Turncoats and Rebels
There’s little talk of development as confused voters try to make sense of all the defections
Across Uttarakhand, huge mist-laden hoardings of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chief Minister Harish Rawat signal the election fever that is warming up the freezing Himalayan winter here. But it’s an election curiously bereft of issues pertaining to development. Successive defections between the ruling Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party over the past six months have confounded voters. Contesting faces have changed camps. Within the BJP, for instance, they now see faces the saffron party had for the longest time dubbed as “corrupt”. In the other corner, the Congress too has embraced rebels from the other side.
And while the Congress has proclaimed Rawat their CM face, the BJP, with its surfeit of new entrants, has found it impossible to name a leader and is once again banking on Modi working his ‘magic’. Uttarakhand faces huge challenges in areas like health, education, water supply and roads, but these are not part of the popular discourse. Street-side conversations are now centred on turncoats and blurred party lines.
State BJP chief Ajay Bhatt says the “corruption” and the “sense of fear” about another Rawat regime will decide these polls, while Surendra Singh Negi, state minister and the Congress candidate in Kotdwar, insists “the government’s work on the ground” will win the party a second
term. It’s an interesting contest in Kotdwar where Negi’s challenger is former Congressman Harak Singh Rawat, who was among the first to revolt against the Rawat government. Negi, who’s running for the third time, predicts a ‘cakewalk’, pointing to how he defeated BJP stalwart B.C. Khanduri in 2012. Harak Singh, he says, “is no match for me”.
Like Harak Singh, the BJP nominee in Chaubattakhal (Garhwal district), Satpal Maharaj, and Ajay Bhatt in Ranikhet, too, are recent entrants to the saffron fold. Both, incidentally, are not shy about their chief ministerial ambitions. Out in the Terai constituency of Bazpur, BJP nominee Yashpal Arya, who had earned considerable respect as a Congress leader, is finding it difficult to make a connect wearing his new political colours.
But, some believe that with more armed forces veterans than most states, many of Uttarakhand’s voters could buy into the narrative PM Modi has carefully crafted around ex-servicemen. OROP (one-rank-onepension), the surgical strikes against Pakistan and the recent decision to appoint Gen. Bipin Rawat as the army chief, a government official says, could turn things the BJP’s way. However, even saffron strategists are wary of CM Rawat’s reputation for micromanaging polls. “Things could turn out quite different on polling day,” a BJP leader admitted pointing to how just three months after the Modi tsunami in Lok Sabha 2014, Rawat unhinged the BJP by winning all three assembly by-elections in the state.
Meanwhile, other than the turncoats and defectors, both parties also face the common challenge of rebel candidates. Past the deadline for withdrawal of candidature, there are still as many as 28 Congress rebels in the fray. The BJP has done only marginally better, it has only 25 rebel candidates. The battle for Uttarakhand, analysts say, could have a somewhat ‘messy’ conclusion. So many rebels, they point out, contesting as independents could well become ‘kingmakers’ in the event of a photo finish between the Congress and the BJP.
SHOW OF HANDS Rahul Gandhi at a Congress roadshow in Roorkee