Uttarakhand will be one of the five states to go to assembly polls in February. Not surprisingly, the state has turned into an electoral battlefield for the principal contenders – the ruling Congress (I) and the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Carved out of Uttar Pradesh in 2000 by the then NDA government, led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, political tempers in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand are running high despite the current cold wave. As in other states, caste and religious factors play their roles in the contest. The issue of development of plains versus hilly areas has always dominated the debates. As a sizeable population of the state is serving in the defence and paramilitary forces, they could tilt the victory in favour of one party or the other.
Uttarakhand is divided into two major divisions – Garhwal and Kumaon. The plains of Dehradun and Haridwar and the hilly regions of Uttarkashi, Tehri, Pauri, Chamoli and Rudraprayag fall under Garhwal, while the hills of Pithoragarh, Bageshwar, Champawat, Almora and that of Udhamsingh Nagar and Nainital fall under Kumaon.
According to the 2011 census, Uttarakhand has a population of 12 million. The majority are Hindus – 83 pc – and the rest are Muslims.
The incumbent chief minister, Harish Rawat Dharchula, has a tough task ahead as he faces infighting and charges of corruption.
Realising this well, Rawat has appeased the minorities by declaring a public break for Jumma (Special Prayers) on Fridays. It is to be seen whether such an electoral calculation will pay Rawat in the face of dissidence within the party and rebels who crossed over to the BJP.
Other poll sops announced by Rawat include a promise of 33 pc reservation for women in government jobs, a ministry for welfare of Army personnel, and free smartphones to ‘every youth’ with ‘free data and free calls for a year’.
Congress has launched the ‘Uttarakhand Swabhiman Yatra’ and is selling the achievements of the state government, including rehabilitation work done since the Kedarnath disaster of 2012 and revival of tourism in the region, which is a source of livelihood for much of the rural population.
Is all this good enough to help one return to power? Rawat is at loggerheads with the Congress party’s state unit president, Kishore Upadhyaya. This has dented the prospects of the ruling party.
Even as the BJP is focussing on Rawat government’s failure, it has drawn many of the Congress dissidents to the saffron party. It has awarded tickets to 13 Congress rebels to contest polls. Last year, the BJP tried unsuccessfully to topple the Rawat government by engineering defections, and later, by imposing President’s Rule.
Nevertheless, all is not well within the saffron party either. Awarding tickets to Congress rebels has created enough heartburn within the rank and file of the party; so much so that the Rashtriya Swayemsevak Sangh (RSS) – the BJP’s ideological mentor – too is unhappy with the ticket distribution in the hill state.
To reach out to six million voters, the BJP has released a ‘heavyweight’ list of over 40 star campaigners including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the party’s national president, Amit Shah, Union ministers including Rajnath Singh, Arun Jaitley, Manohar Parrikar, Nitin Gadkari, Ravi Shankar Prasad, Uma Bharti and Smriti Irani. The party is also deploying Bollywood actor and lawmaker Hema Malini and Delhi BJP chief, Manoj Tiwari.
The Congress, on the other hand, has roped in former prime minister, Manmohan Singh, Punjab Congress chief, Captain Amarinder Singh and Navjot Singh Sidhu, a former cricketer-turned-BJP lawmaker-turned-entertainer who recently joined the Congress.
Interestingly, Rawat has decided to contest from two seats – Kichcha in Udham Singh Nagar and Haridwarrural in Dehradun.
Vijay Bahuguna, ex-chief minister of Uttarakhand, who had last year joined BJP along with nine rebel MLAs of the Congress, alleges that Rawat is scared and it is clearly visible.
He further pointed out that Rawat is not confident of his victory and that is why he opted to contest from two assembly seats.
With 40 pc of the population comprising soldiers from the defence and paramilitary services, Uttarakhand is home to the Kumaon and Garwal regiments of the Indian Army. It also raises the Indo-Tibetan Border Police Force and Sashatra Seema Bal. About 200,000 ex-servicemen and 80,000 serving men are a formidable force and can decide between the victors and the vanquished.
No wonder Rawat and the Congress objected to the Annual Commanders Conference that was held in the state capital, Dehradun. Though the Election Commission of India gave the green signal for the Conference, it ensured that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s address was not publicised. The Congress alleged that the conference was previously supposed to be held in Sikkim and accused the BJP of deriving political mileage out of the conference.
Both the ruling Congress and the BJP are trying to campaign on issues concerning the soldiers, such as ‘one-rank, one pension’ entitlements and the recent surgical strikes carried out by the Indian army. The recent appointment of Army Chief Bipin Rawat, who hails from Pauri Garwal, is also fresh in the minds of the six million voters in the state.
Many of the pre-poll surveys carried out by different media and research outfits have predicted victory for the BJP. If this reflects on the results on March 11, then the Congress will further decimate into a political abyss.