The Congress has finally pulled the trigger and selected the Tehri Garhwal MP Vijay Bahuguna as the next chief minister. Given that fellow MP Harish Rawat and State Congress President Yashpal Arya have long been seen as the top contenders, this is a surprising development whose full import will only be known as the new government forms and makes clear its intentions.
On the face of it, Bahuguna seems like an inexplicable compromise choice made by political compulsions. His faction is one of the smallest within the party and he will begin his tenure with daunting challenges from within his own government. He is yet another Brahmin that reinforces the notion that this one caste has once again outmanoeuvered all others to assert its supremacy in the hill state. He is an MP which will force Congress to endure two byelections at a time when the party is down. He has found favour with both the lone UKD MLA and the Independent MLA from Tehri, but otherwise has far less pan-regional clout than other candidates.
As son of former UP chief minister and Lok Dal leader H.N. Bahuguna, cousin of former Uttarakhand chief minister B.C. Khanduri, and brother of UP Congress president Rita Bahuguna Joshi, he has substantial political pedigree (read family dynasty). As an advocate, he is well spoken, but it remains to be seen whether he will have any better luck managing the unruly ruling party than his cousin did in his on again, off again stint as BJP leader.
Indeed, the Congress could have made history by selecting a Dalit as chief minister that would have upended the tawdry upper caste rivalries that have held the region’s politics hostage since feudal times. Dalits are its most loyal supporters, while Brahmins have been the opposition BJP’s vote base since the early 1990s. By taking one group for granted while catering to another that has not voted in your favour for the last few elections seems like a risky gamble. As for the majority Rajput community, it seems their destiny is to remain so divided as to never achieve the high chair themselves.
In both cases, the party had no excuses, as it had at least two outstanding candidates who were far more senior in the state party heirarchy than Bahuguna. Yashpal Arya was Speaker of the House in the first elected government of the state, and the later successful two-time state party president. He recently led the 2012 election campaign but was not able to steer ticket distribution. His even keeled, humble demeanour is refreshing in a region filled with egotistical politicians. As for veteran party leader Harish Rawat, he should have become chief minister in 2002 when he revived the party to win a clear victory in the state’s first elections. Despite being a loyal party member for over four decades, he was denied in favour of N.D. Tiwari, another veteran but now disgraced Brahmin leader who became his bête noire. He also recently demonstrated wide regional appeal by first winning the Lok Sabha seat in Almora in 1980 and again in Haridwar in 2009. However, it seems that another Rawat, Garhwal MP Satpal Maharaj sabotaged his chances by strongly opposing his candidacy like he did in 2002.
Given that the factions represented by Arya, Rawat, and Maharaj have been at loggerheads, Bahuguna may have also been chosen to overcome this chasm. Whether he’ll be able to bridge it or himself plummet into its depths remains to be seen. What Harish Rawat in particular does next may very well decide the fate of the new government. In fact, it was the Rawat faction that provided the role of unofficial opposition to the Tiwari administration, after Tiwari had himself coopted much of the quiescent BJP during his tenure. Will history repeat itself?