Chief minister Harish Rawat completes two years in office on Monday. The Congress veteran took over as CM at a time when Uttarakhand was yet to recover from the cataclysmic floods, development was in the doldrums and his predecessor and bête noir Vijay Bahuguna was grappling with rebellion within the party.
It was a time when the ruling party’s popularity in the state had touched its nadir and widespread discontent had forced the Congress leadership to effect a change of guard that saw Rawat replacing Bahuguna. Obviously, the people had high hopes of the new man in.
So, has Rawat been able to live up to the people’s expectations? The CM’s performance has elicited mixed reaction from analysts who rate it better than his predecessor’s but not entirely in keeping with the people’s expectations.
They give him full credit for creating an atmosphere of political stability and establishing a public connect, but maintain that Rawat has not much to show in terms of his report card on development and in creating employment opportunities for the local youth.
“If he steers the ruling party (Congress) to victory in the next assembly elections, it will be because of a combination of two factors,” opines professor YP Sundriyal of HNB Garhwal (Central) University.
One of the factors, according to him, is the Rawat government’s growing popularity, thanks to its populist schemes, and the other being Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s failure to fulfil the high expectations he had kindled among the people in the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) favour during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.
Also, within just two years of assuming power, the incumbent chief minister now not only presides over a majority government, but has also emerged as an undisputed leader within the ruling party. This, according to political analysts is no good news for the BJP ahead of the 2017 assembly elections.
“As of now, the saffron party doesn’t seem to have a leader who could match Rawat’s stature, if the ruling party chooses him as its face for the next assembly polls,” says Kumud Upadhyay, an assistant professor at Kumaon University’s Nainital campus.
According to him, the reason why the BJP is jittery about facing Rawat in the 2017 is twofold. “First, he has emerged as a strong leader within his own party as he has sidelined all top leaders who could have posed a threat to him,” he says. “This together with an array of populist schemes he launched added to his popularity, which again is a big threat to the Opposition BJP.”
“Rawat has managed to project his image as a mass leader,” admits former state BJP vice-president Lakhiram Joshi. “So, he may pose a challenge for us in the assembly polls if we fail to keep our internal bickering at bay.”
Political observers are unanimous that the populist schemes announced by Rawat helped him connect better with people. These schemes include pensions for the old, infirm, the physically challenged, widows, Tirth purpohits (priests) and dwarfs, etc.
“So far, six lakh people have been covered under different pension schemes. The number will be close to eight lakh by the time the next assembly polls will be declared,” the CM told Hindustan Times.
But political observers have dubbed all such schemes as “populist,” like the Rawat government’s “proposed” move to make Gairsain, the state’s centrally located hill town, its permanent capital. People in the state’s 10 hill districts have been making this demand since the early 1990s, when the movement for a separate hill state was at its peak.
Speculations about Gairsain being developed as a permanent capital started doing the rounds a year ago following the Rawat government’s move to set up a Vidhan Sabha Bhawan in the hill town. The intelligentsia though views it as a move initiated with an eye on votes.
“The ruling party leaders feel that keeping the issue of permanent capital alive will fetch them votes both in the hills and plains in the next assembly polls,” says MC Sati of HNB Garhwal Central University. “In the hills, they feel they would get votes in the name of Gairsain and in the plains for not declaring it a permanent capital.”
Dr Shameshr Singh Bisht, a social activist, however, appreciates Rawat for initiating a series of hill-centric development initiatives. He also appreciates the government’s move to appoint guest teachers in schools and colleges in the hills grappling with paucity of teaching staff. “But most these were token initiatives. The chief minister could not resolve the substantive issues that would have helped check forced migration from the hills,” Bisht says.
But it is not that there have been no efforts on Rawat’s part to speed up development. So, is an uncontrolled bureaucracy at the root of what is being widely seen as his “failure” to speed up delivery? The chief minister’s now famous statement that all his orders keep moving in circles like jalebis (sweetmeat) is self-explanatory.
Nonetheless, Sundriyal says, “The credit for rebuilding Kedarnath for sure goes to him as the shrine area was the worst affected by the floods…It will certainly help revive the Char Dham’s tourism-based economy.”