Ruling BJP and Congress locked in a close race in hill State

Riding on the economic growth achieved in the first term of the United Progressive Alliance government, the Congress swept all five Lok Sabha seats in the General Elections in Uttarakhand in 2009, a result which no political pundit predicted. Two years on, as the State goes to the Assembly polls for the third time since its creation in 2002, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is back in the game, hoping to gain from the return of B.C. Khanduri as Chief Minister and the enactment of the Lokayukta Bill — certified as a model anti-corruption Act by no less than Team Anna.

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The Congress appears to be positioned to reap the advantage of anti-incumbency against the BJP regime. And yet the party can hardly rest on its 2009 laurels given the hardship caused to the ‘aam aadmi' by the food inflation, made worse by the economic slowdown and repeated hikes in petrol prices.

So what are the odds that the BJP can beat anti-incumbency to win a second term in this hill State? Over the past year, the BJP has moved smartly to offset at least some of the damage inflicted by the Chief Ministership of Ramesh Pokhriyal, who, though not formally charge-sheeted, was widely seen to be financially compromised. The BJP could not accuse the Congress of corruption at the Centre and yet persist with the likes of B.S. Yeddyurappa and Mr. Pokhriyal. So it despatched both. It also cashed in on the Anna Hazare fever by showcasing Uttarakhand as a model State in the battle against corruption. The Uttarakhand Lokayukta Act, 2011 turned out to be a virtual photocopy of the Anna Team's Jan Lokpal Bill. Indeed, from being written off, the BJP is seen today as a strong contender, with some opinions polls suggesting a neck and neck race between the party and the Congress.

The Congress is not just a deeply divided house, it goes into this election burdened by the UPA-II government's dismal performance in office. But public memory is notoriously short, and the Congress will undoubtedly hope that rather than being fixated on the 2G scam, corruption and the Lokpal fiasco, voters will focus on local issues, including the performance of sitting BJP MLAs. Indeed, it is significant that while the Congress has re-nominated almost all its sitting MLAs, the BJP has had to drop more than a dozen non-performing MLAs, two of them ministers.

On paper, Uttarakhand might seem an uncomplicated State with the Congress and the BJP engaged in a straight fight. However, the recent delimitation exercise has brought in the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) as a serious contender in the plains (Terai region) comprising 17 seats in Haridwar and Udham Singh Nagar districts. In 2007, Mayawati's BSP won eight seats drawing on the sizeable presence of Muslims, Sikhs and Dalits in these two districts. In the hills, dominated by Thakurs and Brahmins, the fight will largely be between the Congress and the BJP, though both parties have to reckon with virtually an army of rebels besides facing a measure of competition from the only State party, the now divided Uttarakhand Kranti Dal (UKD). Two sitting MLAs of the united UKD are contesting on the BJP symbol.

For the Congress and the BJP, there is another headache in the form of the Uttarakhand Raksha Morcha (URM), created as an anti-corruption, non-political organisation during the Anna Hazare movement by former Congress MP T.P.S. Rawat. A retired Army general like Mr. Khanduri, Mr. Rawat defected to the BJP only to quit in protest in 2009 following differences with Mr. Khanduri. The URM, which is formed entirely by rebel candidates from the Congress and the BJP, is contesting 44 Assembly segments.

In the 2007 election, the BJP polled close to 32 per cent votes against 30 per cent by the Congress. By 2009 the Congress had turned the tables on the BJP, making a clean sweep of the five Lok Sabha seats with a vote percentage of 43. The BJP was behind by nearly 10 percentage points. The BSP's performance has been something to watch out for: The party polled 12 per cent of the votes in 2007 which went up to 15 per cent in 2009. Whatever Mayawati's fate in Uttar Pradesh, her graph is surely on the rise in Uttarakhand.

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StatewiseJanuary 21, 2012