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Uttarakhand 70: Are Cong's Lucrative Promises Enough to Halt BJP’s Double Engine Sarkar?

Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami’s constituency Khatima falls in Udham Singh Nagar district, where Sikh farmers may make it difficult for the BJP to repeat its 2017 success. (PTI/File)

Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami’s constituency Khatima falls in Udham Singh Nagar district, where Sikh farmers may make it difficult for the BJP to repeat its 2017 success. (PTI/File)

Uttarakhand elections 2022: While the battle for the hills is mostly bipolar between the BJP and Congress, the BSP could upset equations in some constituencies in Haridwar district.

Farmer Shoorveer Singh Panwar, a resident of Bauntha village, somewhere between Dehradun and Tehri, is busy tending to his small field. The 70-year-old has hardly any interest in politics and is unaware of the poll promises made by the BJP and opposition Congress in Uttarakhand, which goes to the polls on February 14.

“I have not yet decided (which party to vote for). I have left it to the family members,” says Panwar, who heads a family of eight. Recalling last year’s October rains and the havoc it wreaked in many parts of the hills, including his village, he says: “For me, any party is good if it provides timely compensation and supports us (small farmers).”

In contrast to the septuagenarian farmer, 21-year-old Devendra Bhandari feels strongly about “Hindu sentiments”. “I am a strong believer in sanatani parampara (Hindu tradition), but at the same time, I am equally concerned about my future and job,” Bhandari says.

Uttarakhand has never voted a party to power for second straight term. But unlike five years ago when the BJP dislodged the Congress with 57 of 70 seats up for grabs, doubts persist this year when the Opposition has enough momentum to derail the double engine sarkar.

Though the Uttarakhand Assembly has only 70 seats, 41 of these are in the Garhwal region and 29 are in the Kumaon region. The state is a mix of hills and plains, and priorities are different for voters terrain by terrain.

The Haridwar district comprises 10 constituencies and Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) is a factor here. In previous elections, the BSP had won seats in the district, but in 2017, a large section of Dalit voters, the party’s main support based, had voted for the BJP.

On Friday, Mayawati addressed a jam-packed gathering in Roorkee, and made it a point to mention Muslim voters, another crucial vote bank for the party.

“I feel the BJP and the Congress will feel the heat after Mayawati’s entry,” says an elated party worker named Saudan, who only uses his first name.

Haridwar also has a sizeable number of farmers. Around 20km from the venue of Mayawati’s election meeting, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, too, addressed a rally. The former Congress president raised the farmers’ issue and the controversial farm bills that were withdrawn after year-long protests.

Another group that could play kingmaker are the Sikhs farmers in Udham Singh Nagar district, which includes 10 Assembly seats, the second highest number of seats after Haridwar, which has 11 seats.

Udham Singh Nagar has political significance for the BJP as the party had won nine out of 10 seats here in the last elections. It had performed equally well in the district in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Most importantly, Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami’s constituency Khatima also falls in Udham Singh Nagar district.

The BJP could find it difficult to repeat its successes here this time given the bitter aftertaste of the year-long farmers’ protest against the farm laws, which was primarily led by Sikh farmers from Punjab at Delhi’s borders.

“How are we supposed to forget the way we were treated. No one cares about farmers,” complains Malkeet Singh, a young farmer from Bajpur.

If the BSP has sway in Haridwar, the AAP could benefit in Udham Singh Nagar, particularly in Kashipur constituency. The Congress has launched Narendra Chand Singh, the son of a former MP here, and the BJP has given the ticket to Trilok Singh Cheema, the son of a sitting MLA. The AAP, too, has a fresh face here in Deepak Bali who has been actively campaigning for the last couple of months.

In the rest of the hill districts, the political contest is largely bipolar between Congress and BJP. In Devprayag and Dwarahat, the state’s oldest regional party, the Uttarakhand Kranti Dal, could put up a fight.

Interestingly, the mass migration of people from the hills in search of greener pastures is not a strongly emotive issue in these elections. But the lack of health facilities is a common complaint.

Shweta Masiwal, a young social worker contesting as an Independent from Ramnagar constituency, says: “I never planned to enter politics. But the crippling issues, people struggling for basic amenities like first aid forced me to be in the fray. No one cares about love jihad…”

Masiwal is referring to the BJP’s manifesto released this week, which promises an amendment in the religious conversion law on ‘love jihad’. The manifesto also promises the formation of a committee at the district level to see if ‘outsiders’ buying land here is outnumbering locals.

“Our manifesto speaks about development, but also about restoration of temples and law on conversions,” says BJP spokesperson Suresh Joshi.

The BJP’s strength in its strong organisation, the battery of ground workers and RSS backup. The Congress, on the other hand, is banking on its candidates and their resources and network. But the grand old party’s promises have big numbers too.

The Congress has promised 4 lakh jobs, Rs 40,000 yearly assistance to 5 lakh families and free electricity. “We are not making blank poll promises. The party has done the math, calculated the cost of freebies,” says Gaurav Vallabh, Congress national spokesperson.

Both Congress and BJP are also out to woo women voters, whose numbers stand at more than 39 lakh. The former has promised cooking gas at Rs 500, while the latter has assured three free cooking gas cylinders a year.

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