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Why Congress Lost Bageshwar By-Election Again

Rashme Sehgal |
Failure to mobilise supporters despite BJP’s obvious failings is a warning for the Congress party in the run-up to the 2024 Lok Sabha election.
Counting of votes underway for the Bageshwar bypoll, in Bageshwar, Friday. (PTI Photo) (PTI)

Counting of votes underway for the Bageshwar bypoll, in Bageshwar, Friday. Image Courtesy: PTI

On August 25, Bobby Panwar, president of the Uttarakhand Berozgar Sangh and 10 of his colleagues were about to enter the Bagnath temple when the Bageshwar district administration ordered their arrest for violating the Model Code of Conduct and Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code. It was barely one week before the Bageshwar Assembly by-election in Uttarakhand, and the District Magistrate and election officer Anuradha Pal had announced the enforcement of Section 144 “in preparation” for the election a couple of weeks earlier.

Panwar heads the Uttarakhand Berozgar Sangh, which has a considerable membership given the eight lakh youth officially registered as job-seekers at the Uttarakhand Employment Office, though the numbers of unemployed are said to be much higher.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leadership was worried that these young men should not start campaigning in large numbers in favour of the Congress, considering the steadily rising unemployment rate in this hill state during the last decade.

Panwar complained against his arrest to the Chief Electoral Officer of Uttarakhand, Dr V Shanmugan, and was granted unconditional bail on the same day.

Panwar’s arrest catalysed public opinion against the ruling BJP dispensation and was a shot in the arm for the Congress party’s campaign.

But his arrest was just one example of the allegedly intimidatory tactics employed by Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami’s government in the run-up to this by-poll.

CPI(ML) leader Indresh Maikhuri claimed he was not allowed to hold a press conference in Bageshwar on September 1. The Bageshwar District Magistrate Anuradha Pal reportedly informed Maikhuri he had been disallowed because his party had not fielded any candidates in the election.

We complained to the Chief Electoral Officer, who permitted us to hold a press meet. He ordered the Kumoan Commissioner to start an enquiry into this incident, whose results are awaited,” says Maikhuri.

Maikhuri’s permission came with several caveats. He says, “I was told I would have to limit the discussion to just five points, all favouring the state government.”

District Magistrate Pal asked me to give in writing the details I would discuss during the press meet. I did as asked but, obviously, did not stick to that agenda. All I can say is that the district machinery worked as though they were part of the BJP cadre,” says Maikhuri, who reminded her that she had taken an oath to the Constitution of India and not any particular party.

The state machinery employed every tactic possible to intimidate Congress sympathisers who were not even allowed to place Congress flags on their houses.

Ramesh Krishak, who edits a magazine called “Voice of Himalayas” from Bageshwar, points out how video journalists from neighbouring towns were not allowed to visit the town during the run-up to the elections.

A journalist from a neighbouring city who runs a portal promoting unbiased reporting was refused entry because he was a Congress sympathiser,” says Krishak. “A bar run by a local Congress supporter was raided, and several Congress sympathisers were warned that if they went out to vote, their homes would be demolished. The public in our city was scared,” Krishak added.

A peanut seller who allegedly forwarded an SMS supporting the Congress party was asked to pay a fine of Rs 20,000.

These fear tactics worked on the ground. The Congress vote came down by six per cent in the present by polls compared with the 2021 state election. By contrast, the BJP vote share has climbed from 32,000 votes polled in 2021 to a little over 33,000 votes polled in 2023.

If all the Congress sympathisers had voted in larger numbers, they had a good chance of winning these elections. Sadly, the Congress party machinery should have worked harder on the ground and ensured their voters came out to vote,” Krishak added.

The reason for the 1.2 lakh registered voters in Bageshwar to feel intimidated is understandable. Chief Minister Dhami, his cabinet colleagues and the BJP state president Mahendra Bhatt were camped in this constituency for over a fortnight, holding several road shows and public meetings.

The by-poll was necessitated following the death of the BJP leader Chandan Ram Das in April. The BJP’s ticket was given to his wife, Parvati Das, to gain the sympathy vote, especially of women voters.

Women voters did not vote for her in large numbers. The reason was that Bageshwar is adjacent to the Chamoli district, which has witnessed large-scale landslides and subsidence. The people here are scared that if the present developmental model being pursued by the state government is not reversed, they, too, will face the same fate.

But the Congress party made many tactical errors, too, says a senior Dehradun-based Congress leader on condition of anonymity. “We took too long to select a candidate and finally ended up choosing a former Aam Aadmi Party leader Basant Kumar. Our own local leader, Ranjit Das, who was popular among the public, moved to the BJP last month.

Since the 2013 Kedarnath disaster, Congress leader Harish Rawat has been extremely unpopular in Bageshwar. Rawat is from Garhwal and is disliked by the people of Kumaon. When he held a party meeting two days before the voting, several Congress voters decided to vote in favour of the BJP leader.”

Outwardly, the Congress leadership expresses optimism over the result. Surya Kant Dhasmana, vice president of the Congress party, says, “Our vote share has increased from 26.8% to 45%. The Congress has every reason to be confident in the coming days.”

Asked why the Congress alleged intimidatory tactics against the BJP, Dhasmana says, “We gave three written complaints to Shanmugan. The first two were not taken cognisance of. Only when we complained the third time over did we receive a response.”

Congress spokesperson Sujata Paul says, “The Congress needs to prepare a second line of leaders, but these must be people who have their feet firmly on the ground and a connect with the public. Only then will they gain the confidence of the public and win the upcoming Lok Sabha elections.”

This is the fifth time in a row that the BJP has bagged the Bageshwar seat. While Dhami claims this victory is a reassertion of the people’s faith in his policies and programs at the state and Centre, the public may feel otherwise.

Editor and intellectual SMA Kazmi says, “The anti-Muslim rhetoric which has been the stamp of the Dhami government had little role in galvanising votes simply because Bageshwar, like most of Kumaon, has a negligible Muslim population. If the Congress machinery had instilled more confidence in their voters and ensured the public could have come out to vote, the situation would have been very different.”

While Parwati Das was fielded to carry out the unfinished agenda of her husband, Rajni Rawat, a teacher in a private school in Bageshwar, feels, “The first thing any elected government should attend to is to control growing inflation and price rise. I earn Rs 5,000 per month. From this income, I support my aged parents. How am I supposed to make ends meet? Cases of violence and rape in our society are also on the rise. These need to be checked,” she says.

The author is an independent journalist. The views are personal.

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