The unequal distribution of government welfare schemes, and caste and sub-caste factors are going to play a key role in the assembly polls.
Haridwar: In the 2012 assembly election, the Congress won 32 of the 70 seats in Uttarakhand, just one more than the BJP. Since the BJP won five of the 11 seats in the Haridwar district, with three each going to the Congress and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), this time, chief minister Harish Rawat, who actually hails from the Kumaon district, has decided to contest the assembly elections from Haridwar Rural in a bid to turn around the Congress’s fortunes in Garhwal’s most populous region.
The plan appears to be working, at least for now. Rawat’s arrival on the scene has enthused the party cadre in the district. In Piran Kaliyar constituency, where Muslims form a majority of the population, sitting Congress MLA Furkan Ahmad is taking on the BSP’s Rao Shajit and independent Mohammad Shahzad, who came second as a BSP candidate in 2012.
Repeat of 2012
While the party candidate was away campaigning, the former vice-head of Roorkee block, Najim Tyagi, could be seen arranging party affairs. Speaking to The Wire, Tyagi appeared hopeful for a “repeat of 2012” in this constituency. “In our constituency of about 110,000 voters there are about 60,000 Muslims and about 18,000 Dalits. Last time we had won by about 1600 votes and this time the margin would only increase because the CM is also contesting from the district and people are very happy with his work.”
Tyagi then talked at length about how the hike in pensions, introduction of health insurance and the granting of category 3 land rights to farmers, which makes them eligible to raise loans against their properties and even sell them, were positive developments that can benefit the Congress. He added, “Besides, Rawat also promised a job to one person from every family or a Rs 2,500 unemployment allowance and people get enthused with these when we raise these issues in our public meetings.”
Tyagi also said the district’s population was hit hard by demonetisation; most of Piran Kaliyar’s residents are either farmers or engaged in small trades in Haridwar. This may likely result in the Hindu trading community shifting their allegiance from the BJP to the Congress.
Caste, sub-caste factor to play a role
However, a little distance away, at independent candidate Shahzad’s office it becomes clear that the Congress is relying heavily on wishful thinking. Shahzad’s supporters Bhura and Gulfam Ahmad, who both belong to the Alvi biradari (sub-caste), are of the firm view that both the BSP and Congress are not even close to being the main contenders in these elections. “They can say whatever they like, but the fight is with the BJP,” said Ahmad, who has come all the way from Kolkata to support Shahzad.
Their reasoning is that the switch from three candidates to four has resulted in the BJP actually consolidating votes. “The RSS is also working really hard for them,” chipped in Bhura. The two figure that if Shahzad retains most of the 11,000 votes from the Teli community – to which he belongs – then the Congress and BSP will find the going tough, especially because the BJP came in third last time with just 5,000 votes less than the winner.
Salim and Waseem, auto-repair workers in Rehmatpur village in the constituency, share the same views. They insisted that Shahzad’s greatest strength has been that “he worked for the people even when he was not in power whereas the Congress MLA Furkan Ahmad was seldom seen in the constituency”. As such, they said, even members of his Jhoja biradari were angry with Ahmad.
As for the BJP candidate, Jai Bhagwan Saini, the residents pointed out that he is battling two negatives. The first is that Saini is not popular – he came fourth in the district panchayat polls – and the other negative is that he hails from Sikanderpur and is not a native of the constituency he is fighting from.
Haridwar Rural suffers from neglect
In Rawat’s constituency of Haridwar Rural, while Congress flags far outnumber those of other parties, many residents are discontented with the party’s preferential treatment of a select few.
In Ikkatpur village, which has a majority Dalit population, several residents complained about pension and health benefits not reaching them. Village resident Charan Singh also said, “When Rawat cam to the village a couple of months ago and distributed cheques and sewing machines, he ignored the large Dalit population completely, and only distributed them among the Muslims, who constitute the second highest segment”. The residents, however, blamed the sarpanch, who also belongs to the minority community, for this oversight. “Hamaaray liye kuchh nahin hota (Nothing happens for us),” rued Singh.
Sitting close-by, Veer Singh, who underwent spinal surgery with help from the pension scheme, appeared more pleased with the Rawat government’s performance and pointed to the water line laid in the middle of the concrete village roads and the new water tank across the main road as developments that have taken place since Rawat came to power.
Women continue to suffer
Most of the women in the village said they have not been receiving any widow, elderly or disability pension. Elderly Gulshan said she had not been getting any pension despite her old age and had raised her three daughters and one son on the meagre income she earned as a farm labourer. Kusum, whose husband Prithvi Singh lost his legs in an accident, said the family has not been getting any disability pension. Similarly, Sukhiya, whose daughter-in-law is paralysed, rued the absence of any social support.
Despite these problems, the Congress believes that with the BSP’s popularity declining in the district – it won eight seats in 2002, seven in 2007 and three in 2012 – it stands a better chance to win the Dalit votes this time.
But the BSP is not giving up. It is targeting 20 assembly segments in the state which have large Muslim and Dalit populations. They are primarily located in Haridwar and the Uddham Singh Nagar district in the plains.
The party is fielding Mukarram Ansari against Rawat. The BSP is trying to woo Muslim votes by fielding more Muslim candidates than on any previous occasion. So this time it has fielded four Muslim candidates in the district, with the other three being Sarbat Karim Ansari from Manglaur, Mufti Riyasat from Khanpur and Rao Sajid form Piran Kaliyar.
The BJP is backing Yatishwaranand from Haridwar Rural.
Just as the Congress is relying on party vice president Rahul Gandhi and UP chief minister Akhilesh Yadav to boost its candidates, the BSP is awaiting party supremo Mayawati’s arrival, while the BJP cadre is waiting for Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party president Amit Shah to give a final fillip to their prospects in this tight contest.