Key contest: Battle for Lansdowne between a 'turncoat' Lt. General and a Mahant
Lieutenant General (Retired) TPS Rawat is the Congress's answer to the Bharatiya Janata Party's hyper-nationalism, and its support base among the families of defence personnel.
At the ripe old age of 77, Lt. Gen. Rawat is fighting yet another political battle as the Congress candidate from the Lansdowne constituency, which is better known as the headquarters of the Garhwal Rifles. He is pitted against the sitting BJP MLA Daleep Singh Rawat, who is the Mahant of a local temple.
The General's journey
For Rawat, things have come full circle. This retired director of the Assam Rifles began his political career from the Congress in 2002, when he was inducted into the party by then Congress heavyweight Satpal Maharaj, who is now in the BJP. He was brought into the Congress to counter the clout of then-Union minister and later Chief Minister, Major General (Retired) Bhuwan Chandra Khanduri.
Rawat remained a minister in the Congress government led by Narayan Dutt Tiwari after winning from the Dhumakote seat. He unsuccessfully contested the 2004 Lok Sabha polls against Khanduri. But by 2007, Khanduri managed to wean him away to the BJP.
Rawat contested the 2009 Lok Sabha polls from the Pauri seat, and lost to Satpal Maharaj, who was the Congress candidate.
By the 2012, he had floated his own party, the Uttarakhand Raksha Morcha, which failed to make any headway in the Assembly polls. He is now back with the Congress as the candidate from Lansdowne.
Daleep, on the other hand, is the Mahant of Sidhbali Dham in Kotdwar. He managed to make his electoral debut on a winning note in 2012. There were rumours of the BJP thinking on the lines of denying him a ticket, but he managed to pull the right strings to get himself renominated as the party candidate.
The changes that came into effect after the delimitation of constituencies in 2008 had worked in favour of Daleep last time.
Age a disadvantage
On the campaign trail, Rawat and his supporters have had to bear the burden for his being a turncoat. But this is offset by his clean image of being a straightforward man, who has been honest.
This time, it is a rematch between him and Daleep on a seat that was earlier represented by Harak Singh Rawat of the Congress in both 2002 and 2007. Harak is now contesting on the neighbouring Kotdwar seat on a BJP ticket.
Lt. Gen. Rawat has also been suffering due to his age. Because of this, he has not been able to reach out to remote villages on the heights and slopes of this hilly constituency. Observers say that most of his meetings are being organised on road heads.
Daleep, on the other hand, has age on his side. The 49-year-old is actively moving around to the remote areas.
But Congress workers have a defence ready - they claim that their candidate might be old in age, but he is mentally far younger and has a sharp political sense.
"People regard him for his sincerity and honesty. BJP supporters are just trying to convey false messages regarding his age. He is a seasoned leader who can deliver a lot for the constituency," says the local Congress chief in Lansdowne, Mahipal Singh Rawat.
A large number of serving and former defence personnel in this constituency are proving to be a key factor in the ex-armyman's camp.
Observers point out that unlike in 2012, when there was a triangular contest on the seat, it is a direct fight between the two parties this time. There is no chance of the BJP's vote getting split.
In terms of issues, this people of this constituency want development in terms of roads, water, educational institutions and more connectivity with the cities in the state and outside. The defence and paramilitary forces are the main employment providers for the youth here.
Ironically, like in several other places, the BJP is seeking votes in the name of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and not the local candidate. People like Bipin Dhasmana, who have decided to vote for the BJP, say: "The party which is in power at the Centre should also be in power in the state, as this will help in bringing about development. There is no shortage of funds from the Centre in such cases.".
BJP supporters are listing the promises made by the Congress in 2012 that have remained incomplete, like starting bus services to Delhi and resolving the water crisis.
The Congress, on the other hand, is seeking votes for a stable five-year government under Chief Minister Harish Rawat, while promising to deliver on the promises made earlier.
The party is also playing up the failure of the Modi regime to address the issue of 'One Rank One Pension' fully.
The demonetisation brought about by the Modi government is not a poll issue here. "This is because the area thrives on money order economy, where the men working mainly in the forces send home money orders every month, and there is very little commercial activity. It is the small traders who were badly hit by demonetisation, but their number is very small," disclosed a local shopkeeper.