War of the Hills
The Election Commission has announced the dates for the Assembly elections in five states, omitting as of now the crucial election of Gujarat which too is due this year. With over 16 crore voters participating in the various Assembly polls, it’s bound to have a major impact in the long run.
The tumultuous politics of the five states undergoing elections this year – Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Goa and Manipur – is sure to nudge the uncertain times towards a certain political direction, either away or towards the centralising force of the Narendra Modi-led BJP, or the still weakly coalescing opposition to it.
While the individual states have widely differing political climates, with regional stronghold of Samajwadi Party in UP, Congress trying its best to hold on to Uttarakhand, while BJP trying its best to offset the influence of the resurgent AAP in Goa and Punjab, 2017 poll outcomes may show a tilt towards a particular political end, which is either to reinforce the BJP’s hold all over India, or to significantly challenge it by solidifying the regional political camps.
Assembly polls in tiny hill state of Uttarakhand are apparently less about issues and more about personalities and cult. The outcome will depend on the political acumen of the major players – the ruling Congress and the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Largely, it will be a direct fight between Congress and BJP. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) has a base in a few pockets in the plain areas and could dent the prospects of candidates from the other two parties.
The last five years have been a roller-coaster ride for Uttarakhand. In June 2013, the state witnessed one of the biggest natural disasters after cloudburst triggered massive floods and landslides that claimed more than 5,000 lives in the Kedarnath valley. Following the disaster, the then Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna was replaced with his bête noire, Harish Rawat, in early 2014.
But that failed to bring stability. Last year, a political coup engineered by rebel Congress legislators led by Bahuguna who was backed by the BJP to unseat Rawat shook up the power corridors and led to chaos. The imposition of President’s rule for a brief stint, then litigations challenging it, and a sting video of Rawat purportedly offering money to lure legislators to save his government added to the flux.
The polls will be the biggest test for Rawat, who managed to win a floor test and save his government in May last year. The election will shape his political future. With other senior Congress leaders not in the picture, Rawat, who had to wait for 12 years before the opportunity to become CM knocked on his door, is leading the party’s election chariot. It will be a big boost for the Congress if it manages to retain Uttarakhand.
The BJP, meanwhile, exudes the confidence of being better organised. The party’s top leaders, including poll in-charge and Union ministers JP Nadda and Dharmendra Pradhan, are conducting whirlwind tours of the state. BJP leaders are highlighting “political corruption” in the state at poll meetings and also showing the sting video of Rawat allegedly offering money to legislators to save his government.
Rawat is countering the charges at public gatherings, saying, “BJP ke saare balwan milkar kamjor mukhyamantri ko chiit karna chahtey hain (All powerful leaders of BJP intend to crush a weak CM).”
The Congress government has been repeatedly hit by allegations of corruption. Incidentally, the first such charge Rawat faced was last year when his principal secretary, Md Shahid, was shown in a sting video allegedly inking a deal to award liquor distribution to a private player. Without naming anyone, Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently said at a rally in Dehradun, “By now politicians should know that people know everything.”
The BJP will have in its corner rebel Congress leaders who came into its fold. Former Congress stalwarts now in the BJP include Vijay Bahuguna, former minister Harak Singh, Kunwar Pranab Champion and Satpal Maharaj and more recent N.D. Tiwary and his son Rohit Shekhar.
Nationalism or Demonetisation?
At his recent rally (27 December, 2016) in Dehradun, Narendra Modi gave special focus on his government’s demonetisation decision by describing it as a useful weapon to deal with problems like fake notes and terrorism in one stroke. He also referred to the problems faced by the people in the wake of this particular decision and highlighted it as people’s cooperation in the fight against corruption.
Perhaps Modi was aware about the ruling Congress Party’s desperate attempts to develop implementation part of the demonetisation decision as an issue against its main political rival BJP in the forthcoming Uttarakhand Assembly polls. But days before Uttarakhand goes to vote on 15 February, there is no indication to suggest demonetisation as an important poll issue in the state’s hill or plain parts.
Since Uttarakhand has a large number of retired and serving army-men as voters, the sense of nationalism always matters in election campaign. So, Modi’s special focus on demonetisation at his Dehradun rally has apparently its own political meaning in this state.
On the contrary, Chief Minister Harish Rawat has been trying hard to stop the BJP from gaining indirect political benefits in the Assembly polls by centre’s demonetisation decision. Apparently keeping in his mind the voters’ sentiment for important national issues in this hill state, Rawat has never directly opposed the centre’s demonetisation decision. He deliberately targeted the implementation part of the decision in an apparent bid to avoid political problems for his party in this election. Rawat has so far tried to make it a political point that Uttarakhand depends on the economy coming through revenue from different quarters.
Reports reaching from various districts show that BJP or Congress is giving little attention to the demonetisation issue in its election campaign. As things stand today, both rival camps — BJP and Congress — are focusing on local issues mainly.
Since its inception, politics of Uttarakhand has been dominated more by personalities and cults and less by issues. This time too, it is no different. The BJP also faces the odd situation of having four former chief ministers in its fold and another part of it by proxy. But neither the four or Tiwari are contesting elections and have been given — clear indication that none of them — should harbour chief ministerial ambition any more.
Winning the state is important for the BJP because it will also indicate endorsement of two issues that have a great draw in the state and that
have been projected as major successes of the Modi government. Being a state which has the highest share of personnel in security establishment, Uttarakhand election will be a major test for the BJP’s claims on OROP and surgical strikes. Defeat here will be a bitterer pill for Modi to swallow, more so because it has made Brand Modi its main campaign tool.
That said, there may be a few causes for astonishment, for people as well as political parties, within the election fervour. Horse trading might also come into play after 11 March when the results are out; for then, it would be the same old story of a political grotesqueness.
by Nilabh krishna