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Uttarakhand: A history of political instability and alternate governments

The electoral politics of Uttarakhand is mainly driven by the dynamics involving hilly areas and plains, the Kumaon and Garhwal regions, and the Thakur and the Brahmin communities.

Written by Avaneesh Mishra | Dehradun |
January 17, 2022 2:51:28 pm
Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Uttarakhand CM Pushkar Singh Dhami during a BJP election campaign rally, ahead of state Assembly polls. (PTI)

In more than 21 years since it came into existence as a state, Uttarakhand’s history has been marked by political instability and alternate governments. While the hill state has already witnessed 4 Assembly elections, it has had 11 chief ministers so far. Since 2002, when Uttarakhand had its first tryst with Assembly polls, the state has seen its voters’ mandate alternating between the BJP and the Congress.

Creation of Uttarakhand state

While Uttarakhand was created as a separate state after being carved out of Uttar Pradesh in 2000, the demand for its statehood was first raised as early as in 1938 at a special session of the Indian National Congress in Srinagar. During that session, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru favoured the demand raised by residents of the hill region for having an agency to make their own decision as per their own circumstances. However, the movement could gain momentum much later when the Uttarakhand Kranti Dal (UKD) was founded in Mussoorie in July 1979 with the objective of ensuring the formation of a separate hill state. Amid the raging national politics over the Mandal as well as the Ayodhya Ram temple issues in 1989, the Uttaranchal Sanyukt Sangharsh Samiti was also formed by the BJP for demanding a separate statehood for the hill region.

In the summer of 1994, then Uttar Pradesh CM Mulayam Singh Yadav declared 27 per cent reservation in government jobs and educational seats to the candidates belonging to the Other Backward Classes (OBCs). This, along with existing reservation for the Scheduled Castes (SCs) and the Scheduled Tribes (STs), brought total quota in jobs and education to about 50 per cent in UP. This unleashed anti-reservation agitation in the hill region dominated by upper castes, which resulted in violent clashes between protesters and police that involved firing incidents in Khatima, Mussoorie, and Muzaffarnagar. The reservation strife added fuel to the long-standing demand by residents of the hill region for its separate statehood.

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On the Independence Day in 1996, then Prime Minister H D Deve Gowda announced the formation of a new state Uttaranchal (later named Uttarakhand) from the Red Fort. In 1998, the Atal Behari Vajpayee-led government sent the “Uttaranchal Bill” to the UP government following which the legislation was passed with 26 amendments by the UP Assembly. After this bill was passed by Parliament and approved by the President of India, the new state came into existence on November 9, 2000 as the 27th state of India.

Interim government

When Uttarakhand (then Uttaranchal) was carved out of UP as a separate state, there were 30 MLAs from the hill region in the UP Assembly. The BJP, which was then ruling UP with Rajnath Singh as the CM, also enjoyed a majority in the new state’s interim Assembly. Then BJP MLC Nityanand Swami was appointed as Uttaranchal’s first Chief Minister. The state was later named Uttarakhand during his tenure. Less than a year later, however, the BJP leadership asked Swami to resign to make way for his cabinet colleague Bhagat Singh Koshyari, who became the second CM of the state. Koshyari, who is currently Maharashtra Governor, was the BJP’s first president of its Uttarakhand unit.

The electoral politics of Uttarakhand is mainly driven by the dynamics involving hilly areas and plains, the Kumaon and Garhwal regions, and the Thakur and the Brahmin communities. Swami was from Dehradun, a plain area in Garhwal, which proved to be a disadvantage for him in the newly-created hill state. Koshyari, who hails from the hill town of Bageshwar in Kumaon division, had been a front-runner for the CM’s post since the outset. He replaced Swami on October 30, 2001 — four months before the nascent state was to see its first Assembly elections. The change of guard was widely seen to have been made under pressure from the leaders who had led the movement for Uttarakhand’s statehood.

