He greets every onlooker with folded hands. When there are two or more, he rolls down the window of his SUV and waves at them. If the number is more, he steps out to shake hands with them.
Nearing 70, Uttarakhand CM Harish Rawat knows the art of winning hearts. “I am your ‘good old friend’. Don’t believe dilli wale chamatkari baba (a reference to PM Narendra Modi),” he repeats in his poll rallies. The Congressman beams with confidence. The chill of the hills or the dust of the plains is not stopping him from hopping from one spot to another for rallies and meetings that extend past midnight.
Rawat wasn’t the same a year ago. He took over from Vijay Bahuguna in February 2014, following irregularities in the post-Kedarnath calamity relief work.
Soon, the Congress lost all five parliamentary seats to the BJP in summer elections. Before Rawat could recover, he met with an accident and spent months in AIIMS, recuperating from a neck injury. Back at work, he had to deal with rebellion by some leaders who wanted to replace him.
Between March and May last year, about a dozen MLAs revolted, bringing down his government. Uttarakhand was placed under President’s Rule and Rawat fought a legal battle to get back chief ministership.
It was time for his fortunes to change. There has been no stopping for Rawat after winning a trust vote. His baggage was gone and he saw a chance to limit anti-incumbency. “All those who brought a bad name to Congress are with the BJP,” he told HT on a campaign trail.
The next few months saw Rawat fastening his grip. He rolled out populist schemes, toured the state and won over Independents.
BJP’s indecision about a ‘face’ against him helped Rawat’s case. He quietly built for himself the image of a ‘son of soil’.
He is shy about admitting it was a Rawat versus Modi battle, but leaves no doubt in his speeches that he was competing with the PM. “Modi is BJP’s best bet against me,” he adds.
Rawat’s positioning in Uttarakhand is a bit similar to Narendra Modi’s politics during Gujarat days or Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar’s during the 2015 assembly election — pitting the state’s pride against an indifferent Centre.
Against BJP’s high-pitched campaign, Rawat prefers being low key. He is a political underdog. And polls have an uncanny habit of supporting one.