In the aftermath of the Supreme Court ruling reinstating Harish Rawat as the Chief Minister of Uttarakhand while revoking the President’s Rule imposed by the Centre, the Congress appears to be considering the option of going in for early elections in the hill state to further corner the Bharatiya Janata Party. In a concurrent development, former Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna, who led the nine Congress rebels, is likely to join the BJP along with his colleagues since his continuation in the grand old party has become untenable.
In the normal course, elections to the state Assembly are due in February next year to coincide with the polls in Uttar Pradesh. However, the predominant thinking at the AICC is that the party should cash in on the sympathy factor created by extra constitutional means adopted by the BJP to usurp power in Uttarakhand shortly after dislodging a Congress government in a similar fashion in Arunachal Pradesh. Thus the Assembly should be dissolved immediately to enable the elections to be held in October or November this year itself. The Supreme Court’s order is being seen as a colossal setback for the Narendra Modi government as well as the BJP leadership, which tried every trick in the trade to unseat the Congress.
Significantly, the court’s decision would deter any future move by the Centre on invoking Article 356 unless there were excessively strong and valid reasons to do so. Senior BJP leader Subramanian Swamy has urgently demanded that the Attorney General and the Solicitor General should be removed for their inept handling of the legal issues, besides keeping the Prime Minister and the President in the dark. Senior leaders in the BJP admit that the return of Rawat as the Chief Minister was “a big slap on the face of the party”, which was on course to come to power in the state next year. But the developments would certainly impact its chances and the Congress, which was losing popularity because of its failure to live up to the people’s expectations, seems to have got a new lease of life.
Several BJP leaders were also critical of the move to admit Bahuguna and others in the party since it would create further problems as many BJP aspirants for the seats that may get allotted to the Congress rebels may revolt on being denied tickets at the time of elections. There has also been a demand that national party leaders and office bearers who botched up the Uttarakhand matter should be held accountable and taken to task. Kailash Vijayvargiya, BJP general secretary who was entrusted the task of weaning the rebels away from the Congress camp, is currently being blamed for this huge embarrassment likely to influence the outcome of polls being held elsewhere.
The Congress camp is brimming with confidence. Rawat had detailed discussions on the party’s future course with Sonia Gandhi and other leaders including Ambika Soni, the state in-charge and Ghulam Nabi Azad. While there is near unanimity on an early poll, there is a section that wants the Assembly to be dissolved next month after the voting for the single Rajya Sabha seat in the state. Others believe that there should be no delay, since the Rajya Sabha seat would in any case come to the Congress once it returns with greater numbers post polls, given that a demoralised BJP would not be able to stop it from winning.
The crisis in Uttarakhand Congress had precipitated after the high command had failed to guarantee the Rajya Sabha nomination to Vijay Bahuguna, whose efforts to meet senior leaders had proved futile. There was apprehension that the high command would give the Rajya Sabha to an “outsider”, something similar to what had been done when Raj Babbar was nominated to the Upper House last year. Many in the Congress expect the top leadership to be chastened by the recent happenings while deciding on its Rajya Sabha nominee from the state regardless of when the Assembly gets dissolved, now or in June.
Sources said that Rahul Gandhi has constantly been in touch with some of the senior leaders of the state and would ultimately take the call on the Assembly’s dissolution. The Uttarakhand Congress has had its own share of difficulties and has witnessed intense factionalism. It is a known fact that there has been a long standing rivalry between the Brahmins and Rajputs in the state. The Congress in the past settled for Brahmins—Narayan Dutt Tewari during its earlier government and later Vijay Bahuguna, whose selection came as a surprise since most people expected either Tewari’s prodigy Indira Hardesh, Satpal Maharaj or Harish Rawat to be frontrunners. After Bahuguna was chosen, Harish Rawat appeared to be very unhappy and there were reports that he had an informal meeting with Nitin Gadkari while the latter was the BJP president, at Teen Murti Lane, a matter which both denied later.
Midway in his term, Bahuguna was asked to step down and Rawat was chosen though his archrival Harak Singh Rawat (now a rebel). At that time he conveyed his disappointment and dissatisfaction to the Congress leadership. Prior to the recent developments, the high command took the threat from the rebels non seriously and even Rawat was oblivious of the plot to oust him as Chief Minister till it was too late. However, his good fortune was that both his party leaders as well as those in the BJP committed several errors during the run up to the voting on the Appropriation Bill and things subsequently turned out to be in his favour.
Sources said that Chaudhury Birendra Singh, Union minister in the Modi government and one time in-charge of the state on behalf of the Congress had played a pivotal role in convincing Bahuguna to move over to the BJP. The former Chief Minister is left with very little option as he sees no future for himself or his son in the Congress any longer. However, his initial hesitation to switch sides was due to the fact that his sister, Rita Bahuguna Joshi is a senior Congress leader in Uttar Pradesh and his manoeuvres would adversely affect her. In addition, he was unable to reconcile with the idea of siding with the saffron brigade when his own father and veteran politician, the late Hemvati Nandan Bahuguna had spent his entire life espousing secular politics.
The BJP too is a divided house. Its three former Chief Ministers, Major General (Retd) B.C. Khanduri, Bhagat Singh Koshiari and Ramesh Pokhriyal “Nishank” have serious differences with each other. The induction of Bahuguna would make the situation complicated by many a fold and therefore the party would find it difficult to project someone as its Chief Ministerial face in the next round.
The key to the Congress strategy would be its ability to cash in on the Supreme Court’s decision that has put the BJP on the mat. Simultaneously, if the BJP gets humbled in Uttarakhand ahead of the UP polls, it would be extremely demoralised, a condition that would suit all anti BJP parties. Therefore, Rahul Gandhi’s call would be important even though the central leadership of the party would have minimal role in the probable win whenever it takes place.