Why the ex-servicemen vote can tilt the scales in Uttarakhand
The hill state of Uttarakhand has a very rich martial tradition. This is why none of the parties can afford to ignore the soldiers' constituency.
This is evident once again as both the main contenders for the victory crown in the ongoing battle for the state Assembly polls - the BJP and the Congress - are trying to outdo each other in wooing ex-servicemen and widows of soldiers. These two account for a sizable chunk of voters across the state.
Reliable sources quoting the state government figures put the number of ex-servicemen in the state at more than 1.75 lakh. This is besides the more than one lakh residents of the states currently working for the different arms of the defence forces across the country. In addition to these there are nearly one lakh persons in the state who have retired from various para-military forces and more than one lakh persons still serving in these para-military forces. Some 38,855 widows of defence personnel also reside in the villages and towns across state.
In terms of percentage, the above mentioned categories account for almost 15% of the total voters in the state and once again they are set to play an important role in the formation of the next government. It needs to be pointed that even postal ballots assume considerable significance in the state and have the power to decide the results in several constituencies.
On the political battlefield, the BJP is banking on the One Rank One Pension (OROP) issue and the surgical strikes across the Line of Control (LoC) a few months back. The party has got down to 'carpet bombing' by its central leadership drumming up these issues. These leaders claim that the central government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi has delivered on its promise made on OROP.
Observers say that the party is playing up the surgical strikes to take the message of hyper-nationalism to the electorate. They point out that this is also sending across a message that has communal undertones.
As a part of this strategy to gain mileage out of these issues, the BJP is making optimum use of former Army chief General (Retired) VK Singh who has already completed one tour of the state and will soon be undertaking another. The party is also planning to deploy defence minister Manohar Parrikar for its rallies.
BJP's national president Amit Shah has already addressed three rallies and would be addressing six more while PM Modi himself is scheduled to address four rallies. Shah has played up the two issues - OROP and surgical strikes - in all his rallies. The party is also hoping that the appointment of General Bipin Rawat as the new Army chief will also help it garner votes. Gen. Rawat hails from Garhwal.
But the Congress too has some aces up its sleeve. Anticipating the BJP's game plan, the Harish Rawat government had given many sops to ex-servicemen in the last six months. These include exemption in house tax, rebate in stamp duty, enhancement in award money for gallantry awardees, grant of Rs 10 lakh to martyrs and excise duty exemption on liquor purchased from CSD canteens.
Building on these initiatives introduced recently, Rawat has now come out with a promise of a separate ministry of ex-servicemen and retired para-military personnel if his party wins the elections. The promise is a part of his nine point programme which is the core of the Congress campaign.
Does either party have the upper hand?
Both the BJP and the Congress have a traditional support base among the category of ex-servicemen. The BJP is playing up its appointing Major General Bhuwan Chandra Khanduri as the chief minister on two occasions. In fact Khanduri's tenure is seen as the best among all the BJP chief ministers. In his last tenure the party had to bring him back to salvage itself after a pitiable performance by Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank.
On the other hand, the Congress has gone ahead and fielded Lieutenant General (Retired) TPS Rawat, a former Director General of Assam Rifles from the Lansdowne Assembly segment which is home to the famous Garhwal regiment of the Indian Army.
Reports say that Lieutenant General (Retired) Gambhir Singh Negi, a former Commandant of the Indian Military Academy (IMA) at Dehradun who was given a Cabinet minister status as head of Sainik Kalyan Parishad is also campaigning for the party.
The party is set to make full use of Punjab Congress president Captain Amarinder Singh during the campaign. With his defence background and his recent successful attempts at taking on Parrikar, Modi and Shah on surgical strikes and OROP, he is an asset that is of great use in Uttarakhand.
It was Amarinder who had struck discordant notes in the hyper nationalism tune being played up by the BJP and Akalis in Punjab in the wake of the surgical strikes. He had landed right at the International Border (IB) asking the farmers to harvest their paddy and not vacate the villages as was being sought by the home ministry. He has also been taking on the central government on OROP calling BJP claims a farce. Amarinder has also been raising the issue of disparities in the Seventh Pay Commission and how the defence forces are at a receiving end.
The ex-servicemen cells of both the BJP and the Congress have been working overtime for quite a few weeks now. The Congress recently got a shot in the arm when United Forum of Ex-servicemen (UFESM) led by Major General (Retired) Satbir Singh expressed its support to the party.
LP Thapa who retired from Indian Navy some years ago points out that most of the issues of the ex-servicemen are to be addressed by the central government. He says, "Both the BJP and the Congress have supporters amongst us." (Video attached)
With both the parties leaving no opportunity to woo ex-servicemen, it remains to be seen which soldiers and their families vote on 15 February.