Elections 2024: Has the wind turned in Uttarakhand?

Between anti-incumbency and grave missteps like the Agnipath scheme, the BJP has plenty to worry about in the state

Pulkit Arya, son of a local BJP leader, is the prime accused in the murder of Ankita Bhandari
Pulkit Arya, son of a local BJP leader, is the prime accused in the murder of Ankita Bhandari

Rashme Sehgal

Uttarakhand voted for the state’s five Lok Sabha seats on 19 April. As in many other parts of the country, the Lok Sabha elections in this hill state too had the appearance of a direct contest between the BJP and the people of the state, between the well-funded, well-oiled BJP election machine and the goodwill that rival candidates seem to have generated without much support.

The BJP has been in power in Uttarakhand for the past 10 years and had won all five Lok Sabha seats in 2019 as well as in 2014. Anti-incumbency was finally kicking in, though, and BJP candidates who were given a repeat ticket are also up against a fatigue factor in addition to popular grievances.

The predominantly Hindu state, with a population of 10 million, has less than 18 per cent of minority communities in its population — namely, Muslims (14 per cent), Sikhs and Christians.

For the BJP, this was a do-or-die election. The state has, under Pushkar Singh Dhami’s governance, become the biggest Hindutva laboratory after Gujarat. Dhami adopted measures with a strong anti-Muslim resonance, including the introduction of an ‘anti-love jihad’ bill and the demolition of several mazars and masjids on what the authorities claim to be government land (yet no such steps were taken against temples occupying the same or similar spaces). The Uniform Civil Code is also perceived as another such communalist step, but it failed to become a popular election issue.

Interestingly, on the ground, it is Modi rather than local leaders who was visible everywhere as cutouts and on hoardings. Campaign vehicles of other parties, even the Congress, were rarely seen; the Opposition presence in Uttarakhand has been largely missing from both local and national media.

Yet, there are unmistakable under-currents that indicate a groundswell of resentment against the BJP across the five Lok Sabha constituencies of Haridwar, Tehri Garhwal, Pauri Garhwal, Almora (RC) and Nainital-Udham Singh Nagar.

Uttarakhand is home to over 1.9 lakh former defence personnel, including 50,000 Army and war widows. The ‘fauji (soldier) vote’ plays an important role, therefore. This time around, the anger against the Agnipath scheme is palpable. It has adversely affected practically every second family in the state.

A large contingent of ex-servicemen went to meet Gen. V.K. Singh (retd) in Dehradun on 13 April. Singh had been requisitioned by the Centre to hold dialogue with these Army families and soothe their tempers. But sadly, the ex-servicemen got pushed around by the BJP workers instead, and their voices went unheard. Cool them down, it did not.

However, foremost in the line of fire was state home minister Ganesh Joshi, who is also minister of soldiers’ welfare. Joshi’s public meetings were boycotted; he was also heckled by angry protestors. On a few occasions, the public mood was ugly enough that he was unable to step out of his car.

The Agnipath scheme has impacted social relations as well. In Pithoragarh, a district that borders Nepal, Raman Singh says, “Our boys who joined the Army used to have no difficulty finding brides, including matrimonial offers from Nepal. All that has changed.”

The demolition of Muslim houses in Haldwani
The demolition of Muslim houses in Haldwani

“No one wants to marry their daughters to boys who have joined as Agniveers because there is no job security; nor are they entitled to other benefits, including pension. They are being treated as outcasts.”

Joshi was not the only BJP candidate facing the people’s ire, though. Earlier this month, Maharani Rajlakshmi Shah, who won the Tehri Lok Sabha seat for the BJP in three consecutive parliamentary elections, arrived in Garhi cantonment, Dehradun, to interact with the Nepali community here. Joshi was accompanying her.

Both leaders were gheraoed by an angry slogan-shouting crowd who refused to allow them their say. The anger against Shah was palpable. The public see her as an absentee neta (leader) who, despite repeated pleas and petitions, has not cared to address any of their problems in the last 10 years.

