While the Congress is confident that a BJP rebel standing as an independent will work in their favour, the BJP still think they have the upper hand.
Ranikhet, Uttarakhand: The keen fight between the Congress and the BJP across Uttarakhand has meant that both parties have sent all their warhorses into the battle. The picturesque Ranikhet, a hub of military training, is witnessing a fight between two traditional rivals, sitting MLA and state BJP president Ajay Bhatt and Karan Mahara of the Congress. Bhatt lost to Mahara in 2007, but defeated him in 2002 and 2012, the last time by a wafer thin margin of just 78 votes.
Ranikhet can be seen as a example of the close contests traditionally witnessed between the Congress and the BJP. This time, what has make the contest even more competitive is the entry of BJP-rebel Pramod Nainwal, who contested from the neighbouring Salt constituency last time but lost and was denied a party ticket this time.
The Congress believes that Nainwal could spell doom for Bhatt, one of the tallest figures of the BJP in state politics. The party’s argument is that even last time he won through the postal ballot and his victory margin was low in 2002 as well. Also, they say that Nainwal’s wife is a block president in the constituency and that would ensure a split in the BJP vote.
The Congress has been focussing on stopping Bhatt by intensifying the campaign against him. Former Delhi minister Raj Kumar Chauhan, who has been camping in the constituency in support of Mahara for nearly a fortnight, said the party has been united in its campaign all across the state. “Even Rahul ji (party vice president Rahul Gandhi) had two rallies in Ranikhet and Someshwar, and the attendance showed that we are in a strong position,” he told The Wire.
At the BJP office in Ranikhet’s main market, however, there are few signs of despair yet. The chief election agent Vijay Prakash Pandey said the impact of a party rebel would be minimal and if at all it would lead to a split of the votes going to the Congress, since Nainwal belongs to the area chief minister Harish Rawat is from.
Pandey insists this election cannot be judged from the previous ones due to a variety of reasons. For one, he said, last time Puran Dangwal, a very well-known personality in Uttarakhand, was in the fray on a Bahujan Samaj Party ticket and he had polled nearly 10,000 votes. Dangwal had been associated with state politics for nearly 40 years was a well-known and respected social worker, and most of his votes were his own. He had fought for the creation of Uttarakhand and had even gone to jail for that. After the formation of the state, he was first with the Uttarakhand Kranti Dal and later shifted to the Congress. As Congress denied him a ticket in 2012, he moved to the BSP. After his demise, his children were roped in by the BJP in the hope of getting the votes of Dangwal’s supporters.
Local issues matter
Apart from seeking votes in the name of personalities, namely Prime Minister Narendra Modi for the BJP and chief minister Rawat for the Congress, the parties are also wooing the electorate through a variety of promises.
The BJP has been accusing Rawat of not making Ranikhet a district despite all that was required of him was to issue the notification. “Our former chief minister Ramesh Nishank had declared it a district along with three others, but the Congress did not do anything on notifying the same,” he said, without explaining why the BJP could not do so during its rule. “Due to this,” Pandey said, “the region still lacks proper health facilities and people have to go all the way to Haldwani for serious health matters.” BJP is also accusing the Rawat government of illegal exploitation of forest and mineral resources.
The Congress, on the other hand, is not only speaking about the various social welfare schemes brought by the Rawat government, like the hike in pensions and the introduction of health insurance cards, but also raising the issue of how the BJP government at the Centre tried to illegally dislodge an elected government. “We are going before the people and telling them how the Modi government at the Centre dismissed the Rawat government and it was only after the Supreme Court intervened that the government was restored,” said Chauhan.
The BJP has been countering this argument, saying the Rawat government was in a minority. “We are telling the voters not to get swayed away by such allegations. One should not forget that nine of the MLAs were not allowed to vote and the petitions against their dismissal are still pending before the Supreme Court,” countered Pandey, who is also an advocate.