February 13, 2017 2:39:53 am
WHEN KISHORE Upadhyaya, the Uttarakhand chief of the ruling Congress, landed in Sitarganj for party vice-president Rahul Gandhi’s election rally on Thursday afternoon, not one vehicle was present to receive him. As a small car arrived, a few phone calls and around 15 minutes later, it summed up the Congress campaign for the assembly polls on February 15: divided, and short of resources, manpower and even political will.
Sitarganj is the most symbolic contest for the party. In 2012, this seat was represented by former chief minister Vijay Bahuguna who led the defection last year to the BJP against what the rebels termed was Chief Minister Harish Rawat’s “arrogance”. This year, Bahuguna’s son Saurabh is debuting here on a BJP ticket. Adding to the stakes is the fact that Chief Minister Rawat has left his hilly Dharchula and is contesting from Kiccha, the adjacent constituency.
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At least on paper, the Congress has a strong chance of avenging its humiliation last year. Of the 1.07 lakh votes in Sitarganj, the seat has around 35,000 Bengali and 30,000 Muslim voters, who have traditionally gone with the Congress. The party’s candidate is Malti Biswas, whose husband Syam Biswas is a local leader of some repute. And Gandhi’s rally here — first ever by a major national politician this time, was held at Tagore Nagar, a stronghold of the Bengali migrant community.
Yet, according to Congress sources, the feedback that Upadhyaya has received from local workers was that Malti is “hardly making any effort”.
“The candidate is barely visible. Bahut slow hain (She is very slow). She lacks the will to win,” says Debashish Mandal, a shopkeeper in Sitarganj, adding, “She is from my community, but.”
That’s not all. Upadhyaya has been asked to contest from Sahaspur, a seat he was hardly prepared for; the party has officially announced support to Independent candidate Pritam Singh Panwar from Dhanolti, after its official candidate Manmohan Singh Mall had filed his nomination; only CM Rawat and, to some extent, Upadhyaya have a statewide appeal; and, candidates say they have little funds, with a majority admitting that they had little trust in the state or central leadership.
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As fissures opened up during ticket-distribution and widened during the campaign, leaders openly blame Rawat. “He always wanted to run the state singlehandedly, which prompted the defection. After we managed to restore the government, we thought the Chief Minister would be open to all,” says a candidate, who does not wish to be identified.
In a state where at least 50 of the 70 seats have been hit by dissent, there is resentment over ticket-distribution within the BJP, too, but that is directed mainly at the central leadership for accommodating 13 Congress rebels. And with barely three days to go, the BJP seem more united, with more funds — the party’s advertisements regularly appear on the front pages of local newspapers, even in remote constituencies, where the Congress is relatively absent.
But the biggest difference between the two parties is the image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which has glued together warring factions within the BJP — from Purola in Uttarkashi to Jhula Ghat on the Nepal border in Pithoragarh and Sitarganj in Udham Singh Nagar. “He is for the BJP now what the Gandhi family was once for the Congress,” says a BJP leader. And this, from a party that has five former chief ministers, several CM probables, and with many loyal cadre and RSS leaders, annoyed over tickets being given to Congress rebels, contesting as Independents against BJP candidates. “Modi is the only Indian leader discussed here,” says Gopal Joshi, a Nepalese shopkeeper on the other side of the border, with the picturesque Mahakali river flowing down a valley separating the two countries.
In contrast, the reach of Congress leaders have been confined to their constituencies. Apart from Rawat and Updhayaya, Haldwani’s MLA and minister Indira Hridyesh is considered as the other powerful Congress leader but her appeal has little resonance beyond her seat, which she seems certain to win.
In Tehri, Upadhyaya’s home constituency — he was denied the seat this time — he is hoping to save face by securing the victory of party candidate Narendra Ramola. “If you think I have done anything here, vote for him. It’s my prestige,” he tells a crowd of around 200 people, after party supporters carried him and Ramola to the venue on their shoulders.
Voters say they remember the work Upadhaya did during his two tenures here earlier, but are non-committal. The state chief, meanwhile, hits out at local Independent MLA Dinesh Dhanai, who had defeated him in 2012. Rawat had wanted to give the Congress ticket from Tehri to Dhanai, which Upadhyaya opposed. But as Upadhyaya switches to Garhwali to attack Dhanai, someone in the crowd says: “Tell him that Dhanai is a minister in the Congress government.”
According to an Upadhyaya aide, when the Congress government was formed in 2012, it had 32 seats in the assembly of 70, and needed the support of the Progressive Democratic Front, comprising BSP, Independents and UKKD. “When the Congress won the required seats in the by-polls, the party no longer needed the Independents. But the Chief Minister still wanted them,” says the aide.
Then again, Upadhyaya had repeatedly said before the candidates were announced that the Congress would contest all the seats on its own. But, exposing the rift between the state Congress chief and the Chief Minister, Rawat had its way.
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