Shah’s challenger was not the Congress’ Jot Singh Gunsola, but rather Bobby Panwar, president of the Uttarakhand Berozgaar Sangh, an association of unemployed persons, who is contesting as an Independent. He is popular among the youth, as he promises to fight for education and jobs.

In Pauri Garhwal constituency, BJP candidate Anil Baluni is seen as an outsider. Having served as media adviser to the Modi government, Baluni stood against former Congress state chief Ganesh Godiyal, hoping to cash in on the “third wave of Narendra Modi”. He had been highlighting the many successes of the Modi government, including the Char Dham Pariyojana, which brought nearly 50 lakh domestic tourists to Badrinath and Kedarnath in the summer of 2023. But the mood in Pauri Garhwal was not pro-BJP.

Pauri Garhwal is a large constituency, covering Srinagar, Joshimath, Kotdwar and Lansdowne. Srinagar felt unforgiving of the state government’s failure to bring the Ankita Bhandari murderer(s) to book. In Joshimath, as also all of Chamoli district, land subsidence remains a key grievance.

Atul Sati, heading the Joshimath Sangarsh Samiti, says, “The Dhami government has failed to come up with a comprehensive rehabilitation package for landslides.”

Meanwhile, several BJP stalwarts like Rajnath Singh and Yogi Adityanath campaigned for Baluni, with the former telling locals they would be voting for a ‘minister’ (read: chief minister) and not an MP. This was a double-edged sword, positing Baluni as a threat to the political fortunes of other party leaders. The average RSS pracharak (missionary) is also unlikely to have much enthusiasm for Baluni.

The Congress, in turn, has played up the controversy of the ‘disappeared’ gold plating from the sanctum sanctorum of the Kedarnath Temple. Allegations about the Rs 125 crore gold fraud surfaced last June. The ensuing controversy forced minister of tourism Satpal Maharaj to order an inquiry; nothing came of it.

The 3,000 priests who conduct the rituals at Kedarnath had opposed the gold plating to begin with. Santosh Trivedi, vice-president of the Char Dham Mahapanchayat, openly questions how gold can turn to brass overnight. The question finds resonance amongst the people of Chamoli and Joshimath.

Almora, reserved for SC candidates, witnessed a contest between old rivals — sitting MP Ajay Tamta of the BJP and activist Pradeep Tamta of the Congress.

Meanwhile, minister of state for defence Ajay Bhatt once again contested from the Nainital-Udham Singh Nagar constituency, where Congress put up Prakash Joshi, who was a member of the Uttarakhand Sangharsh Vahini and participated in the Van Andolan and anti-liquor movements.

This constituency has a significant presence of Muslim and Sikh farmers. The former are unhappy over the government’s ‘handling’ of the Haldwani riots, while Sikh farmers are vocal against the Centre’s mishandling of the farmers’ protests. Dr Ravi Chopra, a respected scientist and educator, organised a series of well-attended interlocutions between Sikh farmers and the nephew of legendary revolutionary Bhagat Singh.

In Bajpur district, farmers had been sitting in dharna for 275 days, at the time of writing, protesting against the acquisition of 8,000 acres of their land to set up an industrial centre. A similar agitation was seeded in Doiwala district, where the state government is trying to acquire land for an ‘aero city’. Having declared Jolly Grant Airport an ‘international’ one, the government needs a new aero city to attract more tourists, apparently.

Congress leader Harish Rawat, meanwhile, disappointed his supporters by not contesting from Haridwar himself but fielding his son Virendra, a political novice, against the BJP’s Trivendra Rawat, a former chief minister.

Rawat was a lacklustre CM and has found it hard to live down his fatal decision not to quarantine pilgrims during the Kumbh Mela in 2021, which saw a state with 90,00 Covid cases cross an alarming 2.11 lakh in a week.

Finally, Haridwar has a 30 per cent Muslim population, followed by Dalits and OBCs at 20 per cent each. The remaining 30 per cent are mostly upper-caste Hindus: Brahmins, Thakurs and Baniyas. Jamil Ahmed, the BSP candidate, is likely to have eaten into the Muslim, Dalit and OBC votes.

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