The din of political campaigning is getting louder every day in Uttarakhand as the state heads for polls within three months. While the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is making noises over nationalism, the Congress party is confronting its rival over inflation (particularly in petrol, diesel and prices of essential goods), unemployment, and the state’s crumbling health system. Recent events in the country will also affect politically vibrant Uttarakhand. There are indications that the state, which has a history of a change of guard every five years, will throw a surprise.
Political pundits believe, barring Udham Singh Nagar and parts of Haridwar, the farmer agitation will not impact voting behaviour in Uttarakhand much. The farm agitation saw the large-scale participation of two communities; the Jats of Haridwar and the Sikhs of Udham Singh Nagar. Farmers of the upper reaches have primarily small pieces of land; they are not well off and socially marginalised. Their kin either work in the military or have moved out of state for employment. There is also an exodus from farming. That is why the movement will significantly impact the election in the nine Assembly segments of these districts. The BJP and its supporters had called the protesting farmers Khalistanis, Naxalites and labelled their movement as anti-national. Yet the agitation was why Yashpal Arya, the BJP minister holding the transport portfolio, who represented the Bazpur Assembly seat, switched to the Congress with his son Sanjeev Arya, who represents the Nainital Assembly constituency. Both are popular leaders, and Dhami tried hard to convince them not to leave.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has visited Uttarakhand twice in the past month to help the party retain power after a tumultuous four-year rule. He went to the AlIMS at Rishikesh to inaugurate oxygen plants on 4 October and Kedarnath on 5 November. The BJP has lined up visits of high-profile central leaders to the election-bound state. In the last one and half months, top leaders such as Union Home Minister Amit Shah and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh have visited Uttarakhand for public meetings or launch projects. Former Congress president Rahul Gandhi has also begun his party’s Uttarakhand election campaign with a ‘Vijay Samman’ rally in Dehradun. These rallies are heating up the political atmosphere across the state.
AAP Factor and Anti Incumbency
This time, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is in the fray. It is looking to make inroads into the hill state. Party convenor and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has visited Uttarakhand six times recently. The party has promised to take significant steps to end out-migration from the state and assured an unemployment allowance. AAP started campaigning on a good note, and there was an overwhelming response in a few areas of the state, while party workers were enthusiastic until September. Kejriwal also offered free pilgrimages and incentives of around Rs. 1,000 to every adult woman if voted to power. However, there is infighting in the state party unit.
The AAP central leadership is said to be calling the shots from Delhi, demotivating state-based leaders. It has lowered expectations that AAP would make a satisfactory political debut in Uttarakhand. Heavy anti-incumbency against the BJP has made political strategists feel that AAP’s rise will help BJP’s cause in the coming elections. It will help the BJP by dividing the anti-establishment and minority votes to stall Congress’ gains. Political experts believe AAP will not significantly dent the politics of the hill state since it has no grass-root strength or presence. Some say AAP will only spoil the Congress party’s game and benefit the BJP.
Hill Disappointment over Migration
In hilly areas, people feel the BJP did not fulfil the promises made during the previous election campaign. Migration is a serious economic and demographic issue in Uttarakhand. Unemployment is widespread, and there are hardly any vacancies in any sector for government jobs. The state ranks ninth in terms of unemployment, a survey by the Center for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) revealed. NSSO jobs data for 2020 also shows that nearly one-third of the state’s urban youth are unemployed, which is the trigger for migration, including of trained workers. The government has miserably failed to contain and concentrate its workforce, leading to this crisis. Around 8% of the workers have moved to the plains from the hilly areas, marking a significant shift.
The healthcare system of Uttarakhand is in a terrible state. Doctors are unwilling to serve people in hilly and rural areas, so most posts for super-specialist doctors have been vacant in almost every hospital in the hills for a long time. According to a NITI Aayog Report, in 2019, Uttarakhand was at the bottom of the state-wise Health Index report. The healthcare system has crumbled further over the last five years of the BJP regime. The state health budget was Rs. 188 crores in 2018-19 but was cut to just Rs. 97 crores in 2019-20. Mismanagement during the Covid-19 pandemic has also impacted how people perceive the absence of health infrastructure. They also understand that Uttarakhand was not an exception and that BJP-ruled states mismanaged the second wave.
Caste plays a vital role in shaping and changing the political landscape across India, and Uttarakhand is not an exception. Upper-class dominated Uttarakhand has two major castes: the Brahmins and the Thakurs or Rajputs. Approximately 40% of the population is Thakur, followed by 25% Brahmins, 19% Dalits, 14% Muslims and 3% Sikhs. Initially, the Dalits were a Congress vote bank, but in 2017 the BJP promised concentrated steps for Dalit welfare if it gets voted to power. However, the BJP has failed to meet even their basic demands and aspirations. The axe of oppression always falls on Dalit communities in India, who face discrimination in education and routinely lack access to resources. After getting the cold shoulder from the BJP, Congress motivated the influential Dalit leader with a following in Kumaon, Yashpal Arya, to join it. He can help the party build its image among the Dalit communities. However, so far, he has shown little progress in his campaign.
BJP and Politics of Failure
Initially, the massive anti-incumbency against the ruling party was in hilly regions, where migration and deteriorating healthcare were key concerns of the people. Now the situation has turned hostile for the BJP even in the plains. It had to change chief ministers thrice in four years, with Pushkar Singh Dhami now holding the chair after ousting both Rawats. The party high command in Delhi appears to have weakened the local units, leading to this condition. Surveys (mostly conducted in Noida) that call the electoral road smooth for the BJP in the hilly regions of Uttarakhand have not heard what the mountains are echoing back to the ruling party.
Political Infighting in Congress
Political infighting and factionalism in the Uttarakhand Congress will undoubtedly impact campaigning just ahead of the Assembly election. Former chief minister Harish Rawat has been trying to broaden the Congress base and fix the fissures at the grass-roots. He has come to be considered the preferred candidate for the top post. Analysts believe Rawat has a rock-solid mass base and universal acceptability from Garhwal to Kumaon. He has toured the state extensively in the last two years, perhaps to establish himself as the “only leader” with a mass appeal.
Still, the Thakur leader publicly declared his reluctance to contest the Assembly election at a rally, saying he would prefer a Dalit in the chief minister’s chair. Political analysts feel the Congress high command may wish to field a more youthful leader in Uttarakhand, though Rawat is its best bet under the circumstances. Besides, they say, the former chief minister is not known to reveal his cards easily and, therefore, it is premature to conclude that Rawat is out of the top ministerial race. For example, Rawat has thrown himself into the social life of the state, participating in the customs and traditions of varied ethnic and cultural groups, making his presence felt.
A Fingers-Crossed Race
The BJP won a thumping mandate with 57 seats in the last Assembly election in 2017, while the Congress party got restricted to merely 11 seats. Despite its brute majority, it had to change its leadership frequently. Nobody can predict if it will retain power in the Himalayan state that has never given any party two consecutive terms. Many people would bet that the Congress will pull a surprise and come to power. That said, only the actual polls will determine the fate of both parties, which makes this coming election an exciting contest.
The author is the national spokesperson of the J&K Students Association and a commentator on political developments in Uttarakhand. The views are personal.