One constituency is in the Kumaon hills and covers several remote, snow-coated villages; the other is in the plains of Garhwal, sharing borders with Himachal Pradesh and UP. And each one features the state chief of a party facing a battle for survival — and face. Against PCC chief Kishore Upadhyaya in Sahaspur, Dehradun, is Congress rebel Aryendra Sharma, who drew a massive crowd Saturday when he filed his nomination as an independent.
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On the other side of the state is state BJP chief Ajay Bhatt in Ranikhet, where he faces not only longtime Congress rival Ajay Mahara but also BJP rebel Dr Pramod Nainwal, now independent, who too has drawn hundreds of BJP cadres in his rallies.
In Sahaspur, the Upadhyaya camp had tried to persuade Sharma, who lost the 2012 poll, to withdraw. But Sharma, an old Congress hand who had been the OSD of former UP and Uttarakhand CM N D Tiwari, did not relent. “I have been working in the constituency for eight years. My name was cleared by all party surveys. Still, they denied me the ticket at the last moment. It’s injustice,” Sharma told The Indian Express.
Upadhyaya’s sudden candidature from Sahaspur is being seen as the result of an internal feud. He wanted Tehri, which he had won in 2002 and 2007 but lost in 2012 by a mere 377 votes to Independent candidate Dinesh Dhanai. CM Harish Rawat later wanted to bring Dhanai into the Congress, but Upadhyaya, as PCC chief, did not agree. Rawat responded by inducting Dhanai as a minister with six portfolios. This time, Rawat reportedly wanted Upadhyaya to move out of Tehri but Upadhyaya was apparently unwilling. The PCC chief was eventually sent to Sahaspur at the last minute, as the Congress fielded a weaker candidate in Tehri, Narendra Ramola.
Besides the perceived “walkover” in Tehri, the Congress has given an official walkover to Dhanolti candidate Pritam Singh Panwar, an Uttarakhand Kranti Dal MLA and a minister in the Rawat government. In an statement Friday, AIIC general secretary Madhusudan Mistry said “the Congress has also decided to support the candidature of Pritam Singh Panwar.” This when the party’s official Dhanolti candidate, Manmohan Singh, had already filed the nomination.
All this has sent signals that the party is willing to accommodate other party leaders who had helped CM Rawat rescue his government, while ignoring the demands of the PCC chief.
The rebel, Sharma, has the support of a section of Congress workers in Sahaspur.
In Ranikhet, meanwhile, Bhatt had returned home at 11 pm after campaigning. The difficult geography of Ranikhet means it takes almost a day to visit just a few villages on one side of his constituency.
Bhatt has bigger challenges ahead. He and Congress rival Mahara have long been alternating this seat. Bhatt lost to Mahara in 2007 by 298 votes and won in 2012 by a meagre 78. In the touch-and-go is BJP rebel Nainwal, a leader of some repute.
Bhatt, who still lives in a small home rented at Rs 600, exuded confidence. “I have been an excise minister. Still, I or my wife don’t own a home,” he told The Indian Express over breakfast, just before he left to campaign. “You can see it. My clean image, the corruption of the Congress government will ensure us victory.”
He recounted his childhood when he “sold tea” and “made jalebis in village fairs”. All the small jobs he did to sustain himself, including a small vegetable shop he opened after the death of his father and two elder brothers. When he was studying law in Almora, he took a contract to run the canteen to sustain his studies. “I have not yet taken back the earnest money (for that contract), so that I never forget my origins,” he said, emphasising that be it “Modiji” or “me”, that’s how people rise in the BJP party.
Bhatt and CM Rawat are from neighboring villages. One Brahmin, the other Thakur. The Kumaon zone is considered Rawat’s stronghold, but Bhatt claimed “this illusion will be demolished this year”. With three victories behind him, the RSS swayamsevak is now contesting his fifth election.