Bahuguna On Front Foot
Four months after he was nominated as Uttarakhand Chief Minister, former high court judge Vijay Bahuguna made an ‘impressive’ entry into the state assembly with his recent landslide victory in the Sitarganj by-poll. It also signalled his ‘arrival’ in the state politics. His transition from a Chief Minister foisted on the people to being elected by them as a legislator though had not been smooth.
It, however, brought before the people this ex-lawyer’s hitherto unknown qualities as a crisis manager and a sharp-brained politician. Many feel he inherited those skills from his father, the late Hemwati Nandan Bahuguna, the ex-Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister and an equally sharp-brained politician. Be that as it may, with power came problems and challenges for the 60-plus politician right soon after Congress president Sonia Gandhi nominated him as new Congress Legislature Party leader.
Constitutionally, it was both an ‘illegal and undemocratic’ move as Bahuguna was not an elected MLA. Foisting him as the CLP leader also meant that he would be the next Chief Minister. The ex-judge was made the CLP leader on March 12. By next day, the move had triggered a massive rebellion against the Congress high command. Leading the revolt was the party’s Member of Parliament from Haridwar and Union Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs Harish Rawat. It was indeed a massive revolt with 17 of the total 32 Congress MLAs standing solidly behind the wily Thakur leader from Kumaon. For somebody who rose literally from the grassroots level, Rawat, an ex-Pradesh Congress Committee president, also had a firm hold over the party.
So, with a strong political rival like Rawat giving him a stiff challenge Bahuguna was now in a tight spot. In fact, the majority of the 15 of the 32 Congress MLAs also were not with him. Consequently, on March 13 when Chief Minister-designate Bahuguna arrived in the state capital he was sworn in alone by the then Governor Margaret Alva at a lack-lustre function here.
Now that Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna has gained entry into the state assembly with his record win in the Sitarganj assembly by-election he says the sole mission ahead of him is to rid the tiny Himalayan state (Uttarakhand) of its economic backwardness.
“Dealing with lack of development would be my topmost priority as a large number of people are migrating from the remote hilly and border areas to the plains because of that problem”, he says. “The problem is indeed very serious as it poses a threat to national security”, he adds.
Bahuguna also places equal importance on creating job avenues for the hill youth. Referring to the growing unemployment as another major reason causing migration from the hills he says he wants to check unemployment by setting up eco-friendly industries in the hilly areas.
Exuding confidence following his record victory in Sitarganj assembly by-poll the Chief Minister claimed there was no threat to his government either from his opponents within his own party (Congress) or from the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party. He denies that he was nominated for being Chief Minister. “I was given that responsibility because of my being the people’s representative”, Bahuguna asserts, referring to his being a Member of Parliament from Tehri when “I was asked to take over by the high command.”
The situation was no different when 10 members of the Bahuguna cabinet were sworn in at the ONGC stadium a week later. The scene at the venue was tense with a nervous Bahuguna pacing the floor. The time for him appeared ticking away amid speculations that behind-the-scene negotiations were still on with some sulking MLAs demanding ministerial berths. The swearing-in ceremony did happen but more than an hour late, with rebel leader Rawat and his loyalist MLAs skipping the event.
Incidentally, none of the ministers in his 10-member cabinet was a Bahuguna loyalist. But the way he accommodated the MLAs loyal to Rawat and tactfully handled the dicey political situation in the following months made one thing clear: Bahuguna didn’t appear to be a bad choice to lead a coalition government. It was then precariously placed. With the ruling Congress being four seats short of a simple majority (36 MLAs in a House of 70 MLAs) the Congress-led coalition government was badly dependent on seven non-BJP MLAs for its survival.
However, the next big challenge before Bahuguna was to save his own kursi. For, when he took over, he was a Member of Parliament from Tehri. So, it was constitutionally imperative for him to enter the state assembly within six months of being nominated as Chief Minister. As per reports, initially, most of the Congress MLAs were reluctant to vacate their seats for the Chief Minister. The same was the case with the non-BJP MLAs supporting the Congress-led coalition government.
However, when everybody thought Bahuguna had hit an impasse he pulled off yet another coup. The wily politician got an opposition Bharatiya Janata Party MLA to vacate his seat. BJP MLA Kiran Mandal resigned from the Sitarganj assembly constituency and joined the Congress after an understanding was reached between him and Bahuguna. As per this understanding, he accorded the voters of Sitarganj the landownership rights, their longstanding demand. Besides, he also assured the dominant Namo Sudras (East Bengali settlers) of the assembly constituency (a part of fertile Terai belt) that he would recommend that the Centre ‘accord’ them the Scheduled Caste (SC) status.
The sops announced by Bahuguna yielded huge electoral dividends. He defeated his nearest rival, BJP’s Prakash Pant by a record margin of nearly 40, 000 votes making an impressive entry into the Vidhan Sabha.
“By getting elected from Sitarganj, an assembly seat he managed to get vacated by a BJP MLA the Chief Minister hit several birds with one stone”, says Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC) vice-president Suryakant Dhasmana. “The win added one more seat to the Congress’s total tally of 32 assembly seats, which reduced the number of the BJP’s assembly seats to a mere 30 from 31”, said Dhasmana. “Then the record margin with which Bahuguna won the Sitarganj by-poll also gave a tremendous psychological edge to the Congress party over the opposition BJP”, he clarified. “Besides, such a historic win has raised his (Bahuguna) stature as a politician indeed by several notches.”
By M Mukundan from Dehradun