Why BJP's Spiritual Plank Could Fall Short for the Char Dham Seats

The BJP did not win the Char Dham seats even in the years when it formed the government in Uttarakhand. Contest has traditionally been determined by candidates.

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New Delhi: While Prime Minister Narendra Modi has repeatedly raised the issue of development of the Char Dham all-weather road under the Bharatiya Janata Party government and the neglect of the region under previous Congress governments during the recent election campaigns in Uttarakhand, his appeals appear to be having limited impact on the ground.

Last week, while addressing a rally at Srinagar in Uttarakhand, which is about 63 km from the Kedarnath shrine, that he often visits, Modi brought up a spiritual issue with a significant emotional tug. “I felt like touching the earth of Devbhumi with my forehead. Baba Kedar called me, so I came here straightaway,” the prime minister said.

However, people in the region are not quite impressed.

PM Modi at Uttarakhand’s Srinagar. Photo: Video screengrab

The area around the four Hindu shrines of Kedarnath, Badrinath, Gangotri and Yamunotri has never been a traditional BJP stronghold, though at times – especially in the years it has been in the government in Uttarakhand – some of its candidates won from here.

‘Election is not about Modi, but local candidates, issues’

Keen election watchers insist the BJP is wrong in its assessment that they can use the Char Dham to garner votes.

“The election is not about Modi. It is about local issues and local candidates and how the sitting legislators have worked for the people in the past,” said Vinod Shukla, general secretary of Kedarnath Purohit Mahasabha, who till last year was spearheading the agitation of the state’s religious leaders against the creation of the Char Dham Devasthanam Board.

The disbanding of the Board by the Pushkar Singh Dhami government late last year ended the agitation. But this does not mean that the priests will vote for the BJP now, Shukla said. “The purohit mahasabha does not urge its members to vote for any particular party and they are all voting as per their own preference,” he added.

Overall, Shukla said, the election scenario in the region has changed with the entry Aam Aadmi Party as the third strong contender. “They have created a presence but they are still new to the area. Those who were angry with the BJP have joined AAP. But overall the Congress has a greater control in this area but it has to deal with the transfer of the BJP vote to AAP.”

Shukla insisted that after Dhami became chief minister in July 2021, the BJP has recovered a bit. “However, the Congress is doing much better. Last time too it was the Congress candidate who had won from here,” he said adding that an independent, Kuldeep Singh Rawat, who came second last time is still a force to reckon with.

The Kedarnath seat comes under Rudraprayag district. In 2017, Manoj Rawat of the Congress had polled 13,906 votes and defeated Rawat by a margin of 869 votes. Shaila Rani Rawat of the BJP finished fourth behind another independent candidate.

Incidentally Shaila was earlier with the Congress and won the election as its candidate in 2012. She, however, left the party along with nine other legislators in 2016 and joined BJP. This time Congress and BJP have repeated their candidates while AAP has fielded Sumant Tiwari.

Supporters attend a public meeting of BJP National President JP Nadda in Uttarakhand. Photo: PTI

All eyes on Gangotri 

One contest which everyone is keenly watching this time is Gangotri. Over the last four elections, people in this constituency have always elected a member from the party which has gone on to form the government.

So in 2002 and 2012, the seat was won by Congress and in 2007 and 2017 by the BJP. In the last elections, Gopal Rawat of BJP had defeated former MLA Vijaypal Singh Sajwan of the Congress by 9,610 votes. This time while the Congress has again given its ticket to Sajwan. BJP has fielded Suresh Singh Chauhan since Rawat passed away last year.

The contest in this seat has become more interesting because of the entry of Aam Aadmi Party’s chief ministerial face, retired Colonel Ajay Kothiyal in the race.

According to secretary of state unit of Communist Party of India, Samar Bhandari, “People in the state who are fed up with both the Congress and BJP are moving towards AAP.” He said AAP is also catching the fancy of the youth, where they feel that they – with their knowledge of new styles of electioneering – can make a difference.

Some recent opinion polls have also shown AAP to be making strong inroads into the Congress and BJP vote bank. While other parties like the Uttarakhand Kranti Dal, the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party have not been able to make much headway in the hill state, AAP has been able to garner support on the basis of its ostensibly clean image. It remains to be seen if this image will be able to secure a victory for Kothiyal.

Also read: Uttarakhand Polls: Concerns of Hill Areas Find No Mention in Parties’ Development Agendas

Like Gangotri, Badrinath has a history of electing legislators from parties which have gone on to form the government. In 2002, Ansuya Prasad Maikhuri of the Congress won the seat and became the Deputy Speaker. Then in 2007, the seat was bagged by Kedar Fonia of BJP. Rajendra Bhandari won it in 2012 and became a minister in the Harish Rawat government.

Then last time, in 2017, Mahendra Bhatt of BJP defeated Rajendra Bhandari by 5634 votes. This time too these leaders are facing off. The only difference is the entry of AAP, which has fielded a young Bhawati Prasad Mandoli to take on the two senior leaders.

A contest between rebels and new faces in Yamunotri

Yamunotri is different from most seats in the nature of contest it is witnessing. After the formation of Uttarakhand, Pritam Singh Panwar of the Uttarakhand Kranti Dal won this seat in 2002. In 2007, the seat was wrested by Kedar Singh of the Congress but in 2012, Pritam Singh won it as an independent during a Congress wave. In 2017, Kedar Singh won as a BJP candidate by defeating Sanjay Dobhal of the Congress by 5,960 votes.

This time the election is interesting because while BJP has again fielded two-time MLA Kedar Singh, Dobhal on leaving the Congress is fighting as an independent. The Congress has fielded Deepak Bijiwan, who recently joined the party. The AAP has given its ticket to Manoj Shah.

As these contests show, the BJP did not win all these Char Dham seats even in the years when it formed the government in Uttarakhand. On most seats, the contest is determined by the candidates and their affiliation, as also the presence of independents and smaller parties.