after the decision was announced, the BJP launched an offensive against Rawat, who is seeking another term as chief minister when the state goes to polls early next year.
A miffed Congress
Not only the BJP, but even his own party men are miffed with Rawat's unilateral decision. Distancing themselves from the chief minister's decision, they claimed the party was never consulted on the issue.
Speaking to Catch, state Congress president Kishor Upadhya claimed he came to know about the developments through media reports and immediately approached the chief minister for clarification. "The party was never consulted on this decision which seems to have backfired," Upadhyay said.
He went on to add that soon after the decision was announced, he rushed to meet the chief minister to express his displeasure. "The chief minister heard me out and gave a detailed clarification which was then reported in the media," Upadhyay said.
A change of policy
Facing flak from all quarters, the chief minister later announced that all state employees, irrespective of their religion, caste and creed, would be given short interval breaks to offer prayers during the festive season.
In a statement released by Rawat's media advisor Surendra Kumar said, "A decision has been taken to allow special short breaks to state employees of all communities, creeds and castes for prayers, religious occasions and festivals. It will be given only if they make a request."
According to Kumar, the decision was taken in light of spurt in demand for holidays by the employees belonging to different religions and communities.
BJP jumps into the fray
Meanwhile, sensing an opportunity to corner the highly popular chief minister, the BJP launched a scathing attack on the government.
BJP's national spokesperson, Anil Baluni asked whether the chief minister wants to implement sharia law in the state. Baluni said, "The chief minister should apologise for maligning the name of Uttarakhand which is also known as devbhoomi (abode of gods). We have never seen this kind of communal politics in the state."
Baluni went on to add that under pressure from all quarters, the chief minister backtracked and has now announced "special short breaks" for all state employees.
"Rawat is down on his knees considering the backlash amongst the people of the state. The kind of things circulating on social media is a proof of how angry people are with this decision," he said.
However, the Congress has accused the BJP of making a mountain out of a molehill and mocked the saffron party for raising issues of communalism.
"BJP is a party that survives and thrives on communal politics and has no right to accuse others of communalism. If they have such objections to special leaves to employees for festive occasions they should ban Diwali, Holi, Eid and Christmas holidays," said Upadhyay.
Meanwhile, political observers see it as a desperate move by the chief minister to woo the minority vote in the terai belt which has a considerable Muslim population. Since Congress is on a weak wicket in the Garhwal considering most of the political heavyweights from the hilly region have switched allegiance to BJP, Rawat needs the minority support to ensure his comeback.
The nine of the 10 legislators, including political heavyweights like Vijay Bahuguna, Satpal Maharaj and Harak Singh Rawat, who rebelled against Rawat and joined BJP are from Garhwal.
At present, Upadhya remains the tallest leader from the region and he too is not so pleased with the chief minister's style of working. He had accused the chief minister of not allotting prominent positions to people from the region. Earlier, he had publicly criticised Rawat for nominating his close aide Pradeep Tamta, who belongs to Kumaon, to Rajya Sabha. Upadhyay had expressed his desire to represent the state in the upper house.
Moreover, in the 23 assembly seats in the terai region, Muslims constitute nearly 15-35% of the total population and their support is crucial to Congress' comeback plan. Out of the total of 70 assembly seats in the states, seats in the terai region are spread over four districts of Dehradun, Haridwar, Nainital and Uddham Singh Nagar.
Unlike the hilly region, these seats are densely populated and any party with ambitions of forming the government would need to mobilise support here. During the last state elections, both BJP and Congress won 10 seats each with BSP bagging the remaining three.
Further, Rawat is wary of an aggressive BSP making significant inroads in these 23 constituencies adjoining western UP that have a sizable Dalit population. These constituencies are likely to be influenced by BSP supremo Mayawati's decision to create a Muslim-Dalit combine to take on the SP and BJP in UP.
Not only terai, Rawat has to ensure massive upsurge in support for Congress in the Kumaon region that holds the key to state secretariat. Rawat is from Kumaon and is expected to do well there.
However, the question remains whether an overwhelming support in Kumaon alone would be enough for him to reclaim the chief ministerial berth in 2017.
The decision to announce short breaks for Muslims is his way of wooing the minorities to the Congress fold. Only time will tell whether such a strategy would work in his favour or backfire. As things stand, it seems to have done him more harm than good.
Edited by Aleesha Matharu
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