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With three chief ministers in five years – in fact, in just four months – and the lacklustre performance of the “double-engine government”, the upcoming Uttarakhand election has become a tough battle for many Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) legislators who are on a wing and a prayer.
The Uttarakhand political crisis has forced the BJP to seriously consider denying tickets to over a dozen sitting MLAs. However, it is yet to be seen how much the change of guard will help the party undo local anti-incumbency in the state.
“Developmental work carried out in the last five years by us is for everyone to see, now all focus is on intelligent ticket distribution to undo the anti-incumbency against the MLAs,” a senior BJP leader said.
Defending the party’s decision to change chief ministers in Uttarakhand, Union minister Rajnath Singh said, “If we had projected one face for the chief ministerial post, then we would not have changed the chief minister here. The party had fought the election and it was an internal matter of the party, but that doesn’t not mean our chief ministers were not good. A big party has to think about many things…”
Singh’s remark appeared to be a reply to the Congress’s “double engine” barb.
The BJP is yet to announce the list of candidates for Uttarakhand polls, but chances are non-performing MLAs would not be given tickets in this election.
To understand the BJP’s campaign pitch for the 2022 election battle and how uneasy the party is at present, one needs to revisit Rajnath Singh’s January 6 public rally at Uttarkashi. Singh’s remarks there hold great significance as they came before the imposition of the model code of conduct.
While the BJP is riding high on promising a “double government” – one in Dehradun and the other in New Delhi – it is important to note that the saffron party had stormed into power in 2017 with the same mantra, but in five years the party gave three chief ministers – Trivendra Singh Rawat, Tirath Singh Rawat and Pushkar Singh Dhami.
BJP has problems galore in 2022
The confidence exuded by the BJP in its poll slogan “Abki Baar 60 Paar (this time more than 60 seats)” is in contrast to the grassroots-level problems the party is facing in Uttarakhand.
Before going further let’s take a look at the massive mandate the BJP earned in 2017. The saffron party had 46.51% vote share while the Congress got 33.49% votes. Other political parties including the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) had a significantly less vote share. Five years down the line, the 2022 poll battle is no cake walk for the BJP in the hill state. And what makes it tough is the growing perception among voters that the “double engine” could not take off in the hills. Added to that, the issues of price rise, unemployment and frequently changing chief ministers unwittingly mocked the 2017 landslide mandate.
Speaking with The Wire, another senior BJP leader conceded that the party is considering taking the tickets of over a dozen sitting MLAs in the state. But, will it help in wooing voters during the election? “Yes, it does change the perception among voters and help in regaining their confidence. By changing the chief ministers we have changed the perception and this would help in the election,” said the senior BJP leader from his Dehradun house.
How much the strategy of changing the candidate would boost the poll prospect for the BJP still remains to be seen. On January 12, the BJP held a unique press conference in Dehradun that had all the three chief ministers – Trivendra Singh Rawat, Tirath Singh Rawat and Pushkar Singh Dhami – and former union minister Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank. The “unity show” was aimed to set the narrative that “all is well” in the saffron camp and that all the chief ministers worked hard for the people of Uttarakhand, but the devil is always in the detail.
A close look at the work of the two chief ministers – Tirath Singh Rawat and Dhami – clearly shows that they undid many of the decisions taken by Trivendra Singh Rawat. And this has clearly given the Congress an opportunity to attack the BJP. “If the first two chief ministers had performed so well, then why were they sacked? Uttarakhand voters will give a fitting reply to the BJP in the coming election,” said Sujata Paul Malihah, a Congress spokesperson in Dehradun.
Dehradun-based political analyst and journalist Pawan Lalchand agrees that BJP’s popularity is going down in the current scenario, but he doesn’t agree that the election is going to be a cake walk for the Congress either. “In 2017, MLAs knew Modi’s rally would win them elections, and in 2022 as well, they think Modi’s rally would win them elections. So, this explains both the BJP’s position and strategy. The Congress does have a chance to emerge as a big party but its internal factions and groupism might spoil the game for them in 2022,” he said.
The road ahead for the Congress
The Congress in Uttarakhand, much like in any other states, is ridden with factions and dissident groups. In the hill state, two camps –Harish Rawat and Pritam Singh – are perennially at war with each other. The Congress high command in New Delhi has sorted out some differences by making Rawat the election head but that has not ended the differences at the state level. Senior Congress leader Ranjit Rawat, who had once been the most trusted lieutenant, is in Chakrata MLA Pritam Singh’s camp who aspires to be the chief minister.
Political analyst Udit Ghildyal said, “The main aim of the Congress should be to tap the anger of voters, effectively in order to take advantage of the anti-incumbency factor, but for that, it first needs to have internal unity.”
He added that the Congress party would have to craft the poll campaign to get farmers’ votes in the Udham Singh district. “The Congress will have to work hard in every seat to get back lower- and the middle-class votes and the cluster of Dalit and Muslim votes in Uttarakhand to improve its tally in the plains,” he said.
The Congress’s list of candidates is likely to be released shortly and the party is likely to have a majority of those names it had fielded in 2017.
The Aam Aadmi Party in Uttarakhand
For the first time, Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) chief and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal made all the right moves by announcing Colonel (retired) Ajay Kothiyal as the chief ministerial face ahead of the 2022 elections. But, to a question whether AAP has made deep inroads into the hill state, the answer is a clear ‘no’.
In social media campaigning, AAP looks to be a dominant player in the 2022 election battle but at the ground level, the party is facing challenges.
AAP’s organisational reach, cadre and a political talent pool for 70 assembly constituencies are the challenges the party appears to be facing in this poll battle. Bhaskar Das, a social activist, said, “Every political party needs an organisation structure, cadre, and prominent faces in each constituency. Just having a chief ministerial face doesn’t cut much ice in Uttarakhand elections. The election guarantees given by AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal are a good poll gimmick but these won’t have much impact at the micro level. I would not be surprised that the AAP candidate emerges as a vote cutter in the constituency and the main contest would be between BJP and Congress.”
What lowered AAP’s political significance, he said, is the general perception that it would be the last refuge for all the rebels of Congress and BJP leaders who were denied tickets ahead of elections. “No wonder the AAP has not yet announced its list of candidates for the 70 assembly seats. They are waiting for other parties to announce tickets and then woo those who could not get tickets,” he said.
How much the party is in disarray can be understood from the fact that its prominent leaders like Ravinder Jugran have quit and joined the BJP, making it clear that in the 2022 battle, AAP would not be able to have much impact in Uttarakhand and might have to wait for another five years to emerge as a challenger.