The sky is overcast and, on a hill packed with houses in Uttarakhand’s Pauri town, the Congress flag hangs on a tree in front of senior BJP leader and former Uttarakhand Chief Minister Major General (retd.) BC Khanduri’s ancestral house which falls under the Pauri Garhwal Lok Sabha constituency, from which he is a sitting BJP MP.
The former caretaker of the house, Ram Singh, who now is in charge of handing over the house keys to family members during their infrequent visits to the town says, “I have been seeing a BJP flag hanging in front of the house since the 1990s. I don’t know who replaced the BJP flag with the Congress’. Would’ve been the Congress workers in the (Pauri) town.”
The flag was replaced after Khanduri’s son Manish Khanduri (50) joined the Congress on March 16 during a Rahul Gandhi’s rally in the state, and then fielded from Pauri Garhwal. His opponent is Khanduri senior’s protégé, BJP national secretary Tirath Singh Rawat.
Tirath Singh was president of the BJP’s Uttarakhand unit between 2013-2015. While this is the first Lok Sabha election contest for the two, Manish has no prior first-hand experience of politics, while Tirath Singh has been MLA from 2012-2017 in the state Assembly from Chaubattakhal seat which falls under the Pauri Garhwal constituency.
BC Khanduri had first won the Lok Sabha polls form the seat in 1991, after which he won Lok Sabha polls four more times from the constituency– in 1998, 1999, 2004, and 2014. Twice – in 1996 and 2009 – the seat was won by former Congress leader Satpal Maharaj. However, Maharaj is now a BJP minister in the Uttarakhand government. And Harak Singh Rawat who lost the 2014 Lok Sabha polls to Khanduri senior from the seat by 1,84,526 votes, is also i the BJP fold.
The odds are evidently stacked against Manish, most of whose rallies across the constituency are weaved around having seen his father cry only twice in his life – one when his sister Ritu Khanduri Bhushan got married, and the second time when his father was removed by the BJP from the post of Chairman of Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence.
Between September 2014-August 2018, BC Khanduri was the Chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence. He was removed from the post after he delivered reports that were critical of the country’s defence preparedness, and pointed out that most of the equipment with the armed forces was of the vintage category. With little time left for campaigning, Manish is banking on the Congress vote bank, and his father’s reputation in the seat, for votes.
Tirath Singh, however, cites works done under the Modi government like Kedarnath reconstruction, the all-weather Char Dham roads project, and BC Khanduri’s “ashirvad (blessings)” to “emerge victorious” in the upcoming polls.
Nationalism high on agenda for BJP
The BJP which has been focussing on issues of nationalism and Hinduism in its campaign are jointly at play in Pauri Garhwal – a quintessential BJP seat – which has a large population serving in the armed forces and encompasses the shrines of Badrinath and Kedarnath. Also, Uttarakhand Chief Minister Trivendra Rawat, UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, Army chief General Bipin Rawat, National Security Advisor Ajit Doval are all from Pauri district.
Two of the 40 CRPF personnel who died in the Kashmir terror attack on February 14 were from Uttarakhand. Later that month two Army officers from Dehradun were killed in Kashmir. While the BJP has been raking up the issue of nationalism and national security across the country, it has had a significant impact in Pauri where a large population comprises ex-servicemen and people currently serving in the armed forces and paramilitary forces.
Rohit Thapliyal, a college student in Pauri, says, “It boils my blood when I see my people being killed while protecting the country. The BJP has been giving apt responses to Pakistan… The (Balakot) airstrikes are an example… I believe in the party for making us feel strong and proud as Indians.”
PM Modi’s influence evident
In Rudraprayag, about 60-km from Pauri town, a bunch of youngsters sit and watch social media posts related to the ongoing election campaigns. “Checking social media posts has become a favourite pastime for us,” they say. One of the posts they’re reading is on Facebook by one Mohit Dimri, a Rudraprayag native, whose post from April 6 reads: “Modi-Shah hatao, desh bachao (Remove Modi-Shah and save the country)”. The post is flooded with comments from other Rudraprayag natives citing nationalism, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s leadership, Congress being Pakistan supporter, and people writing that their vote is for Modi, summing up the mood of the constituency
Away from the influence of social media, in Khudila village, about 100-km from Pauri, which falls under the Yamkeshwar state Assembly seat, from where Khanduri senior’s daughter Ritu is a BJP MLA in the Uttarakhand Assembly, Virender Singh, a postman, uses a basic phone through which he cannot access the internet.
Virender says, “I don’t know about the BJP candidate, but I know Modi. I see his speeches on the television. (BC) Khanduri ji is a big name here. I have seen him. I have also seen his daughter (Ritu), but I haven’t yet seen Manish Khanduri. I don’t have any idea about the kind of leader he is, so how can I vote for him?”