February 7, 2017 1:55:44 am
OBLIVIOUS TO the snowstorm blowing outside the Yamunotri shrine, six sadhus huddled around a fire are glued to a portable Philips TV set that a devotee had gifted along with a set-top box. At 10,800 ft, this Himalayan temple is perhaps the highest point in the country where the assembly elections are being discussed.
Some of these sadhus claim to have never crossed the tiny bridge over the Yamuna near the temple in several decades, let alone trek to the base-point six km down where the deity is installed during winters. But with Uttarakhand going to vote on February 15, all the talk in Yamunotri constituency is about major project any leader has proposed this time: the “all-weather char dham roads” announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a December rally in Dehradun.
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The idea has a significant resonance here because all the four dhams — Yamunotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath — are shut for six months every winter, when the shrines and approach lanes are buried under snow. And yet, the questions are numerous: Will concrete roads reach up to the shrines? Will large tracts of the snow-coated Himalayas be flattened for the project?
No one really has the answer, not the sadhus, not the local residents of this Congress-ruled state, or even the candidates.
Satpal Maharaj, a former Congressman who is now the BJP candidate from Chaubattakhal in Pauri Garhwal, claims the road will reach only up to the base point. Responding to Congress claims that there’s already a motorable road till the base, Maharaj adds, “But these roads will be superior. They will pass through many tunnels, immune to landslides.”
The sadhus, meanwhile, have also heard of a proposed “jhula (ropeway)” from Janaki Chatti, the base point of Yamunotri, to the Garud Ganga nearby, which will do away with the steep hike. This time, the reactions are mixed. Ram Das, a young sadhu, is thrilled but head priest Ram Bharose Das fears that it will destroy the “character of the pilgrimage”.
But yes, amid all the talk, what’s clear is that Modi has captured the attention of voters here.
At Hanuman Chatti, around 20 km down, shopkeepers are candid. “When we vote for the (BJP symbol) Lotus, half of it is for Modiji, and the other half for the candidate,” says Chandar Singh Panwar.
It’s a theme that played out in states like Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh during 2014 Lok Sabha elections. And, it captures the mood in Yamunotri now, where the BJP has never won before.
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In a state where at least 50 of the 70 seats have been hit by rebellion and crossovers, Yamunotri’s BJP candidate Kedar Singh Rawat is a Congress rebel, who got the ticket within hours of switching sides in January. And, unlike in constituencies like Nainital and Kedarnath, where Congress rebels are facing public ire, Rawat, a local resident, appears to have the support of the electorate.
Kedar had won in 2007 on a Congress ticket, and his tenure was sandwiched between that of Uttarakhand Kranti Dal’s Pritam Singh Panwar in 2002 and 2012. Panwar is now contesting from Dhanolti as an Independent.
Around 50 km away at Kuthnor village in Uttarkashi, Anand Bhandari, a shopkeeper, says, “Modi’s vote is a bonus for the BJP”. Says Hanuman Chatti’s Panwar: “Modi has curbed corruption”. On the other side of the state, in Kumaon, Mahendra Singh, an employee at a government tourist rest house near Almora, believes “Modi is fighting BJP’s battle”.
And all this, despite the BJP arsenal in Uttarakhand boasting of as many as five former chief ministers.
Also buried under the Modi bandwagon is the fallout of the demonetisation policy in a state that was badly hit by the cash crunch in the days that followed November 8.
“The state’s industrial production went down by 50 per cent in November, and was a mere 60 per cent of the total capacity in December and January,” says Harendra Garg, chairman of the SIIDCUL manufacturers’ association in Haridwar. SIIDCUL, or State Infrastructure and Industrial Development Corporation of Uttarakhand Ltd, is a state government enterprise to promote industry and assist private initiative.
Claiming that the state has lost production worth Rs 10,000 crore following the demonetisation policy, Garg said that “around 2,000-25,000 persons lost their jobs”.
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Other manufacturers under the SIIDCUL umbrella say they voted for Modi in 2014, when the BJP won all five Lok Sabha seats from Uttarakhand. This time, they said, they were “disappointed” with the Prime Minister but were non-committal on whether they would shift their vote elsewhere.
It’s an uneasy silence that hides more questions. Are the voters still loyal to the national leader? Or, are they merely wary of publicly denouncing the man they had so loudly embraced not so long ago?
At the Yamunotri shrine, the sky has quietened after sprinkling several feet of snow all around. Ram Das, who traversed all the four dhams before choosing to stay here, points to the marks on the mountains that the head priest had left during his last visit to Mount Kalind, from where the river originates around 1,000m above. All of a sudden, he cuts through the poll talk to ask: “Aap mediawale hain, aapne Modi ko dekha hai?”
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