WHILE the Congress is yet to announce its candidates for the five Lok Sabha seats in Uttarakhand, Manish Khanduri, son of senior BJP leader and former Uttarakhand CM Major General (retd.) B C Khanduri who joined the Congress on Saturday, is likely to be the party’s choice for Pauri Garhwal, the seat the senior Khanduri currently represents as BJP MP.
Khanduri, a five-time MP, has refused to contest the 2014 elections, citing ill-health.
The euphoria around Manish joining the party was palpable during the Congress rally in Dehradun on Saturday, where party president Rahul Gandhi welcomed him. Sources in the party, however, believe that Manish joining the Congress might prove to be a game changer only if his father Khanduri decides to campaign for his son in the Lok Sabha polls.
Currently, the Congress is not at its strongest in Uttarakhand, and Manish, whose most recent job was with Facebook as its head of news partnerships in India, has little political base in Uttarakhand.
“It is definitely a morale-booster for us (the Congress) that the son of such a senior BJP leader has joined us. But it’s less than a month to voting day (April 11) and if he (Manish) is fielded from Pauri, he’ll have very little time to campaign,” a senior Congress leader said.
Pauri Lok Sabha seat has been a BJP stronghold, with its huge population of ex-servicemen and armed forces personnel forming the BJP’s vote bank. Uttarakhand Chief Minister Trivendra Rawat, UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, Army chief General Bipin Rawat, National Security Advisor Ajit Doval are all from Pauri. Also, Kedarnath, whose reconstruction has been one of PM Narendra Modi’s pet projects, is part of Pauri seat.
Khanduri won the 2004 and 2014 Lok Sabha polls for the BJP from the seat. Even when he lost the 2009 polls to Satpal Maharaj, who was then with the Congress but is now a BJP leader, it was by a thin margin of 17,397 votes. Between 2003-2004, he was the Union Cabinet minister for road transport. He was an MLA in the Uttarakhand Assembly between 2007 and 2012 and served as Uttarakhand CM between March 2007 and June 2009, and between September 2011 and March 2012.
Uttarakhand BJP president Ajay Bhatt along with Uttarakhand CM Trivendra Rawat had met Khanduri at his New Delhi residence on Friday to request him to contest from Pauri, but Khanduri refused, Bhatt said.
With Khanduri senior not in the fray, among the names in contention for the BJP ticket for Pauri are Doval’s son Shaurya Doval, who has been running the Bemisaal Garhwal Abhiyan for over a year; Colonel (retd) Ajay Kothiyal, who is credited with the reconstruction of Kedarnath; former Uttarakhand BJP president Tirath Singh Rawat; and Rear Admiral (retd) O P S Rana.
BJP sources, however, admit that none of these are a match for Khanduri’s popularity in Pauri. Though the 84-year-old BJP MP no longer calls the shots in the party in the state, Khanduri’s directions are followed by leaders.
Which is also why Manish’s decision pinched the BJP hard. Several party workers took to social media to register their dissent.
BJP’s Bhatt said, “Khanduriji has assured us that he will not campaign for his son, and will stand with the BJP.” “If he (Khanduri) campaigns for his son in Pauri, it could be damaging for the BJP,” said another senior BJP leader.
However, while addressing the Dehradun rally, Manish had said that he had his father’s blessings in his decision to join the Congress.
Speaking to The Indian Express, he said, “My decision had to do with the issue of ideology. I don’t agree with the BJP of today. The Congress is discussing the real issues of unemployment, environment, and political civility which has declined in the past few years. Also, my belief in pluralism made me join the Congress.”
While senior Khanduri did not comment when contacted by The Indian Express, in a recent interview to ANI, he had said, “He (Manish) is well educated. He has studied in America… Why is his decision to join the Congress being questioned? It’s up to him to decide. The contribution to the BJP is mine, not his. Had he left the BJP after working in it for years, I would have understood the issue… But that’s not the case here… He doesn’t need to follow in my footsteps.”
Manish has an MBA from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in the US and has worked in media and IT firms in India and the US.