In a state where little separates winners from losers, few governments have lasted their terms, and leaders have been floating between parties for a year, BJP and Congress are battling fights within, 10 days to polling.
At a coffee shop in Haldwani in Uttarakhand on January 30, a senior BJP leader discussed with other leaders the cost of internal dissent following party tickets being given to Congress rebels. “Harish Rawat ne apna black white mein convert kar liya (Chief Minister Harish Rawat has converted his black into white),” leaders lamented.
Around the same time, a little distance from the coffee shop, partymen at Haldwani MLA and powerful Congress minister Indira Hridyesh’s home worried over the possible defeat of state Congress chief Kishore Upadhyay. Fighting from Sahaspur, a seat thrust upon him by Rawat, Upadhyay is facing the Congress’s long-time loyal member, an angry Aryendra Sharma. “We talked to him, but Sharma is adamant that he would push Upadhyay to third position,” rued party leaders.
On February 1, after all attempts at placating the rebels failed, the BJP expelled 18 leaders, many of them former MLAs, all of whom are contesting against party candidates.
The next day, the Congress expelled 24, who are now all contesting as Independents.
Ten days from polling day, in the hill state where the BJP enjoys good support and where the Congress has one of its few remaining governments, crossovers and rebellions are the story in all but 15-20 of its 70 seats. Leaders in the two parties estimate that at least a thousand of their members have switched camps in the past fortnight. Whether it is the Chief Minister, powerful ministers, or debutants, all are facing rebels. In Rishikesh, distraught BJP leaders wrote their resignation letters in blood.
Even after many leaders have been coerced into withdrawing nominations, the BJP is facing “official” rebellion in 25 per cent of the constituencies, and the Congress in 35 per cent. The BJP has given tickets to 13 Congress rebels, three of them hours after they joined the party. The Congress has obliged seven BJP rebels and two Independents; declared support to an Independent days after its own candidate filed nomination; and fielded a weak candidate in favour of another Independent.
In most states these rebellions would be a daunting task. In Uttarakhand, add geography to it, as hapless party leaders try to keep track of rebels quietly at work in remote, mostly inaccessible and currently snow-bound hills and forests of the state.
Three neighbouring constituencies, Kotdwar, Yamkeshwar and Chaubattakhal, best exemplify this game of musical chairs. All the seats are in Pauri Garhwal district, also the headquarters of the Garhwal division and home to the only central university of the state.
Congress rebel and one of the BJP’s CM probables, Satpal Maharaj, is contesting from Chaubattakhal. To accommodate Maharaj, a self-proclaimed spiritual leader who has turned to various parties for solace in his 28-year career, the BJP dropped its sitting MLA and its former state party chief Teerath Singh Rawat.
That set off a series of resignations and rebellions.
Harak Singh Rawat, who had also crossed over to the BJP from the Congress, too wanted Chaubattakhal. While the sitting MLA from Rudraprayag, Harak Singh felt he had the right to demand a seat of his choice as he was among the most prominent defectors along with former CM Vijay Bahugana from the Congress to the BJP last year.
However, Harak got the Kotdwar constituency, the last among his choice of five. The winner from Kotdwar in 2012 was the Congress’s Surendra Negi, who had proved his mettle beating sitting CM B C Khanduri (a rare incidence of an incumbent CM losing). But Harak wasn’t the only one unhappy at the Kotdwar decision. So was the BJP’s former Kotdwar MLA Shailendra Singh Rawat, who promptly resigned from the party sending an open letter saying senior BJP leaders had “completely sacrificed ideology and ideals for their petty interests”.
Shailendra Singh, in turn, joined the Congress and got the Yamkeshwar seat. It was now the turn of Yamkeshwar’s sitting Congress MLA, Renu Bist, to rebel. She was among the 24 recently expelled by the Congress for contesting as an Independent.
The BJP has had its own Yamkeshwar problems. It passed over its three-time sitting MLA from here, Vijaya Barthwal, to give a ticket to Khanduri’s daughter Ritu Khanduri, who is making her poll debut. When the BJP ignored criticism of dynasty politics in picking Ritu, Barthwal announced she would contest as an Independent, shooting off a scathing letter similar to Shailendra’s. However, the BJP seems to have pacified her as of now.
Meanwhile, things are not rosy in the seat where it all began either. From Chaubattakhal, besides Teerath Singh, Maharaj is facing other angry BJP members, including the powerful Kavindra Ishtwal, who has filed nomination as an Independent. Maharaj turned to senior BJP leader Anil Baluni for help, but Baluni failed to budge Ishtwal. Among those expelled on February 1 from the BJP was Ishtwal. On Saturday, the BJP appointed Teerath as the party’s national secretary.
Perceived to be bland and drab, Uttarakhand politics has always been fairly volatile. The state has seen regular political coups, with eight CMs in its short 16-year history. And bitter internal rivalries, between B C Khanduri, Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank and B S Koshyari on the BJP side, and Vijay Bahuguna and Harish Rawat in the Congress camp.
The state’s first CM, the BJP’s Nityanand Swami, lost his post due to internal dissent. The party’s seven years of rule saw five CM changes, each time after a leader was pulled down by rivals. The defeat of sitting CM Khanduri in 2012 was also believed to have been plotted by a BJP predecessor.
