Millennium Post

Worsted by public anger

The impressive victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party [BJP] candidate Mala Rajyalakshmi Shah over the Congress candidate Saket Bahuguna in the Tehri Lok Sabha bypolls must have disappointed the Congress leadership. The record victory of Uttarakhand chief minister Vijay Bahuguna in the assembly bypolls from Sitarganj a few months back had renewed the high command’s belief in Bahuguna’s abilities. Therefore many were not surprised when the high command acceded to chief minister’s request to give ticket to his son Saket for the seat vacated by him, overlooking the claim of other senior leaders.

Tehri result very succinctly portrays the adverse mood the Congress leadership is facing in the urban areas. The cap on subsidised LPG cylinders was a major factor which worked against the Congress. The voters in Dehradun and its adjoining urban and semi-urban areas out rightly rejected the Congress. This is alarming as these seats have substantial presence of minority and Dalit votes, which traditionally goes with the Congress.

The party fared better than the BJP in five of the 14 assembly constituencieswhich comprise the Tehri parliamentary seat. All these five assembly seats are located in rural areas in the lap of high mountains. The Congress had excelled in terai [foothills] just a few months back during the Sitarganj polls. The result gives definite indicator that there is certain desertion by the people who voted for the Congress in 2009 parliamentary and 2012 assembly polls.

Talking to media persons two days after the declaration of the election results, chief minister Vijay Bahuguna admitted that the party had erred in gauging the public sentiment especially in Dehradun and adjoining segments.

Considering the fact that Saket polled more votes than Shah in five assembly constituencies- alllocated in mountainous regions- Bahuguna said, ‘One film flopping doesn’t mean that the hero is a flop.’ Despite admitting that he had erred to gauge public mood, the CM could further compound the error by ignoring the fact that there were no individual heroes or heroines in this bypoll, where people simply voted against the Congress and Bahuguna neither had the requisite charisma nor network to counter the adverse mood.

Apart from the Central government’s decision on capping supply of subsidised LPG cylinders, lack of sensitivity shown by Bahuguna on certain matters also led to his son’s defeat in Tehri. The State government’s stand on the issue of reservation in promotion in government services and the fact that barring the announcements the Bahuguna government did not execute any major developmental work also worked against the party. Some days before the bypoll when the Central government announced a hike in price of unsubsidised cylinders by Rs 11, chief minister Vijay Bahuguna had said this was not much.

He had gone to town claiming that inflation and price rise were not election issues as these were facets of the world economy. However, the CM ignored the fact that the voters in Uttarakhand are not bothered much about world economics as they are about the national and regional changes which directly affect them. He did state that people in Uttarakhand will received nine subsidised LPG cylinders a year which might later be increased to 12 a year but this didn’t convince the voters.

These factors could have been surmounted had the Congress in Uttarakhand presented a united front and started some development work during the seven months of its government in the state. The factionalism in the Uttarakhand unit has continued to weaken the party in the State. During campaign at least two party leaders including Agriculture minister Harak Singh Rawat had said that winning or losing one parliamentary seat will not affect the position of the Congress led United Progressive Alliance government at the Centre.

With Congress leaders themselves uninterested in ensuring a victory for their candidate in the bypolls, even fantastic promises by star campaigners like Sanjay Dutt promising to develop a film city in Uttarakhand, were rightly not taken seriously by the voters. Even the caste factor did not, surprisingly, turn out to be a major consideration for the voters. While the Congress trailed in its strong areas, it polled more votes than BJP in Purola, Gangotri, Pratapnagar, Dhanolti and Chakrata assembly constituencies which are not dominated by Brahmins who might have been expected to vote for a Brahmin Bahuguna rather than the Kshatriya Shah of the BJP.

It would not be incorrect to say that the public mandate in this bypoll was not reallyfor the BJP but mainly against what is seen as malgovernance of the Congress at the Central and State levels. Having already miffed the aam admi with statements whichbelied empathy for the public, the Congress is now set to review the factors responsible for its defeat. The review will be conducted at both the State and Central levels. However, the people of Uttarakhand have given their verdict – the confidence which the voters had placed in the Congress during the Assembly elections stands shaken. While the Congress reviews the factors responsible for its defeat, the chief ministerwill also be focusing on how to retain his seat as his detractors will use the bypoll defeat as a vindication of their stand against Bahuguna being made the CM.

With very high odds against him now, Bahuguna will need Z-category protection from the high command to survive as chief minister of the state. He gambled too early by putting his son at stake without consolidating his own position.

Sidharth Mishra is with Centre for Reforms, Development & Justice, and consulting editor, Millennium Post.
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