Rebel makes BJP sweat, unholy amounts of money spent in holy Rishikesh
Election fever has gripped Rishikesh, the holy town and tourist hub in the foothills of the Uttarakhand Himalayas.
When the state goes to the polls on 15 February, Rishikesh will see a triangular contest between the Bharatiya Janata Party's two-time sitting MLA Prem Chand Agarwal, the Congress's Rajpal Kharola, and BJP rebel Sandip Gupta.
All three candidates are splurging money on their campaigns, making locals question if the the Election Commission has turned a blind eye towards the town.
Wherever the eye goes, there are posters, banners, flags, hot air balloons, autorickshaws fitted with loudspeakers - all being used to lure the voters into each camp. The ghats of the river Ganga are reverberating with appeals by supporters of candidates and parties.
Heavyweights conduct rallies
In this high-pitched political campaign, there is no shortage of star campaigners constantly flying in and out, addressing rallies throughout Rishikesh. Private helicopters are hovering over the city's skyline, ferrying political heavyweights from one rally to another.
Union Minister Smriti Irani and BJP MP Yogi Adityanath were in town on Saturday, urging people to vote for BJP and development.
Playing the development card, Adityanath lashed out at the Harish Rawat government in the state for supplying 'daaru' (liquor) to villages instead of 'dawa' (medicines). He ridiculed Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi's leadership, claiming that the party had deteriorated under his watch, and that wherever he went, the party lost.
"This Congress government works like the Italian mafia, and to bring sanity to Uttarakhand, people should vote for the BJP. The Congress was against the formation of Uttarakhand, and it was Atal Bihari Vajpayee who made this happen. They (Congress) were even against opening an AIIMS in Rishikesh. The party that is against development cannot be allowed to rule," the firebrand Hindutva leader said.
In the name of Modi
The BJP is trying to focus on issues like surgical strikes, demonetisation, how the Congress opposed the carving out of Uttarakhand as a separate state, and obviously, Prime Minister Narendra Modi's popularity.
There is no denying that Modi is a huge favourite amongst the locals, especially the poor, who see the whole demonetisation exercise as a war on the rich and upwardly mobile..
The BJP's strategy is to use Modi's image to attract voters, as it happened in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. And if it wasn't for rebel Gupta, it would have been a cakewalk for the saffron party.
"These elections are less about BJP or its candidate; it is all about Modi," says Rajeshwar Jaiswal, a local businessman.
That's the prime reason BJP's official candidate Agarwal is still being considered in the race. "If it was not for Modi's image, he didn't even stand a chance," Jaiswal says.
Divided BJP is Congress's gain
Even Agarwal's hardcore supporters are feeling the heat after former BJP heavyweight Gupta threw his hat into the ring and decided to contest as an independent.
Many believe that only if BJP had heard its own people and given tickets accordingly, the Congress could have been decimated.
"Half of the party's supporters are backing Gupta, and even a section of the all-powerful RSS is rooting for him. In these circumstances, nothing can be said, but we hope that Modiji's name would be enough to see us through," says Lakshman Balodhi, a priest and a supporter of Agarwal.
After BJP announced Agarwal as the party's official candidate, Gupta severed ties with the saffron party, and, along with his supporters, wrote resignation letters in blood to express their disappointment.
To appeal to the BJP voter, each and every poster, flag or sticker of Gupta's bears pictures of BJP ideologues Syama Prasad Mookerjee and Deen Dayal Upadhyay.
Even locals are rooting for Gupta, and call him a good man who works with the people and is connected to the ground, unlike Agarwal who has been labelled a 'non-performer'.
"I don't remember the last time he did anything for the city or its people. Constructing 10-metre roads here and there doesn't mean development. First, I was thinking of not voting, but now I would vote for Gupta," says Yogesh Yadav, a 20 year-old who runs a cyber café in the heart of the city.
Yadav does say that the BJP's infighting has created a mess, which could see Congress's young candidate, Kharola, emerge as the winner. However, he is apprehensive of those backing Kharola. "A lot of young men, some notorious, are backing him, and if he wins, they are likely to create a ruckus in the city. That won't be in the best interests of the city," Yadav says.
Many believe Agarwal could suffer the same fate that Kharola did in 2012. In the previous Assembly elections, three Congress rebels - Jai Singh Rawat, Harshvardhan Singh and Deep Sharma - contested against Kharola, who lost by a margin of 7,271 votes.
If Gupta cuts into Agarwal's votes, Kharola will be the only beneficiary.
Moreover, there are no such rebels against the Congress candidate this time around, giving hope to the party's state unit.
There is also the issue of hill people versus outsiders that has been persistently raised by several parties for political gains. And in Rishikesh, Kharola certainly has the edge over the others.
Demographically speaking, Rishikesh consists of Garhwali folk who have relocated from the hills, and a mix of traders and people from the plains. This other section has always denied Garhwali candidates a victory. But given the fact that it is expected to be divided this time, Kharola's Garhwali vote bank gives him an outside chance this time around.
Just 20 kilometres from Rishikesh, Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi is holding a nine-kilometre long rally in Haridwar. The response to his rallies has been phenomenal, and that's the reason for his repeated visits to the state.
The Congress is hoping that the rebellion within the BJP's ranks will ensure a second term for Chief Minister Harish Rawat, but PM Modi's popularity is the only roadblock in its plans to wrest control of the hill state.
GC Mishra, a retired lecturer, sums it up best: "Some bad decisions in allotting tickets have changed the game. The Congress seems to be benefitting from the mistakes of BJP. If the BJP had not given tickets to Congress rebels and their family members, the BJP would have swept the elections. Now, nothing can be said for sure. The BJP should blame itself for this uncertainty."