The Congress has seen three CMs in its 10 years in power. Congress veteran N D Tiwari, the only Uttarakhand CM of the party to complete five years, was constantly obstructed by Harish Rawat. Tiwari, who had ironically opposed a separate Uttarakhand, almost joined the BJP recently while another of the Congress CMs, Vijay Bahuguna, is already in the saffron fold. It is because BJP president Amit Shah’s photograph with Tiwari caused deep resentment in the BJP Uttarakhand unit that his formal induction has been delayed.
In the past year, these crossovers have gained new urgency and a new term: ‘baagi’.
Observers see this as spurred on by the March 2016 defection of nine Congress MLAs to the BJP, including Vijay Bahuguna and Harak Singh. Another Congress MLA Rekha Arya had joined the BJP soon after.
When the BJP gave tickets to these Congress rebels, it left a lot of resentful leaders within the saffron party. Subsequently, some of these BJP leaders joined the Congress and were also quickly given tickets. Then, CM Rawat accommodated some of the Independent MLAs who had rescued him after the defection by sacrificing own top leaders like Upadhyay. This led to defections or rebellions in the Congress.
During these rapid entries and exits, Congress minister Yashpal Arya, his son Sanjeev Arya and another party leader Kedar Singh Rawat were gifted tickets within hours of joining the BJP. CM Rawat said that “those who had left the Congress were tainted leaders”, to which Arya countered saying “the CM had made the state a den of corruption”.
Now, ever since the tickets were distributed a fortnight ago, almost every evening the Congress and BJP have been announcing the induction of “prominent” leaders from the other party and showing them off before the media.
The rebellions are not just costing the party but the leaders themselves as they try to explain their new affiliations to their electorates.
Having contested 10 elections from across the spectrum — the BJP, Congress, BSP and as an Independent — Harak Singh laughs off the damaging accusations once levelled by BJP leaders against him.
Hurriedly finishing his tomato soup and French fries at a hotel in Dehradun, he is charitable towards former BJP state vice-president Dhan Singh, who led those attacks on him. Harak Singh concedes, however, that “the fight is tough”. If he has heard rumours of the BJP pitching him against a high-profile Congress minister so as to damage his chances, he doesn’t let show.
As he tours in Kotdwar, Baluni has been approached by local BJP leaders explaining the difficulty of convincing their cadres to vote for Harak Singh now. “Talk to them. He is our candidate now,” Baluni tries to assuage their feelings.
Maharaj, whose family firm manufactures and sells Ayurvedic products, justifies that his “spirituality” drew him towards Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP. On way to a political rally at Pabaou, deep down in a valley and along the banks of the river Paschimi Nayaar, he keeps talking about “surgical strikes” and praises Modi for launching them. “The first person to conduct a ‘surgical strike’ was Hanuman, who destroyed Lanka,” he declares before an audience of Garhwali farmers, who look on uncomprehending.
However, Maharaj’s camp admits they are worried about Ishtwal, who has asserted that he would not let the former Congress leader win.
Difficult topography makes the task of countering dissent more daunting. Kotdwar constituency, for instance, stretches from the isolated villages of Jim Corbett to the hills of Lansdowne. A campaign in a cluster of hilly villages with just a few thousand voters takes a full day, says BJP state chief Ajay Bhatt, who is contesting from Ranikhet and is facing party rebel Pramod Nainwal.
BJP leaders are worried about the rebellions halting the party momentum. The BJP entered this election with a definitive lead. The Congress had been depleted, with no major leaders left in its ranks apart from Harish Rawat and to some extent Indira Hridyesh, whose presence is largely limited to Haldwani.
The Congress’s tickets were largely decided by CM Rawat in consultation with Delhi leaders. His hand is seen in Upadhyay being allotted Sahaspur and so many Independents being accommodated. He also got the AICC to discard the party’s official candidate at Dhanolti and to support an Independent.
Yashpal Arya, who has been given a ticket by the BJP, openly blamed Harish Rawat and high command for crossing over.
For days after the tickets were announced, the PCC headquarters at Dehradun saw massive protests by supporters of various candidates, who tore down posters.
Says CM Rawat’s chief spokesperson Surendra Kumar, “We are trying to talk to the rebel leaders.”
Uttarakhand BJP leaders also charge that the tickets were decided by the Delhi leadership ignoring suggestions by the state unit. Baluni insists, “Tickets were given as per winnability factor. Whosoever was nearest to the goal got the pass.”
What gives the BJP hope is that the Congress’s attempt to accommodate BJP rebels has created ripples down its ranks too. Compared to the BJP, it has little resources, both human and otherwise, to check its rebellion, though CM Rawat insists that those who left the party would be punished by people.
The BJP admits it is banking on Prime Minister Modi’s popularity to see it through. The PM received an impressive crowd in his late December Dehradun rally, and the party has lined up several meetings for him in the last lap before the February 15 polls.
Meanwhile, voters admit they are confused over where their candidate stands now. At Gauri Kund near Kedarnath, people are annoyed at local Congress MLA Shaila Rani Rawat’s failure to handle the 2013 floods. But she is now contesting on a BJP ticket. “We wanted to vote her out. What to do now?” asks Govind Ram, a shopkeeper, whose shop was destroyed.
Asha Nautiyal, a BJP rebel who is among those expelled by the party, is contesting as an Independent against her.
A shopkeeper at Chausali on the Almora-Nainital highway has put up flags of the BJP, Congress as well as the BSP on his small general store. “I do not know what to do. So I put them all,” he laughs.