Uttarakhand polls 2017: Turncoats of Congress, BJP can turn the tables

BJP chief Amit Shah (centre) at a rally in Pauri on February 7; pre-poll surveys have given a majority to the BJP. Photo: PTI

In a video that recently went viral, Uttarakhand Chief Minister Harish Rawat was photoshopped as Bahubali, hero of the south Indian movie dubbed in multiple languages. At a time when the majority of the ruling state Congress generals have switched sides, some party leaders admit Rawat is fighting a lonely battle against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the run-up to the February 15 Assembly election.


Can Rawat perform the Bahubali feat in real life? This is a question haunting the Congress and BJP alike. Though the BJP and the Congress are the two main parties in the state, some others such as the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), Samajwadi Party and Uttarakhand Kranti Dal (UKD), and independents are expected to win four-five seats this time.


A group of Congress leaders say Rawat will sail through as the opposition camp is leaderless. “Who is BJP’s general? How can they fight without the commander?” asked Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC) chief Kishore Upadhayay.


The BJP is claiming the Modi wave is sweeping the hill state. “Be it real or fake, we are not afraid of any Bahubali,” said a BJP spokesperson.


Though most pre-poll surveys have given the BJP a majority after the election on February 15, an air of despondency hangs heavy at its headquarters in Dehradun. When asked whether the party will get a majority or not, “Hamari sarkar ban rahi hai na (We are forming the government),” said a BJP leader warily. According to an estimate, the BJP is hoping to win 34-36 seats in the 70-member House. Another estimate suggests the party’s position could touch even 40 or beyond if a Modi wave works. It depends on how effective the four crucial rallies of Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the fag end of the campaign have been.


According to a calculation by some BJP leaders, the party has at least 10 seats in its kitty after it fielded some strong candidates such as Umesh Sharma Kau in Raipur, Dehradun district; Satpal Maharaj in Chaubattakhal, Pauri district; and Shailendra Mohan Singhal in Jaspur, and Yashpal Arya in Baajpur, Udhamsingh Nagar district. Most of these candidates are Congress rebels. The majority of these rebels are said to be winning candidates because of their good work in their constituencies. This factor appears to have tilted the balance in favour of BJP.


The rebellion in the Congress is more severe this time. The party faced two rounds. In the first round, nine MLAs quit the Congress when they revolted on March 18 in the Vidhan Sabha last year. A month later, Rekha Arya, a Congress MLA from Someshwar, too joined BJP. Last month, former PCC chief Yashpal Arya, along with his son Sanjiv, quit. All the 11 former Congress MLAs are contesting the election on the BJP ticket. After the distribution of tickets, nearly one dozen Congress leaders (not MLAs) revolted and decided to contest independently in the election.


There are at least eight rebel-held seats for which the Congress has not found any strong candidates, which sends the message that the ruling party is contesting 60 seats or fewer. “Where are the candidates against the rebels? We are fighting in fewer than 60 seats, giving a virtual walkover to BJP in the remaining 10,” said a top Congress leader.


But, the BJP is on a sticky wicket in the absence of stalwarts such as B C Khanduri, Bhagat Singh Koshiyari and Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank, who are not contesting because they are all Lok Sabha members. The party has also not projected any chief ministerial candidate. It is relying mainly on the aura of Narendra Modi, who in a way is directly pitted against Rawat.


The BJP is also plagued by rebellion. Even state BJP President Ajay Bhatt is not comfortable in Ranikhet, Almora district, where a party rebel is trying to ruin his chances. Former Vidhan Sabha speaker and seven-time MLA Harbans Kapoor is not sure of victory as he faces a tough contest against Congress leader Suryakant Dhasmana in Dehradun Cantt.


After the 11 Congress rebels were awarded the ticket by the BJP high command, the resentment was strong in the BJP camp. The BJP cadre also appeared a bit confused. At one time, the challenge posed by the BJP rebels looked very serious. But the party brass was able to coerce and placate nearly four-five leaders who had threatened to contest as independents against the official party candidates. Former state BJP chief and sitting MLA Tirath Singh Rawat, who was denied the ticket from Chaubattakhal, has been given the post of BJP national secretary. Similarly, three MLAs — Mahavir Singh Rangad (Dhanaulti), Chandra Shekhar (Jawalapur) and Vijya Barthwal (Yamkeshwar) — who too were denied the ticket have been promised top posts in case BJP comes to power.


