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Uttarakhand Elections 2017: Touch & go situation

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By Sidharth Mishra

Last week, it snowed in the higher reaches of Uttarakhand. Cold winds sweep down the hills to the valleys, making it increasingly difficult to campaign for the Assembly polls scheduled for February 15. This is an unusual battle being fought. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has done, to use a cricketing euphemism, a Kerry Packer on the ruling Congress.
For those not interested in cricket, Kerry Francis Bullmore Packer was an Australian media tycoon. The Packer family company owned a controlling interest in both the Channel Nine television network and leading Australian publishing company Australian Consolidated Press, which were later merged to form Publishing and Broadcasting Limited (PBL). Outside Australia, Packer was best known for founding World Series Cricket. Unable to get the exclusive telecasting rights for the England-Australia 1976 test series for Channel 9, owned by him, he created an alternative cricket series involving leading players of the world. At the height of World Series Cricket (WSC) exhibition matches, the leading teams of Australia and West Indies saw their leading lights defecting to Packer camp. This time around Congress has witnessed 11 of its leading lights in Uttarakhand defect to the BJP. The numbers are indeed good enough to form a cricket team.
Like Alvin Kallicharan of West Indies and Bobby Simpson of Australia, one gets an impression that Uttarakhand Chief Minister Harish Rawat has been left to lead a ramshackle team into the polls. However, the comparisons end here. The defections have to an extent revived the fortunes of the Congress party, which till about a year back was slated to be swept out of the office.
Rawat has managed to create the impression, at least overly, that those responsible for mal-governance including his predecessor Vijay Bahuguna and heavyweight ministers like Harak Singh Rawat and Yashpal Arya have all shifted loyalty to the BJP. This has provided the Congress breathing space to reassemble its team. Though the distribution of tickets in the Congress party has not been without freckles, but it has certainly faced lesser problems than the BJP, which had to sacrifice the interests of its cadres to accommodate the Congress rebels. The Congress has in fact accommodated two such BJP rebels who were denied party ticket to accommodate Congress deserters.
From a position of Congress versus BJP, the polls have now turned into a person-to-person, seat-to-seat contest as the defections have caused a sense of dilemma among voters and more importantly cadres. Getting the BJP workers to hold the flag for Yashpal Arya and Satpal Maharaj is going to be quite an insurmountable task for party president Amit Shah.
Congress heavyweight Yaspal Arya, who recently joined BJP, is contesting from Bajpur seat. His son Sanjeev Arya is also contesting from reserved Nainital seat from BJP ticket. Satpal Maharaj is contesting Assembly elections on BJP ticket from Chaubattakal. His wife, Amrita Rawat, a former Minister in Harish Rawat Cabinet is not contesting this time but leading the campaigning as she belongs to Chaubattakal. Maharaj has been accommodated in the place of sitting BJP MLA and former state unit president Tirath Singh Rawat.
Saurabh Bahuguna, son of former CM Vijay Bahuguna, who led the Congress rebel legislatures to the BJP, is contesting from Sitarganj. Last time, senior Bahuguna won by-election from this seat as BJP MLA Kiran Mondal defected and vacated this seat to adjust then Chief Minister, who was parachute dropped by Congress central leadership.
The BJP leadership has deputed its three Central leaders in the state – Ministers JP Nadda and Dharmendra Pradhan, and party's national vice-president Shyam Jaju. This reflects the contrasting strategies of the two rivals. While the BJP's campaign is driven by Central leaders, with the local leadership largely staying put in their respective constituencies, the Congress's drive is led by Chief Minister Harish Rawat.
While 23 Union ministers in addition to the Prime Minister are scheduled to campaign in the tiny state, the Congress Central leadership is focused on the politically more significant neighbouring state of Uttar Pradesh. As the cliché goes, it a do or die situation for Rawat. If he wins the polls, he emerges as a powerful regional satrap of the party. If he loses, it is effectively going to be the end of the road for the 70-year-old leader.
An official, closely associated with the conduct of polls in the state put it, "BJP has Modi, Congress has Rawat. It looks to be an unequal fight but the changing gradients of the state's topography also reflect on its politics." No wonder Major General Bhuwan Chandra Khanduri in 2012 in three months' time revived fortune of his party but lost his own seat. Rawat is not taking such chances.
He is fighting from both Kiccha in Kumaon Terai and Haridwar rural in Garhwal Terai. Both the seats have a presence of minority votes in good numbers. The general secretary of the Uttarakhand Congress, Shilpi Arora who had filed her nomination papers as an independent candidate from Bazpur and Kiccha constituencies has withdrawn her papers in support of Congress. But party rebel Santosh Kashyap from Haridwar has switched her loyalty to BJP.
The situation in the state remains touch and go. This is best manifested in Rawat's Cabinet colleagues Dinesh Dhanne (Tehri seat) and Pritam Singh Panwar (Dhanauti seat) refusing the Congress ticket and deciding to contest as independent candidates. The signal is clear, this old political horse is cautious lest the results throw up a hung Assembly. In such a situation, they can go with the party which is closer to the majority.
(Sidharth Mishra is Consulting Editor, Millennium Post.)

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