Rebellion Within Ranks Hits Congress Hard in Uttarakhand as BJP Sweeps the State

With no chief minister candidate announced before the election, it now remains to be seen who will lead the BJP government in Uttarakhand.

BJP workers celebrating outside the party office in New Delhi. Credit: Shome Basu

BJP workers celebrating outside the party office in New Delhi. Credit: Shome Basu

New Delhi: The people of Uttarakhand appear to have voted decisively in the assembly election, handing over the keys of the state to the BJP. The BJP went to the polls without a chief ministerial candidate, in the hope that playing the Narendra Modi card would get it the desired result. Of the 70 seats in the state assembly, the party looks likely to win 58. The ruling Congress, which used the performance of incumbent chief minister Harish Rawat as its main plank, could manage to win just ten seats, with Rawat himself losing in both the seats he contested.

Rebellion and anti-incumbency

Two seats were won by independents, even as both the BSP and the Uttarakhand Kranti Dal – which has had representatives in the assembly since the state’s formation in 2000 – failing to win a single seat.

While the BJP and Congress had both suffered losses due to infighting and rebellion, the Congress has been harder hit.

For the Congress, which had placed its trust in Rawat, anti-incumbency appears to been its undoing. In its short history, Uttarakhand has never repeated a government.

The 2013 floods also appear to have dented the Congress’s prospects. With the government stumbling with aid distribution and relief work, and the allegations of corruption that plagued the government led by Vijay Bahuguna (who was replaced by Rawat and switched over to the BJP) appear to have hurt the Congress.

While in Kedarnath, which suffered the brunt of flood damage, Congress candidate Manoj Rawat won, this was an exception, primarily because the BJP had fielded former Congress MLA Shaila Rani Rawat, who had moved over to the BJP along with Bahuguna. The denial of a ticket made former BJP MLA Asha Nautiyal turn rebel. Backed by the RSS, she managed a significant number of votes. Had there been no split in the BJP votes, the outcome would probably have been different.

Rebellion within the party ranks has been a regular feature of the 2017 Uttarakhand elections. As the BJP had fielded 15 Congress turncoats, a large number of its former candidates and MLAs turned hostile. Though it managed to appease some of them, like Vijaya Barthwal in Yamkeshwar from were former chief minister B.C. Khanduri’s daughter Ritu Khanduri was given a ticket by the BJP. Ritu won the seat by a comfortable margin.

Apart from her, two other star children also won on BJP tickets. One was Saurabh Bahuguna who contested from Sitarganj and defeated his Congress rival Malti Biswas by a big margin. The other was Sanjeev Arya, son of former Congress minister Yashpal Arya, who along with his father had switched over to the BJP only recently, winning from Nainital. He dislodged two-time Congress MLA Sarita Arya.

While rebellion within the BJP should have bolstered the Congress’s chances in the state, infighting within the party negated that advantage. Rawat is partly to blame for this. A case in point is Sahaspur in Dehradun district, from where the Congress fielded its state president Kishore Upadhyay, bringing him into a direct fight with another Brahmin, Aryendra Sharma, who was the party’s candidate in the 2012 elections. There was a split in Congress votes as Sharma stood as an independent and bagged over 22,000 votes. Due to this, BJP candidate Sahdev Singh Pundir won by a huge margin.

Similarly, in Tehri, BJP’s Dhan Singh Negi won as the Congress vote got divided between Dinesh Dhanai, who was a minister in the Rawat government but contested as an independent, and the official Congress candidate, Narendra Chand Ramola. In fact, following the elections, Dhanai had complained that the Congress state president had worked to ensure the BJP candidate’s win in the constituency.

Who will be chief minister?

The biggest upset for the BJP was the loss state president Ajay Bhatt suffered in Ranikhet at the hands of his traditional rival, Karan Mahara of the Congress. The loss appears to have put paid to Bhatt’s hopes of becoming the state chief minister.

Following the elections on February 15, BJP president Amit Shah had sought a report from the state unit on the performance and role played by  various senior leaders, namely former chief ministers B.C. Khanduri and Bhagat Singh Koshiyari, Bhatt, national secretary Trivendra Singh Rawat, and national executive member and former union minister Satpal Maharaj, who contested and won from Chaubattakhal.

It is widely believed that the next chief minister will be one of these leaders. But another name which is doing the rounds is that of Anil Baluni, one of the young faces of the BJP in the state. A journalist-turned-politician, Baluni climbed the political ladder holding the hand of RSS leader Sundar Singh Bhandari. Baluni later got close to Modi and Shah, and is seen as a serious contender for the chief minister’s post.