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New Delhi: As the people of Uttarakhand vote to elect members to the states’s fifth assembly, and with recent opinion polls predicting a close contest between arch rivals Bharatiya Janata Party and Congress, it remains to be seen if the BJP will be able to break the trend of the state not repeating a government. Also, the arrival of the Aam Aadmi Party on the political scene in the hill state has made the larger contest as well as those for individual seats more unpredictable.
Overall, there are 632 candidates in the fray for elections to the 70 seats. Of these, 564 are men and 62 women. There are over 81 lakh registered voters in the state.
In the 2017 assembly elections, the BJP had won 57 seats, while Congress had bagged 11 and independents two. That win, for the BJP, had come at a time when there was perceptible anger against the Congress for its handling of the post-2013 floods compensation and development works, and also in the wake of a major rebellion within the party, which had seen nine of its MLAs leave in 2016 and another two in January 2017.
BJP leaders failed to live up to expectations, two chief ministers changed
However, after forming the government, the BJP failed to live up to the expectations of the people. Several of its decisions were questioned, forcing it to change course over the last year. This is likely to impact its performance in the polls.
The saffron party started off with Trivendra Singh Rawat as chief minister, but allegations of corruption and arrogance forced it to change him for Tirath Singh Rawat at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2021.
However, Tirath’s comments on what women wear and his inept handling of the COVID-19 situation, especially during the Haridwar Kumbh, raised questions. As reports emerged of a major scam in testing for COVID-19 during the religious festival, the party replaced him with Pushkar Singh Dhami in July 2021.
One major challenge for Dhami was to address the anger of the ‘Purohits’ or priests who were up in arms against the creation of the Char Dham Devasthanam Board, which they claimed belittled their role in the running of key shrines and gave enormous powers to bureaucrats, while also benefiting industrialists at their expense. The Board was finally disbanded late last year.
Return to senior leaders, polarisation of polls and anger over farmers bills to benefit Congress
The past year has also seen the Congress cement its position. The party has gained in strength due to the return of former cabinet minister Yashpal Arya and his son Sanjiv, who wield considerable influence in nearly a score of seats with a significant Dalit population. The return of another former cabinet minister, Harak Singh Rawat, last month has also given additional strength to the party.
The way the party has used the services of former chief minister Harish Rawat in galvanising the cadres and also sought to woo the Scheduled Caste voters by giving a message that it may install Arya as a chief minister is likely to get it both Rajput and Dalit votes.
There are two other factors working in favour of the Congress this time. The Sikhs are angry with the BJP due to its handling of the farmers’ agitation. Also, the Muslims – seeing the kind of hatred that was spread during the Dharma Sansad in Haridwar in December – are even more resentful of the saffron party now.
The latest announcement by Dhami of implementing the Uniform Civil Code in Uttarakhand is being viewed as another step in the direction of greater polarisation of state politics.
Rise of AAP a concern for Congress
Since there is a greater realisation that the Congress is once again the party that can defeat the BJP, its prospects have improved. However, what can spoil the calculations for the Congress is the entry of the Aam Aadmi Party. At a time when the BJP was on the back foot, this development has the potential of splitting the votes against it. So numerically the more AAP gains, the more Congress stands to lose – as the 2013 Delhi elections have shown.
The AAP has projected a former soldier, Colonel Ajay Kothiyal (retired), as its chief ministerial candidate to woo the large number of former and serving servicemen and their families in the state. The other major parties in the contest include the Bahujan Samaj Party, which has significant following in the SC seats as also the plains of Garhwal. The Uttarakhand Kranti Dal is also trying to revive itself in the hilly areas.
With AAP going into the polls with its promises of free power, more employment, and better health and education facilities, several other parties also made promises to provide free power. Apart from these, the other issues for people are the rising prices of essential commodities, in particular cooking gas. Unemployment among the youth also remains a major poll issue.
Khatima: Chief minister Pushkar Singh Dhami is contesting from Khatima. He is looking to break the trend of sitting chief ministers losing the polls, as Harish Rawat had lost both from Haridwar (Rural) and Kicchha in 2017 and before that B.C. Khanduri had lost from Kotdwara in 2012. Nityanand Swami too had lost in 2002 and N.D. Tiwari had not contested in 2007. Dhami is taking on Congress state working president Bhuwan Chandra Kapri, whom he had defeated in 2017 by 2,709 votes. The AAP candidate is its former state president S.S. Kaler.
Haridwar: BJP Uttarakhand president Madan Kaushik has been undefeated in this seat. This time he is taking on seer Satpal Brahmachari of the Congress, who had also fought against Kaushik in 2012. The AAP candidate is Sanjay Saini.
Rishikesh: Speaker Premchand Aggarwal, who had won the seat in 2017, by defeating Rajpal Singh Kharola of the Congress by over 14,000 votes, is this time taking on Jayendra Chand Ramola of the Congress from this constituency which is considered the gateway to the Char Dham region. The AAP candidate is Raje Negi.
