The Congress high command’s inability to deal with crisis situations came to the fore once again when nine party MLAs, including former Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna, apparently switched sides and resolved to associate themselves with the Bharatiya Janata Party, a year ahead of the Assembly elections in the state. In what appeared to be a replication of the recent events in Arunachal Pradesh, where the Congress lost power following defection by some of its MLAs, Uttarakhand too seemed to be headed for President’s Rule.
Though both Chief Minister Harish Rawat and state Congress chief Kishor Upadhyaya put up a bold face and claimed that the dissident MLAs were in touch with them, some of the “defectors” landed in Delhi and were seen in the company of BJP leaders. Sources said that the fall of the Harish Rawat government in the state was imminent and the Congress leadership had completely failed to anticipate the situation, despite the fact that it had been building up for almost a year. The BJP had been working overtime to entice some of the MLAs and the opportunity arose when the Appropriation Bill was tabled in the House and the BJP made a fervent plea to the legislators to vote as per their conscience. Speaker Govind Singh Kunjwal rejected the demand for a division on voting and declared the Bill passed by a voice vote, leading to chaos in the House.
At the core of this revolt in the hill state is also the perception amongst partymen that the Congress high command had no time for them. Vijay Bahuguna had often complained that he had been seeking an appointment with party vice president Rahul Gandhi for over two years, but had not received any response from his office. Harish Rawat, who was considered politically strong, had been unable to comprehend the lurking danger to his ministry, even though there were enough indications that many of the MLAs were dissatisfied with his mode of working and were seeking greener pastures. Kishor Upadhyaya, the Pradesh Congress Committee president, always tried to convey an erroneous impression to the leadership in Delhi as he consistently maintained that things were under control.
Rawat and Upadhyaya had met Rahul Gandhi last month. It is evident that they were either unable to provide him with the details of the ground level reality or the party vice president had neither the time nor the inclination to listen to them. There was also discontent amongst the MLAs when cine star Raj Babbar was inducted in the Rajya Sabha from the state last year. Babbar was comparatively a newcomer to the party and was picked up for the seat due to his proximity to Rahul Gandhi. The party vice president was impressed by the yesteryear’s star when he was one of the few leaders who had gone to campaign in the Kashmir elections. Babbar thereafter was always described by other senior leaders as an “eloquent campaigner”. One of the prime factors that precipitated the crisis was the reluctance on the part of the leadership to be transparent regarding the Rajya Sabha seat falling vacant in the month of May. While the BJP is eager to increase its strength in the Upper House, the Congress leadership had indicated that “another outsider” like Babbar may be chosen. This had irked Vijay Bahuguna and his supporters as they felt that the former Chief Minister would have been the rightful claimant for a berth to the Rajya Sabha.
Efforts to contact Bahuguna proved futile, though some Congress workers maintained that he may have received an assurance for a Rajya Sabha seat from the BJP, which was bent upon rocking the Congress boat in the state. Bahuguna is reported to have asked Harish Rawat to resign as Chief Minister on “moral grounds” after the Bill was controversially adopted, amidst claims by opposition members that a money bill had been defeated, signalling the fall of the government. Until Friday, the Congress had the support of 42 MLAs in the 70-member Assembly. They included 37 Congress MLAs, two from the BSP and three Independents. The BJP has a strength of 28 MLAs. However, after the developments in the last two days, equations in the state may change and the BJP will be in position to call the shots. According to knowledgeable sources, three scenarios had emerged. The first being that the Congress manages to get the nine MLAs expelled from the party and with the help of the Independents and others holds on to its government. The next one being that the BJP forms the government with the support of the defectors, who back it either with an alliance or from the outside. The third is, the defectors form government after ousting Harish Rawat and the BJP supports the arrangement from outside.
Uttarakhand Governor K.K. Paul is closely watching the developments, as he may be shortly asked to submit a report to the Centre. The BJP MLAs, along with the Congress dissidents, were likely to meet the President, although Harish Rawat claimed that he would be able to prove his majority on the floor of the Assembly, a chance, he may not get. The obvious option before the Centre could be imposition of President’s Rule in the state. If that becomes a reality, next year’s Assembly elections would be held under President’s Rule.
The developments in Uttarakhand could have wide ranging ramifications in other states as well, where the high command has been attempting to impose its will. A Chief Minister of a Congress-ruled state has informed his supporters in advance that he would not be available to lead them in the next Assembly elections in view of the constant interference by the party leadership. The impact of what is happening in Uttarakhand may also be felt in Uttar Pradesh, from which the hill state was carved out many years ago. At this point it can only be stated that for the Congress, it is a cause of worrisome concern.