On May 22, six days before by-elections to Tharali Assembly constituency in Uttarakhand, Maan Singh Khatri walked 20 km from his village, Gandi, to reach the nearest motorable road. From there, he travelled another 12.5 km to reach Parkhal village, where Chief Minister Trivendra Rawat was addressing an election rally.
“I went there to meet the BJP (state) ministers, and to tell them about the need for the road that we need for our village,” Khatri said.
With 200-300 villagers in audience, Rawat said, “This region needs development. More roads needs to be built here. A vote for the BJP will be a vote for development.”
Prakash Sati (23), from Angtoli village, 3 km from Parkhal, who had also gone to hear the chief minister, said, “Water is a big problem in our village. Our taps are mostly dry. And once power goes, it doesn’t return for days.”
At the rally, Rawat did not speak on either water or electricity. Ghes village, in the same constituency in Garhwal hills, is yet to get electricity connection.
The village has a population of about 1,500, and most households have shifted from kerosene lamps to solar-powered lamps. While Deepak Kumar (23), a farmer, said he cannot afford a solar lamp, Kaushalya Devi (70) showed her “solar light”, which barely illuminates a part of the small room. “The solar light works for only two or three hours, so I use it sparingly —- only when necessary,” she said, and then shot back: “Will there be electricity in the village before I die?”
Tharali, a reserved (SC) seat, was left vacant after its BJP MLA, Magan Lal Shah, died in February this year.
Like Ghes, many villages in the constituency await electricity; many others wait for roads, water supply, schools, healthcare facilities, and employment. One of the most backward constituencies in Uttarakhand, development is what the voters demand in Tharali.
While an Independent candidate, one from Uttarakhand Kranti Dal, and another from the CPI(M) are also in the fray, the contest is mainly seen as between BJP’s Munni Devi Shah (50), wife of the deceased MLA, and Congress’s Jeet Ram (57), a former MLA from Tharali. Ram had won against Magan Lal by 673 votes in 2012. Last year, Magan Lal trounced him by 4,858 votes.
Tharali has 1,02,596 voters, about 20 per cent of them ex-servicemen. Many of these retired soldiers claim to be “traditional BJP voters”.
Ghes resident Kesar Singh Bisht (67), who retired from the Army in 1997, said, “Whatever development has taken place in our village, I attribute it to BJP. A road has been built, electricity will also arrive soon.”
But Prakash Sati from Angtoli village said that although he had voted for the BJP last year, this time he wants to vote for “an educated person like Jeet Ram”. While BJP’s Munni Devi is barely literate, Ram is a professor of forestry and environmental science in Nainital-based Kumaon University, he pointed out.
Manoj Rawat, the Congress MLA from Kedarnath who has been campaigning for Ram, said, “Sensible voters will vote for an educated candidate like ours.”
Munni Devi countered: “By calling me illiterate, the Congress is showing that it disrespects women…whoever needs development will vote for BJP.”
About 20 per cent voters in Tharali are Dalits, and the division of these votes between the five contesting candidates is worrying the Congress. “Being a reserved seat, Dalit votes here will get divided, and the Congress might get less than 50 per cent (of it),” Congress candidate Ram said.
Ram said her is depending on the “development work” he did for the constituency between 2012 and 2017 as the local MLA. “I sanctioned road projects, built schools, polytechnic, and did flood protection works in the region.”