Politics

As Independent MLAs ‘Reject’ the Congress, Competition Heats Up in Uttarakhand’s Tehri Garhwal

Based on people’s demands, the elections in Tehri Garhwal are being fought on the issues of increasing employment opportunities, more tourism and promoting fruit cultivation.

School children having fun with election publicity material in Tehri Garhwal. Credit: Gaurav Vivek Bhatnagar

School children having fun with election publicity material in Tehri Garhwal. Credit: Gaurav Vivek Bhatnagar

Tehri Garhwal, Uttarakhand: The picturesque mountains of Tehri Garhwal, beyond the well-known tourist destination of Mussoorie, provide some breathtaking views of the Himalayas. But to the residents of the villages and small towns that dot these steep hills in Uttarakhand, the views provide little succour. Life here continues to be a struggle and about 20% population has migrated to the plains in the last five years due to the lack of employment opportunities. Because of this, the focus of the assembly elections in this region is as much the integrity and performance of the candidates as what they intend to do to improve tourism and farming practices.

There may be support for the main national parties, the Congress and the BJP, but that two of independent candidates who won in the 2012 assembly elections, later supported the Congress in forming a government and became ministers have chosen to fight as independents again – despite being offered party tickets – shows that somewhere deep down there still lies a belief that successive BJP and Congress governments have not done enough.

In Dhanaulti, this had led to a major rift in the Congress as chief minister Harish Rawat wanted the party to support his cabinet minister Pritam Singh Panwar, who, despite being offered a ticket by the Congress, filed his nomination as an independent. The Congress then fielded Manmohan Singh Mall, a three-time Mussoorie municipal council president who lost the last polls due to a Congress rebel contesting the elections. The Congress wanted Panwar, who had won from neighbouring Chakrata in 2012, to fight on its party symbol but when he did not relent, it decided to stand by its candidate. The two are now engaged in a battle with the BJP, which has fielded ace shooter Jaspal Rana’s father, Narayan Singh Rana.

Congress activists campaigning in Kaddukhal in the Dhanaulti constituency, from where cabinet minister Pritam Singh Tanwar is contesting as an independent. Credit: Gaurav Vivek Bhatnagar

Congress activists campaigning in Kaddukhal in the Dhanaulti constituency, from where cabinet minister Pritam Singh Tanwar is contesting as an independent. Credit: Gaurav Vivek Bhatnagar

At Kaddukhal, a small hamlet, residents want whichever candidate is voted to power to work for developing fruit farming in the mountains surrounding the region. As Virkhodhar Chauhan, a resident, said, “There is hardly any agriculture in the slopes around here. We want the government to promote fruit farming and processing on the lines of Himachal Pradesh so that more employment is generated.” He lamented that most of the youth from the region are forced to migrate due to the lack of employment opportunities.

A Congress activist, Swaroop Singh Rawat, agreed, saying the party was raising the issue of lack of promotion of agriculture and tourism while attacking Panwar. The region also lacks health facilities and the nearest proper hospital is about 50 km away.

The Congress is also campaigning on the issue of the area not developing because it had a BJP MLA. “Mal lost the last election because just about 300 votes to the BJP as a Congress rebel, Jyot Singh Bisht had bagged over 10,000 votes,” said Swaroop. This time, he said, all the three parties have fielded Thakur candidates since the community comprises nearly 40,000 of the 75,000 voters, with Brahmins numbering around 20,000 and the others being Dalits.

Demonetisation not an issue

Swaroop insisted that while demonetisation may have impacted life as people struggled to withdraw their own money, it was not an election issue. With there being around 450 villages in the constituency, he said the candidates had no option but to go door-to-door or organise meetings at shops located on the main roads.

The view on demonetisation not being an election issue was also shared a few kilometres ahead in Arakot village, by a local trader, Bharat. However, he added with a smile, “Earlier the party workers used to approach us with a variety of stuff but that too has dried up.”

Development work, corruption allegations

In the Tehri Garhwal constituency, Dinesh Dhanai, a minister in the Harish Rawat government, is taking on the Congress. He too refused to fight under the party symbol and, as a consequence, Congress fielded Narendra Chand Ramola. Incidentally, those working Dhanai and Ramola’s campaigns claim that they are in direct contest with the BJP, which has fielded Dhan Singh Negi. The other player of significance in this contest is Sushil Bahuguna of the Hamari Janmanch Party, known in the region for the work done by his NGO.

Cabinet minister Dinesh Dhanai's party office in Chamba is buzzing with activity. He is fighting as an independent. Credit: Gaurav Vivek Bhatnagar

Cabinet minister Dinesh Dhanai’s party office in Chamba is buzzing with activity. He is fighting as an independent. Credit: Gaurav Vivek Bhatnagar

Dhanai has integrated his development agenda into his campaign. At his party office in Chamba, his main campaigner Ishan Rawat listed out the work done by him for the region: opening two new polytechnics, one college, a nursing college for women, a water sports academy on Tehri Dam lake, an industrial training institute and special projects to improve water supply. “We are also promising to open a medical college and an engineering college if voted back,” added his office in-charge, Jaiveer Singh Rawat.

The Congress is, however, targeting Dhanai for alleged corrupt practices. It is also accusing the BJP candidate of being involved in a Rs 7.5 crore scam during his involvement with a milk federation. Despite the allegation, a strong division in the non-BJP vote could tilt the scales either way.

Curiously, a political observer said it is a win-win situation for Harish because whether the Congress candidates win or Panwar and Dhanai win, either way he would stand to gain. “He probably also wants it this way as it would provide him greater leverage in assuring himself the chief ministerial seat in a tight outcome.” But as history has shown, in Uttarakhand politics nothing is a given – neither the loyalty of the MLAs nor the mood of parties in New Delhi.