First and second Assembly elections

The formation of Uttarakhand resulted in the Congress party’s revival in the region. The interim Uttarakhand Assembly had a total of 30 members including 22 MLAs and 8 MLCs from UP. Of them, the Congress had just 1 MLA (Karan Chand Singh) and 1 MLC (Indira Hridayesh). However, in the first Assembly polls to the 70-member Uttarakhand Assembly, held in 2002, the Congress won a majority with 36 seats, with the BJP managing to get only 19 seats. The Congress’s poll campaign chief Harish Rawat was then also state party president. The Congress leadership however appointed party veteran Narayan Dutt Tiwari as the CM. “The election was contested by Congress in the name of Harish Rawat. However, following requests from a lobby which was against Rawat, the party leadership and Sonia Gandhi decided to make Tiwari the Chief Minister,” said a senior Congress leader.

A seasoned politician who had been the CM of undivided UP thrice, Tiwari has so far been the only Uttarakhand CM who served his full five-year term, even though he faced challenges from various party factions throughout his tenure.

In the second Assembly elections, in 2007, the BJP emerged as the single largest party with 34 seats, followed by the Congress with 21 seats. The BJP got the support of 2 UKD MLAs and 3 Independents to form its government. Maj Gen B C Khanduri (retd), who had been a minister in the Vajpayee government, was sworn in as the CM. He could, however, survive in his chair for only a little over two years. In June 2009, after the BJP’s successive defeat in the Lok Sabha elections, the saffron party replaced him with Ramesh Pokhriyal ‘Nishank’, who too lasted just for a couple of years. Amid the BJP MLAs’ “Khanduri hai zaruri” pitch, the BJP leadership asked him to resign in September 2011. Gen Khanduri thus returned as the CM barely five months before the third Assembly elections.

Political volatility continues

The BJP had hoped that Khanduri’s return would refurbish the image of its government and party unit, and help it buck anti-incumbency in the 2012 Assembly polls. However, the party could still win 31 seats — 5 seats short of a simple majority. The Congress bagged 32 seats and managed to form its government with the help of a number of the BSP, UKD (P) and Independent MLAs. Khanduri lost his own election from Kotdwar, while Nishank won his Doiwala seat in Dehradun. Vijay Bahuguna, then Congress leader who later switched to the BJP, became the CM in March 2012, but could not last long in his post. He had to resign in January 2014 amid the Congress leadership’s unhappiness over his alleged poor handling of the devastating 2013 Kedarnath floods and the aftermath of the disaster.

Harish Rawat took oath as the CM on February 1, 2014, but was felled by the continued party infighting. In March 2016, 9 Congress MLAs, including Vijay Bahuguna, rebelled against Rawat’s leadership. Subsequently, the BJP-led Centre dislodged his government and put the state under the President’s rule while placing the state Assembly under suspended animation. While Rawat managed to return to power after winning the floor test later that summer, the damage was done. In the 2017 Assembly elections, the Congress suffered a debacle, winning only 11 seats. Riding the Narendra Modi wave, the BJP stormed to power, bagging 57 seats.

The BJP then appointed Trivendra Singh Rawat as the Chief Minister. In March 2021, however, he was replaced with BJP MP Tirath Singh Rawat, who was handpicked by the party leadership after Trivendra ran afoul of the RSS as well as several leaders within the party. Tirath quickly run into various controversies, too. He stepped down ostensibly on being unable to get elected to the Assembly by the deadline of six months from the date he took over. Submitting his resignation, Tirath said that considering the “constitutional crisis” he found it appropriate to resign. BJP sources however said that neither the party leadership nor the state unit had approached the Election Commission seeking a bypoll to enable him to get elected to the Assembly. They made it clear that the leadership had realised they could not go to the hustings with Tirath as the incumbent CM. In July 2021, two-term MLA from Khatima, Pushkar Singh Dhami was sworn in as the 11th CM of Uttarakhand, becoming the youngest, at the age of 45, to occupy the top post in the state.

The 14 February 2022 Assembly elections is taking place amid unprecedented price rise and in the time of the third wave of the Covid pandemic. The task for the Dhami-led BJP poll campaign is clearly cut out: to fight the anti-incumbency factor and break the defining trend of alternate governments of the BJP and the Congress in the state. But given the Congress’s fortunes and the BJP’s poll might, nothing could be said with certainty in the hill state this time. Meanwhile, there is also a new player in the fray, the AAP, peeking over the horizon.

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