Srinagar: BJP’s cabinet minister Dhan Singh Rawat is locked in a keen contest in this seat against Congress state president Ganesh Godiyal. The two are traditional rivals from this seat. While Godiyal had won it in 2012, Rawat emerged victorious in 2017.
Narendra Nagar: BJP’s sitting MLA and cabinet minister Subodh Uniyal is taking on Om Gopal Rawat, who recently left the party and joined the Congress. While Rawat had won the seat in 2007 on a BJP ticket, Uniyal had won it in 2012 on a Congress ticket and then in 2017 as a BJP candidate.
Mussoorie: Cabinet minister Ganesh Joshi is contesting from this seat, which had witnessed ugly episodes of harassment of Kashmiri traders during the BJP’s rule. He is taking on Godavari Thapli of the Congress. However, the contest became interesting when Thapli’s cousin, Kalpana Gurang, joined the BJP and started campaigning against her.
Chaubattakhal: Sitting MLA and cabinet minister Satpal Maharaj is once again the BJP candidate from this seat in Pauri Garhwal. This seat has remained with the party since 2012 when Tirath Singh Rawat won it. The Congress candidate this time is Keshar Singh. Incidentally, prominent leader Harak Singh Rawat who recently moved from the BJP to the Congress was eyeing this seat but could not get it.
Haridwar (Rural): Cabinet minister Swami Yatishwaranand is taking on Harish Rawat’s daughter and All India Mahila Congress general secretary Anupama Rawat from here. The election is a tight one on this seat as BSP changed its candidate at the eleventh hour, replacing Darshan Sharma with Yunus Ansari.
Kaladhungi: BJP has again given the ticket to cabinet minister Banshidhar Bhagat from Kaladhungi. In 2017, Bhagat had defeated Prakash Joshi of the Congress by over 20,000 votes. This time the Congress has given its ticket to Mahesh Chandra, while BSP has fielded Sunder Lal Arya and AAP has given its ticket to Manju Tiwari.
Gadarpur: BJP’s sitting MLA and education minister Arvind Pandey is again contesting from Gadarpur. Till now in the history of Uttarakhand, no education minister has won his election. Be it Tirath Singh Rawat in 2002, Narendra Bhandari in 2007, Matbar Singh Kandari in 2012 or Prasad Naithani in 2017, all the education ministers have lost in the past. So Pandey, who has won all his four elections since 2002, will be looking to break that jinx as he takes on Premanand Mahajan of the Congress, who had won the seat in 2002 and 2007. The farmers’ protest against the farm laws is a major issue in this constituency falling in the Terai region.
Tehri: This seat is witnessing a battle between turncoats. While BJP has fielded former Uttarakhand Congress chief Kishore Upadhyay, who joined it in January 2022, the Congress has given its ticket to sitting MLA Dhan Singh Negi hours after he quit the BJP.
Lal Kuan: Former chief minister and Congress leader Harish Rawat was first named from Ramnagar but later given this seat. He is taking on Mohan Singh Bisht of the BJP. The ruling party has changed its candidate. In 2017, its candidate Naveen Chandra Dumka had defeated Harish Chandra Durgapal of the Congress by over 27,000 votes. While AAP has fielded Chandra Sekhar Pandey, the BSP candidate is Prithvipal Singh Rawat.
Chakrata: Leader of Opposition and Congress leader Pritam Singh is taking on Bollywood singer Jubin Nautiyal’s father Ramsharan Nautiyal in this constituency. Singh has won this seat in all four previous elections. An independent, Daulat Kunwar, is also presenting a strong case in these polls.
Bajpur (SC): Congress gave its ticket to former assembly speaker and transport minister in the BJP government, Yashpal Arya, who returned to it along with his son Sanjiv in October 2021. This constituency witnessed strong protests against the three farm laws. Arya had also won from here in 2012. This time he is taking on Rajesh Kumar of BJP and Sunita Tamta Bajwa of AAP. She is the wife of Samyukta Kisan Morcha leader Jagtar Singh Bajwa and was the Congress candidate in 2017.
Nainital (SC): Yashpal Arya’s son Sanjiv will be contesting on the Congress ticket from this seat. Arya had won it on a BJP ticket in 2017. This time his fight is against BJP’s Sarita Arya, who recently left the Congress to join the saffron party. The AAP candidate is Hem Chandra Arya, who had contested the 2017 election as an independent after leaving the BJP. The BSP has fielded Rajkamal Sonkar.
Haldwani: Congress has fielded Sumit Hridayesh, son of its senior Congress leader Indira Hridayesh who passed away in June last year, from this constituency in the foothills of Kumaon. The BJP has fielded Jogender Pal Singh Rautela, while the BSP candidate is Jitendra Singh and AAP has given the ticket to Samit Tikkoo.
Gangotri: AAP has fielded its chief ministerial face Colonel Ajay Kothiyal from this constituency, which covers one of the four shrines constituting the Char Dham. This seat has always elected an MLA from the party which has gone on to form the government. It was bagged by BJP’s Gopal Singh Rawat in 2017. After his demise in 2021, the party has this time given the ticket to Suresh Chauhan, while the Congress has fielded Vijaypal Sajwan, who was also its candidate in the last polls.