While BJP strongman B. C. Khanduri enjoys a clean image of an apolitical leader, Congress' Harak Singh Rawat is known for his connect with the locals

An interesting fight appears to be on the cards between BJP strongman B. C. Khanduri, who enjoys a clean image of an apolitical leader, and Uttarakhand Minister Harak Singh Rawat of Congress who is known for his connect with locals in this Lok Sabha seat.

The constituency, with 12,30,077 voters, goes to polls along with four other seats in the State on May 7. Political observers here feel that though Mr. Singh, known for his expertise in electioneering strategies, joined the battle a little late after much coaxing by the party high command, he is capable of making things difficult for Mr. Khanduri.

Much younger than Mr. Khanduri, Mr. Singh represents Rudraprayag seat in the State Assembly. Though the 54-year-old Congress nominee has courted controversies time and again, he is a popular leader who enjoys a connect with the people of the constituency, poll analysts say.

The first indication of a keen poll battle in the constituency was the huge turnout at the roadshow held by Chief Minister Harish Rawat in support of his Cabinet colleague on the day he filed his nomination papers at the collectorate in Pauri recently.

Over 10,000 Congress supporters attended the roadshow, indicating a rekindling of hope among the party rank and file who found themselves in a vacuum after sitting party MP Satpal Maharaj’s sudden defection to BJP.

The huge turnout at the roadshow set the alarm bells ringing in BJP ranks who were expecting a cakewalk on the seat from where Congress took too long to announce a candidate. “Harak Singh Rawat is popular in the constituency and is known to deliver the unexpected,” Congress leader Shobha Bahuguna said in Kotdwar, referring to his unexpected victory over strong BJP rival Matbar Singh Kandari in Rudraprayag in the 2012 Assembly polls.

“Apart from being very popular among the youth in Pauri-Garhwal, Mr. Singh is also the master of poll engineering, and is known to be instrumental in the wins of many Zilla Panchayat candidates,” poll analyst Himanshu Baduni said.

Another factor which may work in favour of Mr. Singh is his being from the Thakur community which constitutes 60 per cent of the constituency’s total population. The Thakurs of Pauri who felt a void after Satpal Maharaj’s (also a Thakur) defection to BJP see an alternative in Mr. Singh and may help him take on Mr. Khanduri, a Brahmin by caste.

However, Mr. Khanduri’s appeal transcends the barriers of caste. He enjoys the image of a relatively apolitical leader who means business with a focus on development. People all over the State remember his two tenures as the State’s Chief Minister and his stint as a Union minister in Vajpayee’s Cabinet as periods of substantial development in Uttarakhand.

They remember him as the cleanest Chief Minister who was the first to introduce a tough Lokayukta bill modelled on the vision of Anna Hazare’s Lokpal. “His stint as Union Minister for roads and surface transport is also remembered as many State highways were given the status of national highways during his time. An industrial package was also given to the state during his term. All this will definitely help him at the hustings,” said Janardhan Prasad Dobhal, a resident of Pauri.

Mr. Khanduri’s clean image makes him fit the bill in the current scenario where Narendra Modi assures he will give a corruption-free government. His army background too could give him an advantage over Mr. Singh as a majority of families in Garhwal have one or more members in the army, serving or retired.

Congress also had a slow start in the constituency as Satpal Maharaj, who was initially reluctant to contest, finally defected to BJP, dampening the spirit of Congress workers.

Congress took long to finalise a candidate as Harak Singh initially was not willing to contest. The prolonged indecision in Congress about a nominee gave BJP an advantage with Mr. Khanduri having already made several rounds of campaigning in Pauri so far.

Moreover, Harak Singh will also have to share the blame along with former chief minister Vijay Bahuguna for the slipshod handling of the mid-June calamity last year as areas (like Kedarnath, Gaurikund and Rambara), which suffered the worst damage in the tragedy, fall under his Assembly constituency.

Mr. Singh has had his share of controversies too with a woman levelling the charge of molestation against him a few months back only to withdraw it later. His name had also cropped up in connection with a firing incident in the middle of a party at his residence some months ago which had left two persons injured.