Issues That Matter in Uttarakhand Poll

By DANFES

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Dehradun on 27 December, 2017, he was not only kickstarting the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) poll campaign in Uttarakhand, he was also announcing the emphasis the saffron party was laying on reclaiming power in the hill state, which it ruled for five years before Harish Rawat’s Congress government retook power in 2012.

One of the key issues Modi spoke about was the contentious ‘one rank one pension’ scheme, regarding which several armed forces personnel have been agitating. And though their ire has chiefly been directed towards the central government, blaming the Defense Ministry for not paying heed to their demands, the fact that Modi should still highlight the topic proves what a hot button issue OROP has become, especially in Uttarakhand.

The state has a large population of retired and serving armed service personnel, and OROP is likely to resonate deeply here. Modi blamed the previous UPA government. Modi said the forces had been demanding it for more than 40 years, but it was only resolved this year. According to a report in Live Mint, Modi had said his government had disbursed nearly Rs 6,600 crore, and will continue doing more.

However, it appears that the prime minister failed to make a connection with his emotive words, as top OROP leaders have declared their support for Congress candidates in the poll-bound state that will hold Assembly election on 15 February. According to a report in DNA, OROP leaders openly shared the dais with chief minister Harish Rawat, and demanded the Centre to restore the parity of the armed forces’ ranking vis-a-vis their civilian counterparts. The resolution of the ex-servicemen was accepted by neighbouring Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee, who also guaranteed with the guarantee that all 21 recommendations will be accepted once Congress came to power in the state.

Randeep Surjewala, chairman of Congress’ Media Cell, told the DNA report that the party stands committed to the demand of OROP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi should deliver what the soldiers want.

However, Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar had said last year that the issue of OROP is unlikely to impact the poll outcome, as the issue is “progressing satisfactorily”. “Within 18 months, we resolved the 43-year-old OROP issue to high satisfaction levels, and all pending issues will be resolved shortly. Most of the pending issues have been inherited by this government. Barring the disability pension, most other issues have their origin in the Sixth Pay Commission, which we are committed to resolve. It is inappropriate to allow vested interest groups to deliberately build a narrative that is factually baseless and devoid of merit,” he had said.

GAIRSAIN FACTOR

When the statehood demands for Uttarakhand were being considered, the town of Gairsain in Chamoli district was envisioned as the future state’s capital. However, when the state was officially formed in November 2000, Dehradun was declared temporary capital until the decks can be cleared for building a new city. And Dehradun is still the capital city, 17 years later. However, demands for Gairsain to be given the status of permanent capital have never really gone away.

Surprisingly though, the issue has not lost its relevance. Even today, political parties are using Gairsain’s status as a poll plank. According to a report in The Tribune, the question of the permanent capital of the state has never been settled, and it was former chief minister Vijay Bahuguna who revived the Gairsain card after the defeat of his son Saket in the Tehri Lok Sabha by-election in October 2012.

The report also said that a commission headed by Justice (retd) Virender Dixit to decide upon the suitability of a place for permanent capital of Uttarakhand looked into the feasibility of five places — Dehradun, Gairsain, Rishikesh, Kahipur and Ramnagar — on several parameters, including geographic conditions, population, accessibility, transport system, proneness to earthquake or landslides and security.

The commission found that Gairsain was less viable.

However, nobody really wanted to go against this choice, as Gairsain had been an emotional choice among people who were the original agitators for statehood to Uttarakhand.

After Rawat took charge in 2013, he made Gairsain his priority. Even today, Rawat insists he is working for the infrastructure development of state. According to The Hindu, both parties — Congress and BJP — decided that Gairsain must either be declared the state’s permanent capital or its summer capital. However, both parties remain ambivalent.

“If the Congress government is not clear about the status of Gairsain, then it is wasting public money (by constructing the Vidhan Sabha building at Gairsain),” said Uttarakhand BJP president Ajay Bhatt, although chief minister Rawat said the Congress proved its stance by having the Vidhan Sabha building constructed there.

While it cannot be denied that both parties are in favour of a capital at Gairsain, it cannot be easy to have this in place. Hindustan Times reported that out of the 13 districts in the state, more than half are located in the four districts of Dehradun, Haridwar, US Nagar and Nainital. These districts — all located in the central plains — play a pivotal role in deciding which direction the state politics will move. The high population density in the plains districts seems to be one of the reasons why the Rawat government has back-tracked from its earlier plan.

SS Pangati, a former Indian Administrative Services (IAS) officer told Hindustan Times that neither party will follow through with this plan. “Even the caretaker BJP government in 2001, constituted the Dixit Commission to suggest names of cities that could be declared as the capital. The commission suggested a few names, including Dehradun and Gairsain, and the report tabled in the assembly by the then BJP government. The then BC Khanduri government did not act on the report,” Pangati said.

REBEL CANDIDATES

With 51 candidates withdrawing from the fray on the last day for withdrawal of nominations, the chessboard for the 15 February  Assembly polls in Uttarakhand is laid out where the ruling Congress and opposition BJP appear to be locked in a straight contest in a majority of total 70 seats.

Congress and BJP, the two poles between whom power has oscillated since the state’s creation in 2000, are once again poised to take on each other in a straight fight in most seats with a couple of exceptions like Haridwar and Udhamsingh Nagar districts where the BSP could be the third player. Miffed over denial of tickets by their respective parties quite a few strong leaders from both sides have also thrown their hats into the ring as independents making the contest interesting in nearly 18 seats.

