Exit Polls Make Uttarakhand Difficult to Call Between the Congress and the BJP

With floods and corruption changing the contours of elections in Uttarakhand, an average of exit poll data seem to be weighing in favour of the BJP though Harish Rawat still has a chance.

Chief Minister Harish Rawat (L) and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The BJP and the Congress and fighting neck-and-neck in Uttarakhand.

Chief Minister Harish Rawat (L) and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The BJP and the Congress and fighting neck-and-neck in Uttarakhand.

The assembly elections in Uttarakhand have been too close to call for a variety of reasons and the exit polls have only buttressed this argument. Out of the five exit polls, three have predicted an outright win for BJP while one has given a majority to the ruling Congress and still another has predicted both the parties winning an identical number of seats.

While the results for the state – which was carved out of Uttar Pradesh in 2000 – is due to be out in less than 24 hours, it would be interesting to note the various factors which would play a key role in determining the constitution of the new state assembly.

Harish Rawat versus Modi

This is probably the first time in Uttarakhand that the Congress has given a long rope to any leader – in this case its sitting chief minister Harish Rawat, to have a great say in not only identifying and selecting the party candidates but in also overseeing their campaign. Though the party has sent a lot of leaders from Delhi to lend support to the candidates, the manner in which Rawat’s banners and posters dot the electoral landscape give enough indication about who calls the shots.

The single chain of command has come with its benefits for the Congress. People have a face to accept or reject and considering Rawat’s overall popularity and the perception about his work, he remains an asset to the party.

Playing favourites has harmed the Congress

But Rawat’s elevation has also led to a number of pitfalls for the party. In the ticket distribution, many of his rivals were targeted. Primary among them was state Congress president Kishore Upadhyay who was fielded from Sahaspur in Dehradun district, from where another Brahmin and former party candidate, Aryendra Sharma, was seeking a ticket. This led to Sharma rebelling and fighting as an independent.

The fact that Congress expelled nearly two dozen party leaders after the tickets were announced shows the extent of rebellion within the party. Even after polling got over, there were complaints from ministers like Dinesh Dhanai, who contested as an independent from Tehri, that the party leaders deliberately tried to sabotage their election by urging the cadre to vote for the BJP.

BJP has its own share of troubles

BJP had started its election campaign on a sticky wicket. It was shouldering the baggage of 15 Congress rebels who had joined the party along with former Congress chief minister Vijay Bahuguna. Not only has Bahuguna been riled as the face of corruption in the state by his opponents, people in the state, which faced devastating floods in June 2013, still remember him as the person who could have done a lot more for the victims but chose not to, for obvious reasons.

The anger against Bahuguna is palpable. Yet BJP decided to place his pictures next to those of Modi and party national president Amit Shah on most billboards in the state. The result is bound to be negative. The party has witnessed rebellion from its own sitting MLAs and those denied tickets and this would be a crucial factor going into the result day.

Should it end up short of a majority yet again, as it did in 2012 when it won 31 seats in the 70-member assembly, and should Congress, which had bagged 32 seats then, again manage to stitch up a majority, the BJP would have only itself to blame.

Poll of polls favours BJP

But the poll of exit polls is predicting a win for the party. Of the five groups that conducted these exit polls, three have given it a complete majority with 53 seats, 50 seats and 37 seats respectively. One other poll has given it 32 seats while the one which sees it performing the worst has given it 30 seats.

Within BJP, the feeling is that it should get 39 seats and if ‘the Modi factor’, had significant influence, it could take it to 43-46 seat mark. This was also enumerated by BJP’s party in-charge of Jharkhand, Trivendra Singh Rawat, who is considered among the candidates for the chief ministerial berth should the party win in Uttarakhand.

Signs of nervousness and confidence

After the polling in the state took place on February 15, there have been certain developments which belie signs of nervousness and confidence in the two major parties. First it was the Congress which had expressed its fear that BJP could influence the postal ballot voting in the state, which has a high number of people in the armed forces. This was also an indication that the party believes that most soldiers, post implementation of One Rank One Pension scheme, could be supporting the saffron party. And later in February, the BJP was the one crying foul as it accused the Congress for the undelivered postal ballots.

Apart from the tussle over the postal ballots, the manner in which BJP had sought a report on the performance of its key leaders in the state during the assembly elections also gave a fair indication of what the party thought about its prospects. Since the party had not projected a chief ministerial face before the polls, its taking a feedback from the state leaders on the performance of its former chief ministers B.C. Khanduri and Bhagat Singh Koshiyari, national executive member Satpal Maharaj, national secretary Trivendra Singh Rawat and state unit head Ajay Bhatt indicated what was on its mind.

Will the Garhwal-Kumaon gap be breached?

Traditionally BJP has done better in the Garhwal division and Congress in Kumaon. This time too travelling across the state, one gathered a sense that BJP would again do well in the Garhwal hills whereas Congress would put up a better show in the Kumaon hills. However, in the plains, which now account for 70% of all seats and electorate, the fight is also three-cornered with BSP being another significant player due to the presence of large number of Dalit and Muslim votes and the results would show if these polls would buck the trend of the Garhwal-Kumaon divide.

Little going for the smaller parties

As the exit polls have suggested the prospects of the smaller parties may not brighten too much in the state this year as well. The Bahujan Samaj Party has seen its seat tally drop from 8 in the 2002 polls to 7 in 2007 and 3 in 2012. But despite the decline in wins, it remains a significant force in the plains. Similarly the number of seats won by Uttarakhand Kranti Dal have declined gradually from 4 in 2002, to 3 in 2007 to just 1 in 2012. But unlike the BSP, it has been rapidly losing on its vote share as well.

With these parties and with independents generally allying with either the Congress or the BJP in the state, there is an overall sense that votes should be cast for either of the two major parties directly. However, some independents are still expected to do well due to their personal appeal.

A tale of many chief ministers

Having seen seven chief ministers in the last 17 years, the state has no dearth of chief ministerial aspirants. While Harish Rawat is the only one of them to be contesting this time, from Haridwar Rural and Kichha, the children of two other former chief ministers are trying their luck at the hustings – Ritu Khanduri, daughter of B.C. Khanduri, from Yamkeshwar and Saurabh Bahuguna, son of Vijay Bahuguna, from Sitarganj. Both of them are BJP candidates. How these candidates would perform would probably also give an insight into the way this keen contest would end.