BJP’s position has been weakened at the prestigious Nainital seat after it put up Sanjiv Arya, son of Yashpal Arya. Khanduri also faced flak when daughter Ritu Khanduri Bhushan was given the ticket from Yamkeshwar.


The Congress, on its part, has fielded a couple of BJP rebels. Shailendra Singh Rawat, who was denied the ticket by BJP from Kotdwar, is contesting as a Congress candidate from Yamkeshwar against Khanduri’s daughter. BJP leader Asha Nautiyal, who was unsuccessful last time from the Kedarnath seat, has been given the ticket by the Congress against Shailarani Rawat of BJP. Even state


Congress chief Upadhayay is not too sure of winning from Sahaspur where Aryander Sharma, a Congress rebel, is playing spoilsport.  


Despite a rebellion, some state Congress leaders say CM Harish Rawat will sail through the polls since the Opposition is leaderless. Photo: PTI
Interestingly, the issue of demonetisation has not found much traction in the election. Only the national leaders are raking up the issue. Most of the Congress candidates, especially in hilly terrain, are not saying much on the matter because the note ban did not affect the common people here.


The Congress is optimistic, mainly banking on Rawat’s ability to drum up support. The party is positive on its election manifesto, in which it has promised freebies such as smart phones and free calling data for one year to the unemployed and educated youth in the age group 18-25 years, an unemployment allowance of Rs 2,500 and pressure cookers for housewives and gas stoves for every household. The party has also promised to stop migration within three years. “If you look at our manifesto, it is very attractive,” claimed Jot Singh Bisht, the state party vice-president.


BJP too has released a similar manifesto promising free laptops and smartphones to poor, meritorious students.


However, both the main parties have refrained from making Gairsain the permanent capital of the hill state despite it being an emotive issue. Both parties are saying they will resolve the issue through negotiations.


Development is another key issue. Rawat, who is seeking five more years in the name of development, has repeatedly accused the Centre of not providing enough funds, which has supposedly hampered development. He has also rubbished Finance Minister Arun Jaitley’s claim of providing 10 per cent more funds to the hill state, saying Uttarakhand suffered a loss of Rs 1,700 crore due to the recommendations of the 14th Finance Commission. Earlier, Jaitley had ruled out granting more funds to states beyond the 14th Finance Commission’s recommendations, by which the state’s share in central taxes is 42 per cent. “Earlier, the state’s share in central taxes was 32 per cent in the Congress government. But when our government came, the Finance Commission raised the states’ share to 42 per cent from 32 per cent. So we cannot give more funds under constitutional binding of the Finance Commission,” said Jaitley after releasing BJP’s election manifesto. BJP President Amit Shah and other leaders are supporting Modi’s double-engine theory that the people must bring the saffron party to power for development.


Interestingly, both the parties have failed to raise some key issues of growing unemployment and steep fall in the growth rate in the state. According to the state Directorate of Economics and Statistics, the number of unemployed youths has reached 938,000, which is almost double the figure of 500,000 five years ago. The growth rate in the hill state has also fallen to 5 per cent in 2015-16 from 8.23 per cent in 2013-14. This is mainly due to the heavy losses suffered in the mining sector in the past two-three years.

Defections in the past 5 years

Kiran Mandal, the BJP MLA from Sitarganj, joined the Congress; he quit his seat for the then Congress CM Vijay Bahuguna in 2012

Rekha Arya, Congress MLA from Someshwar, voted against CM Rawat during a floor test; she later joined the BJP and is now contesting on a BJP ticket from Someshwar

Bhimlal Arya, BJP MLA from Ghansali, voted for CM Rawat during the floor test, defying the party whip; he has now joined the Congress and is contesting from Ghansali

Dan Singh Bhandari, BJP MLA from Bhimtal, has joined the Congress and is contesting from Bhimtal
Yashpal Arya, Congress MLA from Baajpur, joined the BJP and is now contesting from the seat on the party’s ticket

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