Uttarakhand votes: Has Harish Rawat stemmed the BJP tide?
The hill state of Uttarakhand went to polls on Wednesday to elect its fourth state Assembly. Polling was held on 69 of the 70 constituencies. Elections to the Karnprayag seat have been postponed because of the death of the BSP candidate Kuldeep Singh Kanwasi. The polling on this seat will now be held on March 9 and the result will be declared with all the other seats on March 11. Having started on a slow note, the polling in the state picked up by noon and broke last time's record of 66.11 per cent. The estimated turnout when voting ended at 5 pm was 68%.
With the BJP having started the poll campaign with a slight edge, the Congress party under Chief Minister Harish Rawat has made huge gains and brought the party to the position of making a possible repeat.
Most of the observers are calling the game here a close contest and many are not ruling out the possibility of independents and candidates of other parties like the BSP holding the key to government formation.
This premise is based on the history of many candidates in the past being elected in the state with a margin that does not exceed double digits. “The situation is very fluid. The BJP claims of an easy win a few days back do not stand true today. It can go anyway unless there is a wave at work which is not evident,” said a senior journalist based in Dehradun.
The BJP is desperate to win this state and has made it an issue of its prestige given the fact that it had to eat crow for trying to dislodge the Rawat government through defections. With no chief ministerial candidate amidst too many heavyweights both from its own stable as well as those imported from the Congress, it chose to campaign in the name of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The Congress on the other hand has been playing the victim card telling people how Rawat was not allowed to work during his 30 month tenure. It has sought votes in the name of a stable government in the state.
One has to look at the region wise analysis to see where these parties stand on the day of the polling.
To begin with, the BJP managed to play its cards well in the Garhwal region. Modi and his huge team were able to rake up the 'One Rank One Pension' (OROP) to their advantage claiming that they delivered on this front.
Secondly, with this region primarily surviving on money order economy, demonetisation was not an issue despite many youths having returned home after losing their jobs in the plains. The BJP has fielded a lot many heavyweights in this region right from Satpal Maharaj to Harak Singh Rawat who have come from the Congress, besides leaders who have risen from its own ranks. The party has also managed to play up the Garhwal-Kumaon divide trying to convey that ever since the state came into existence, majority of the chief ministers and ministers have been from Kumaon.
The Congress has tried to counter these moves of the BJP by trying to convey how the ex-servicemen and the defence personnel have been cheated on OROP and Seventh Pay Commission. It has tried hard to sell the rehabilitation work done after the Kedarnath disaster under Rawat and how the tourism economy has been brought back on its feet. The party also has the advantage of the RSS cadres being miffed with the BJP for fielding Congress defectors on many seats. This has also led to infighting among the BJP ranks over supporting these Congress-turned-BJP candidates.
It is the two districts of Hardwar and Udham Singh Nagar in the Terai region that the Congress is banking on as game-changers. The party had managed to win just three of the 11 seats in Hardwar in 2012 while its tally had stood at two out of nine in Udham Singh Nagar district. The BJP won five and seven respectively.
Observers point out that the BJP performance in these districts was an exception and it is difficult for the party to repeat it this time. This is because of the large number of Muslim and Dalit voters, who seem to be backing the Congress this time. The Congress is looking to win more than a dozen seats in these two districts and that is why it has fielded Rawat on two seats from these districts.
Demonetisation is a big issue in these districts where industrial production and jobs have been hit badly. Even the farmers are also very angry at the Modi government for unleashing the misery on them. The issue is expected to backfire on the BJP in these districts. Besides the Congress, the BSP is also eyeing some seats in these districts given their demographic profile and its traditional support bases.
Apart from the plains and Terai, the Congress is looking to make gains in the Kumaon region which is Rawat's home turf. He has been able to play an emotional card in this region. A large number of people are viewing this election as a fight between Rawat and Modi. They are annoyed with the tone and tenor of Modi and BJP president Amit Shah. They have been discussing how Modi was sending streams of central leaders to ensure Rawat's defeat during the campaign. They see the polling as an exercise to redeem Kumaoni pride. “If he was corrupt, we would have thrown him out. Who are Modi and Arun Jaitley to dislodge his government and later threaten him with CBI prosecutions?” said a Left supporter in Nainital.
The BJP's move to encash the OROP issue has not made a major impact in this region. Like Garhwal, demonetisation has failed to become a major issue here but there is some rumbling among the youth. The RSS cadres and traditional BJP workers are also annoyed with the party for having fielded Congress defectors like Sanjiv Arya while ignoring candidates who had worked for years in their constituencies. They also point out how money became the main factor for fielding candidates. But the BJP is looking to win seats on the anti-incumbency factor.
In all, it has been a keenly contested election between the BJP and the Congress. If the Congress manages to win this election, it would be history as no party has repeated its government in the state till now. The central leadership of the party is banking on a victory in both Punjab and Uttarakhand to trigger its revival at the national level for the 2019 polls.