Uttarakhand: Modi factor is key

Uttarakhand sends only five MPs to Lok Sabha, but this election every seat will be important for both BJP and Congress. Which direction the wind is blowing this time is hard to tell. But Uttarakhand is a politically charged state, so the verdicts of past elections can be indicative of the present course.

Uttarakhand’s people make their displeasure with non-performing governments apparent by throwing them out. The first BJP-led government of Uttarakhand was voted out of power in the first assembly election of 2002, but in the Lok Sabha polls held two years later, the BJP won three of the five seats.

Likewise, in the 2007 assembly elections, though Congress’ vote share was higher than BJP’s, the latter won more seats and formed the government. But in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, Congress defeated the BJP resoundingly by winning all five seats. In 2012, the BJP lost the assembly elections, despite Maj. Gen (retired) B C Khanduri leading it, but it won all five Lok Sabha seats in 2014. In the 2017 assembly elections, the BJP won a record 57 seats.

The electoral contest in Uttarakhand remains a bipolar one, BJP vs Congress. Like in 2014, the BJP is contesting the 2019 election in Modi’s name. His development agenda, nationalism, the Balakot airstrike, reservation to economically weaker sections, Kisan loan scheme, the Ujjwala cooking gas scheme, the Char Dham Yatra project, rail connectivity and initiation of air connectivity between Garhwal and Kumaun are all likely to make a huge impact on voters.

The two women friendly schemes — construction of toilets in every home and the Ujjwala gas scheme — have eased the problems of women in the remotest villages and have made them Modi supporters. The cleanliness drive and the effort to revive the livelihoods of people dependent on Kedarnath pilgrimage could also yield good results for BJP. Though Rahul Gandhi’s Nyay is also being talked about, people are not convinced about it.

However, it is surprising that while Uttarakhand is set to vote on April 11, the electioneering has been a dull affair, with no excitement among people, unlike during previous elections. Although Modi’s election rally at Dehradun attracted a massive crowd and Rahul’s rallies were also the talk of the town, enthusiasm among voters is missing. The indifferent response of voters could be either due to the fact that the state votes in the very first phase itself, which has not allowed candidates to crank up their electioneering machinery, or it could be due to the stringent Election Commission rules on posters, loudspeakers and rallies. Or, is it because the candidates fielded lack strong public presence?

Ambitions vs loyalties

The nomination of BC Khanduri’s son, Manish Khanduri, from Pauri Garhwal by the Congress party has not gone down well despite his claim that he has his father’s blessings. It has created not only a strange situation for BC Khanduri and his daughter Ritu Khanduri, a BJP MLA, but their commitment to canvassing for BJP candidate Tirath Singh Rawat is being doubted. This is an example of political ambitions overtaking party loyalties.

Fear that he may not get the BJP ticket to continue his father’s legacy pushed Manish Khanduri to cross over to Congress. With Pauri Garhwal being an area dominated by former army men, his move is likely to create confusion among them. But it is expected to make Rawat’s task easier. 

The BJP has fielded three sitting MPs — Mala Raj Laxmi from Tehri Garhwal, Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank from Hardwar and Minister of State for Textiles Ajay Tamta from Almora. Cong-
ress has fielded Pritam Singh, Ambrish Kumar and Pradeep Tamta, respectively, from these three constituencies. Pritam Singh is sitting MLA from Chakrata assembly constituency and also state Congress chief; Ambrish Kumar is a former MLA and Pradeep Tamta is a member of the Rajya Sabha.

Mala Raj Laxmi, Nishank and Ajay Tamta have good rapport with voters of their areas, so the contest in these seats could favour BJP. However, Harish Rawat’s preference for Nainital in place of Hardwar Lok Sabha seat is interesting as Rawat had contested from Hardwar in 2009 and won it. However, in 2014, when his wife Renuka Rawat contested there in his place, she lost to Nishank. Harish Rawat is contesting against Ajay Bhatt, who is state BJP chief and is contesting Lok Sabha polls for the first time.

Harish Rawat and Bhatt have interesting political backgrounds. Rawat faced a political revolt in March 2016, with nine Congress MLAs defecting to the BJP, reducing his government to a minority government. Congress lost the 2017 assembly election under him. 

Rawat himself was defeated from two assembly seats, Hardwar Rural and Kicha. Bhatt, despite being state BJP president, also lost from Ranikhet in the 2017 elections. On the whole, while the elections will be challenging for both parties, the ‘Modi magic’ is expected to give the BJP the edge.

(The writer is Professor of Political Science and officiating Vice Chancellor, HNB Garhwal University, Uttarakhand)

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