U'khand: an election sans agenda

2017 polls: With Uttarakhand and Manipur's potential for theatrics, the polls will be nothing short of spectacle

U'khand: an election sans agenda

Uttarakhand and Manipur, two states known for defectors, will go to polls in the next few weeks. Uttarakhand will see elections on February 15, and Manipur will vote on March 4 and 8. Both states witnessed murky defections in the past few years. While the current elections are an opportunity for the people to reject turncoats and vote for those interested in welfare of the state, hung Assemblies may again throw the field open for horse-trading.
Spotlight analyses the political dynamics.

Uttarakhand’s creation as India’s 27th state in 2000 after a mass movement was considered a people’s victory. The spontaneous participation of people from all sections of the hill society in the fight against economic backwardness, administrative and political apathy, lack of infrastructure and insufficient political participation made it a historic movement.

The most interesting part is that the movement was devoid of political parties. Unfortunately, 16 years after its creation, an opportunistic, immature and visionless leadership has dashed the people’s hopes of holistic development of hill areas of Uttarakhand. While the eight chief ministers in a span of 16 years have rendered Uttarakhand politically one of the most unstable states of India, the caste and regional politics and political manipulations of the BJP and the Congress have converted it into an underdeveloped and corrupt state.

In such a political background, Uttarakhand’s fourth Assembly election can be considered unprecedented on several counts. First, it is an issueless election as the national parties, instead of focusing on development, permanent capital city, curbing migration and corruption, employment creation, and more representation to women, are busy managing infighting among their cadres.

Second, with the exodus of several stalwarts from the Congress to the BJP and from the BJP to the Congress, the party lines and boundaries have been blurred to such an extent that it has become difficult to distinguish their agendas. The vision document of these parties looks like a list of unachievable assurances. The agenda whether related to environmental protection, resource management or eco-sensitive zone is missing due to self-centred interests.

Third, with the mingling of stalwarts of these two parties into one another, corruption is a no issue. Fourth, the Congress, left with only one big leader - Harish Rawat - seems to be in an advantageous situation by projecting him as the chief ministerial candidate. The BJP on the other hand, due to the presence of many heavyweight leaders, has to contest in Modi’s name to avoid an internal tussle.

Fifth, the extraordinary use of social media has even blurred the memory of the recent 5.8 magnitude earthquake. And sixth, the number of candidates contesting as Independents has increased, signalling their role as kingmakers if no party gets majority. In the first Assembly election, 346 Independents were in the fray, in 2007 and 2012 there were 240 and 261 candidates, respectively, and at present there are more than 260 Independents candidates.

In the 2007 polls, the BJP with 35 seats and a vote share of 31.9% formed the government with the help of Uttarakhand Kranti Dal (UKD) and Independents, but in 2012, despite securing 31 seats and a vote share of 33.13%, the BJP could not form the government. The Congress with 32 seats and a vote share of 33.79% formed the government with the help of the Bahujan Samaj Party, UKD and Independents – a coalition called the Progressive Democratic Front (PDF).

In the bargain, the PDF constituents not only got a share in power but also played a key role in saving the Harish Rawat government in March. In fact, the BSP and Independents have been playing an important role in government formation due to their vote share ranging between 10 and 12%.

The Samajwadi Party, BSP and the UKD can easily make the going tough for the two national parties. The BSP can cause damage as it has strong backing in the 20 seats spread in the plains of Haridwar and Udham Singh Nagar, but due to its weaknesses it has also failed to emerge as a third front. The UKD, which was instrumental in propagating the cause of a hill state and also converting the anti-reservation stir of 1990s into a movement for Uttarakhand’s creation, has also lost its appeal due to infighting and factionalism.

However, despite being a largely bipolar contest, the margin of victory or defeat between the BJP and the Congress has always been less than 2% and this brings either of the parties to power. All this and a shameful decline in the standards of politics has converted the forthcoming election into an exercise of opportunism and treachery.

A look at the election scenario is enough to conclude that Uttarakhand has left behind many states in political manipulations and factionalism. The political drama that unfolded to bring down the Harish Rawat government in March with the exit of 12 Congress MLAs to join the BJP under Harak Singh Rawat’s leadership was also an indicator of manipulative power politics. Though the departure of these turncoats left the Congress high and dry with only Harish Rawat as the sole campaigner for the party, the BJP, transformed into a “mini Congress”, will face a Herculean task of defusing the political ambitions of these powerful ex-Congress leaders if it gets majority.

Interesting scenario

Till recently, the leaders charged with scams, corruption and accumulation of unaccounted wealth by the BJP are now part of the BJP and to take advantage of their clout, the party has chosen them as its candidates from important seats. On the other hand, the Congress has also fielded disgruntled BJP candidates.

The BJP’s compromises by giving tickets to sons and daughters of party leaders or former Congress leaders – Vijay Bahuguna’s son Saurabh from Sitarganj, B C Khanduri’s daughter Ritu from Yumkeshwar, Yashpal Arya from Bajpur and his son Sanjeev from Nainital – have dented the central BJP leadership’s stand of not promoting dynasties.

As a result, irrespective of party’s disciplinary action, the BJP’s disgruntled leaders are contesting as Independents in several seats. The Congress is also witnessing revolts in around seven seats. Even state unit presidents of the BJP and the Congress are entangled in triangular contests. This situation has aggravated possibilities of an internal sabotage. The defeat of Khanduri - the BJP’s chief ministerial candidate in 2012 - who was brought in on the  poll plank ‘Khanduri Hain Jaruri’, is also attributed to internal sabotage.

Both parties have given tickets to Rajput leaders in more than 30 seats and have roped in ex-army generals to lure the predominantly Rajput voters and ex-servicemen in the hill areas.

As Harish Rawat’s shifting of base to Haridwar and Kicha earned him the title of “Palayan (migrated) Mantri”, Modi’s held a successful rally in Dehradun post demonetisation, and pre-poll surveys are indicating that a Modi wave is likely to bring the BJP back to power. But several claimants for the chief minister’s post is not a good sign.

At present, though the BJP seems content with rupturing the Congress, chances of internal sabotage in many seats may impact the outcome and lead to political instability: a hallmark of Uttarakhand. If Modi’s mantra of corruption-free government works for the BJP, then the Congress would have the last laugh as distinction between the BJP and the Congress has vanished in this election.

(The writer is professor of political science at H N B Garhwal University, Uttarakhand)

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