While eleven former Congress MLAs are in the fray this time battling as BJP nominees, Congress has also fielded three former BJP MLAs. Three former BJP MLAs are also contesting as independents. Both parties which enjoy statewide support base have fielded candidates from all 70 seats. However, Congress has decided to back independent candidate Pritam Singh Panwar from Dhanaulti after fielding Manmohan Mall as the party’s official nominee from the seat where he continues to be in the fray.

This is the state’s fourth assembly elections and in the last three elections power has changed hands between the two parties alternately. Hence, this time again Congress and BJP look like the two major contenders for power. However, in 20 seats located in Haridwar and Udhamsingh Nagar districts BSP can make the contest triangular by dint of a strong support base. Assembly polls in Uttarakhand this time are also different as rebel challengers in large numbers from both sides are also in the fray as independents refusing to withdraw despite a lot of coaxing and cajoling by their respective leaderships.

BJP has expelled 18 rebels for six years after they refused to withdraw in favour of party’s official nominees, while the number of Congress rebels expelled by the party for defiance is 24. The presence of rebel candidates in the fray may make the fight in at least one and a half dozen seats interesting as they have the potential to become part of the main contest or dent the votes of the party they have broken with and influence the results.

A total of 12 sitting MLAs who had won on a Congress ticket in 2012 assembly polls joined BJP since start of the political crisis in Uttarakhand in March last year till after election notification in the state. Almost all of these have been fielded by BJP except Vijay Bahuguna whose son Saurabh has been fielded from his father’s seat Sitarganj. People will definitely watch out for what happens in these seats as well as Haridwar rural and Kichcha Beng contested by Chief Minister Harish Rawat.

KEY LEADERS

The hill state of Uttarakhand, which was largely in the news for last year’s Constitutional crisis and ensuing President’s Rule that was subsequently quashed, goes to polls on 15 February. The state is important for both Congress and BJP. While Congress hopes to retain power in the state, BJP has made consistent efforts in the state to rock the boat.

The key parties in the state are Congress and BJP; although the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and Samajwadi Party (SP) have a minor presence in the state, it’s negligible and isn’t expected to make a difference to the two big parties’ prospects. The Uttarakhand Kranti Dal (UKD) takes credit for the formation of the state, but it doesn’t particularly have a connect with the voter-base.

Speaking to Hindustan Times, Kashi Singh Airy, UKD patron said, “We (UKD) were the ones who played an important role in the formation of Uttarakhand and we alone can nurture it properly.”

Let’s have a look at the key players who can change the dynamics of Uttarakhand assembly polls.

Harish Rawat: Harish Chandra Singh Rawat is the incumbent chief minister of Uttarakhand. He has been a five-time Member of Parliament. He hails from Mohanari village near Chaunalia in Almora district. Rawat got his degrees in Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Law from Lucknow University. He started his political career by joining politics at the village level. He was inclined towards the Congress’ ideology right from the outset and was a member of Youth Congress and a trade union leader for several years before joining the party ranks. In 2016, the BJP-led central government made a failed attempt at dislodging the Rawat-led government in Uttarakhand by citing constitutional breakdown in the state. The Supreme Court held that the imposition of President’s Rule in Uttarakhand was invalid and paved the way for restoration of Rawat’s government in the state.

Vijay Bahuguna: He served as Uttarakhand chief minister in 2012, drawing significant ire from Rawat. He subsequently resigned following severe criticism that he received for his handling of the 2012 floods in the state. He recently rebelled from the Congress and joined hands with the BJP, and has been inducted in to the saffron party’s national executive. Bahuguna is a former high court judge and son of former Uttar Pradesh chief minister Hemvati Nandan Bahuguna. He is also a cousin of BC Khanduri, another former Uttarakhand chief minister.

BC Khanduri: Khanduri served as the chief minister of Uttarakhand twice (2007-2009 and 2011-2012). He also served a Cabinet minister in Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s government at the Centre and gave shape to the ‘Golden Quadrilateral Project’. During his tenure as chief minister of Uttarakhand, Khanduri cut down expenses by reducing security for him and other administrative officials and restricted the use of chief minister’s discretionary funds.

Bhagat Singh Koshyari: Koshyari began his career with the RSS. In 1997, he became the member of the Uttar Pradesh Legislative Council. In 2000, Koshyari was appointed the minister of irrigation, law, energy and legislative affairs of the newly developed state of Uttarakhand. In 2001, Bhagat replaced Nityanand Swami and became the chief minister of the state.

Indira Hrideyesh: Hridayesh is popularly referred to as the iron lady, and is a Congress stalwart. She began her career under ND Tiwari, who mentored her in the early 70s. She has massive clout in the Haldwani Assembly segment and she won the 2012 election with a record margin.

Satpal Maharaj: Maharaj was appointed as vice-chairman of the 20-point implementation programme during the 2002-2007 ND Tiwari regime. He was elected to the Lok Sabha in 2009. He is credited with reforms in Uttarakhand.

Ajay Bhatt: Bhatt is a senior BJP member and Leader of Opposition in the Assembly. He was recently elected unopposed as chief of the party’s state unit for the 2017 polls. Bhatt was elected unopposed as all three sets of nomination papers. Bhatt has also served as health minister of Uttarakhand. He said he would aim for victory in the 2017 Assembly elections by working together with all the party members.

ND Tiwari, Rohit Shekhar: In the first ever post-Independence Assembly election in Uttar Pradesh in 1952, ND Tiwari was elected from Nainital constituency and became an MLA for the first time on a Praja Samajwadi Party ticket. In 1957, he was elected from the Nainital constituency, and became leader of Opposition in the Assembly. In January 2017, he, along with son Rohit Shekhar, joined the BJP.