Dehradun: Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) recently introduced Col. Ajay Kothiyal (retd), as its Chief Ministerial candidate for the upcoming Uttarakhand state Assembly polls scheduled to be held early next year. Delhi Chief Minister and National Convener of AAP, Arvind Kejriwal, made this announcement during his second visit to the state on Tuesday, August 17. The announcement has set the alarm bells ringing for ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and main opposition Congress in the state.
Although both the national parties are dismissive of the entry of AAP in Uttarakhand state Assembly elections for the first time in 2022, the cool and calculative political manoeuvres by Arvind Kejriwal indicate that his party could affect the votes for both the major parties.
The announcement of Col. Ajay Kothiyal (retd), a decorated soldier and reputed mountaineer as party’s Chief Ministerial candidate for Assembly elections would give the party a foothold in the Garhwal hills, which has otherwise rejected regional and other smaller parties. A novice in politics, Col. Ajay Kothiyal (retd), has an iconic standing amongst youth of the hills, where he runs a youth organisation, voluntarily training youth from the hills to get into army and defence services free of cost. Over the years, his efforts have led to thousands of youth from the region getting into the army and other defence and paramilitary forces.
Moreover, his work to rebuild the Kedarnath area after the devastating 2013 June deluge has been appreciated across the state and the country. Under very trying circumstances, Col. Ajay Kothiyal (retd) who was then the Principal of the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering (NIM), Uttarkashi, was given the task of rebuilding Kedarnath, which he performed with professionalism. Earlier, as an officer of the Garhwal Regiment, he had fought militancy in J&K, surviving two bullets from an encounter with terrorists that still remain embedded in his body.
AAP workers distributing Free Electricity Card to people in a colony in Dehradun.
By choosing Col. Ajay Kothiyal (retd) as the face of the party for 2022 Assembly polls, Arvind Kejriwal has also tried to appease the servicemen and ex-servicemen and other personnel of the para military forces and their families who form a large chunk of population in the state. Nearly every household in Uttarakhand has a near or dear one serving in the defence forces. Col. Ajay Kothiyal (retd), a Brahmin by caste, also has an appeal amongst the Brahmins who constitute nearly 20% of the population in the state.
Another announcement made by Arvind Kejriwal on Tuesday also panders to the majority Hindu population of the state. He announced that that Uttarakhand would be developed as ‘spiritual capital’, since most of the Hindu religious shrines, including “Char Dham’ temples of Kedarnath, Badrinath, Yamunotri and Gangotri, and Jageshwar dham are located in the state. He said that Uttarakhand would be the “Hindu capital” of the country. Uttarakhand is an upper caste Hindu majority dominated state, with a large population of Thakurs and Brahmins, in Garhwal as well as Kumaon hills.
The free electricity card with photos of Arvind Kejriwal and Col. Ajay Kothiyal (retd) being distributed in Uttarakhand.
Earlier, Arvind Kejriwal by his announcements and promises had made quite a stir in the state politics. His announcement to provide 300 units of free electricity to every household in the state and exemption of pending bills, during his last visit in July this year, had made an impact. The leaders of both BJP and Congress criticised him for introducing a culture of freebees, but were also forced to follow him. Former Chief Minister and Congress General Secretary and Chairman of the Uttarakhand Congress campaign committee, Harish Rawat, was forced to announce that his party would also give 200 units of electricity free. The ruling BJP has been caught in a bind following announcement by state Power Minister Harak Singh Rawat to provide 200 unit free power to each household. The BJP or Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami has not backed the move.
On the other hand, the AAP workers have been holding camps throughout the state to register people for the “Kejriwal Muft Bijli Guarantee card”. The party workers are providing guarantee cards to the people registered with them for providing 300 unit free electricity if the party comes to power. “We have already registered more than two lakh people under the scheme,” claimed Vishal Chaudhary, state Vice-president of the party. There have even been physical brawls between the workers of AAP and BJP in Haridwar district during such camps. The AAP party workers are visiting each and every household, particularly in colonies where people from the poorer sections of the society live, to register its presence.
“More than 10,000 party workers will visit households in each and every Assembly constituency of the state,” claimed Razia Baig, a state Vice-president of the state unit.
But still, the party lacks the organisational and material resources to take on the national parties. “The party is in a nascent stage and it would be seen how it builds itself in the run up to the elections,” commented Jai Singh Rawat, a senior journalist from the state.
The move by Arvind Kejriwal to honour eminent environmentalist Sunder Lal Bahuguna by having his photograph in Delhi Assembly and demanding ‘Bharat Ratna’ award for him, had both the Congress and the BJP following him. Soon after the event, the leaders of main opposition Congress also started seeking ‘Bharat Ratna’ for Bahuguna while the BJP state government named the state environment award in his name.
AAP has a large following amongst people of Uttarakhand living in Delhi, and the party has plans to encash that goodwill in their home state.
Interestingly, both the ruling BJP and main opposition Congress have termed the AAP’s efforts as gimmicks to attract people. “AAP had fought the 2014 Lok Sabha elections in the state but were trounced. These efforts will not help them as people are aware in the state about the ground realities. The people of the state prefer national parties and they have even abandoned their very own Uttarakhand Kranti Dal (UKD),” said Suryakant Dhasmana, Vice-president of Uttarakhand Congress.
Uttarakhand BJP state President Madan Kaushik, who hails from Haridwar, and whose workers clashed with AAP workers recently, dismissed AAP as being of little consequence in state politics.
There are speculations that some leaders from both BJP and Congress who fail to get party nominations from their respective parties may switch sides and try to hitch on the bandwagon of AAP.
However, it remains to be seen whether AAP appeals to the people of the hill state or remains a spoilsport for both BJP and Congress in closely fought assembly elections.
The writer is a Dehradun based freelance journalist having experience of over three decades working with 'The Indian Express' and 'The Tribune' at Chandigarh, Amritsar, Meerut, J&K, Haryana and Uttarakhand.