Uttarakhand votes: a direct Congress-BJP fight for supremacy
Amidst political turmoil and confusion that has dominated its political theatre over the last one year, the primarily hill state of Uttarakhand is all set for yet another close political contest between the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Following a shrill campaign, the 76.1 lakh voters of the state will exercise their franchise on Wednesday, 15 February, across 10,854 polling stations.
There are 637 candidates from 34 political parties as well as independents in the fray for the 70 seats. They represent six national parties, four state parties and 24 unrecognised parties. There are 261 independent candidates in the contest.
But the biggest factor in this election could turn out to be the confusion of the voters.
Whose candidate is it anyway?
The Congress MLAs who had defected to the BJP last year in a bid to unsuccessfully topple the Harish Rawat-led Congress government have been fielded by the BJP.
In turn, the Congress has also poached some leaders from the BJP.
Heavyweight leaders like former Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna, former state Congress president Yash Pal Arya and former Leader of the Opposition Harak Singh Rawat, who, till last year, were the faces of the Congress, are now with the BJP. But many voters still think them to be Congressmen.
This holds true for several BJP leaders too. And these defections have led to several rebels entering the fray, further adding to the prevailing confusion.
BJP's campaign strategy
The BJP has campaigned for these polls banking on the face of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his model of governance. Party candidates and their local agendas took a back seat while the BJP bombarded the state with multiple rallies by its Central ministers, playing up issues like 'One Rank One Pension', surgical strikes across the Line of Control (LoC), and counting the benefits of demonetisation.
The general perception among the people is that the BJP has gone all out to portray Harish Rawat and the Congress as villains, blaming them for rampant corruption and all the ills that plague the state.
Ironically, the BJP, at times, went overboard, raising corruption charges with regards to the Kedarnath disaster of 2013, without realising that the CM at the time was Vijay Bahuguna, who is now firmly entrenched in the BJP.
This is one of the rare elections where the BJP has failed to project a Chief Ministerial candidate, a charge it normally reserves for the Congress in many other states. The result is that the heavyweight leaders originally in the BJP fold, like Prakash Pant, Trivendra Rawat and Ajay Bhatt, along with those imported from the Congress, like Harak Singh Rawat and Bahuguna, are all being seen as potential CM candidates. Sources say that this has led to several top BJP leaders trying to undermine each other, and this could spell trouble for the party.
Another issue that has silently been working against the BJP is the aggressive and at times 'derogatory' tone and tenor of Modi and Amit Shah in their speeches against the opponents. This has particularly offended sections of the people in the hills.
“We are known for our culture of decency. The language used by them, along with others like Yogi Adityanath, are unacceptable to our Pahari society. Criticising others should never amount to abuse,” said Asha Rautela, a resident of Lamgarah in Almora district.
Congress's campaign strategy
On the other hand, it's CM Harish Rawat who has led the Congress's charge. With several top leaders having defected to the BJP, it was left to him to attempt to win the state polls the second time. And he has not disappointed either his high command or his supporters.
The clever strategist in him has led to his contesting from Haridwar (Rural) and Kiccha in the Udham Singh Nagar district.
The Congress is looking towards making a comeback in these two districts in the plains and the Terai region, which have 20 of the total 70 seats. It hopes to win a majority of seats in Kumaon, which is Rawat's home turf, to neutralise the Modi effect in the Garhwal hills.
Rawat has also been successful in portraying himself as the victim of BJP's scheming to topple his government. “You first poach our MLAs, then implement President's Rule, try to topple our government on the floor of the House, and after being unsuccessful, now threaten us with CBI probes. Do you think the public is blind or foolish?” says Tasavvur Ali Khan, Rawat's campaign in-charge in Kiccha.
The CM has also tried to market the rehabilitation works carried out after the Kedarnath disaster.
The Congress is fighting the polls on the slogan of providing a stable government under Harish Rawat, that will complete a full five-year term.
But what has worked against him is the anti-incumbency factor. At many places, people are annoyed that he has not fulfilled the promises made in the last 30 months. He is also facing a challenge from rebels on several seats.
The BJP has also been successful in playing up the Garhwal-Kumaon divide to a large extent in Garhwal.
The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) remains a formidable force in some of the seats in the plains and the Terai. These are seats with sizeable Muslim and Dalit voters. However, the question that is expected to remain unanswered once again is: “When will the elephant (BSP's poll symbol) climb the hills of Uttarakhand?”
The party's tally has been going down with every Assembly polls. It had won three seats in the last elections.
People still remember BSP supremo Mayawati for carving out three new districts – Rudraprayag, Bageshwar and Udham Singh Nagar – when Uttarakhand was still a part of Uttar Pradesh and she was its CM.
The state's oldest regional force, the Uttarakhand Kranti Dal (UKD), is fighting a battle for survival. It has fielded 59 candidates, and its best bet is Pushpesh Tripathi from Dwarahat.
The new regional force that came into existence on the eve of the last Assembly polls, the Uttarakhand Parivartan Party (UPP), is also trying desperately to open its account.
These two forces have played up hyper-local issues, while accusing the two main parties of having defeated the purpose of the creation of the state.
For the first time in Uttarakhand, the three main Left parties – CPI, CPI(M) and CPI (ML) – have allied together to contest 12 seats on public-centric issues, to combat both the BJP and the Congress.
“Our purpose is to tell the people what we stand for, and the kind of people-centric politics we offer. Our presence in the state Assembly will only strengthen the voice of the people,” said CPI(M) state secretary Rajendra Singh Negi.
CPI (ML) candidate Indresh Maikhuri has been able to make considerable inroads among the electorate in his constituency of Karnprayag.
The core issues
Development remains the main issue in the minds of the people. The people want a government that can deliver them proper road connectivity, education for the children, adequate healthcare and, above all, a clean administration. All these have evaded them right from the time the state came into existence.
A large number of dispensaries and hospitals in the hills are bereft of health professionals. Same is the case with several schools, where there are no teachers.
At several places like Nachni in Pithoragarh, villagers have to walk several kilometres to reach roadheads in emergencies.
This correspondent recently saw that the work on Khairna-Almora road, which was was devastated in a natural disaster in 2010, still remains unfinished. There are numerous such examples.
While demonetisation is not an issue in the hills, where the people still survive on a money order economy, there are several youth who have come back home after having lost their jobs in the plains after demonetisation came into effect.
In the villages of Udham Singh Nagar, which are highest producers of peas in Asia, the farmers did not harvest their crop this year because the prices had crashed. The villagers also want an end to the menace of wild animals that destroy their crops.
One often hears the refrain from the people: “We were better off while being a part of Uttar Pradesh. The officials used to attend to us, considering that we had come from the far off hills and had to go back. Here, we are being mistreated by our own people.” And they are not completely wrong.