Harish Rawat is in a situation that recalls the saying, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” Despite being one of the most loyal and faithful Congress leaders of any state (or as Rawat himself put it, a “child bride” of Congress with all the pathos that term entails), the 64-year-old party leader has been passed over once again for the position of Uttarakhand chief minister. Indeed, the party seems to think that old Chief Ministers of Uttar Pradesh or their sons are the only ones fit to govern Uttarakhand. Their patronizing attitude towards their tallest leader has also stuck in the craw and in fact played no small part in touching off Rawat’s revolt.
The utter tone deafness in selecting Vijay Bahuguna instead of even consulting Rawat or offering him a meaningful promotion in exchange is evident in a number of areas. Bahuguna is Rawat’s junior in the party, only entering parliament in 2007 after a decade of losing campaigns. He has little profile throughout the state, a fact that he feels is a blessing that gives him supposed equidistance from the factions present in the party. He is an MP, which eliminates the one rationale for not picking Rawat for chief minister as he will also have to vacate his seat in parliament to enter the state assembly in a byelection. The issue of family ties with the Gandhis (his sister and UP Congress President Rita Bahuguna Joshi was Rahul Gandhi’s travel companion during the UP elections, while his first cousin B.C. Khanduri of the BJP is the far more popular politician) is particularly galling given their spectacular electoral losses.
The choice has also aggravated caste grievances to the tipping point. Bahuguna like Khanduri, Ramesh “Nishank” Pokhriyal, N.D. Tiwari, and Nityanand Swami before him is a Brahmin. The only non-Brahmin to hold the high chair in the last 11 years was B.S. Koshiyari who presided over the state for only two months in 2001. This imbalance in representation in a state where Rajputs alone make up close to 60% of the population, has played no small role in the tremendous factionalism affecting both the BJP and Congress rank and file. Both parties have long been dominated by Brahmins but the persistence of this historical legacy is inexcusable in an era where the aspirations of all sections of society must be taken into account.
The regional balance has also been upended with Bahuguna’s selection. Like Khanduri and Pokhriyal, Bahuguna hails from Pauri Garhwal. Kumaon has been patiently waiting for the baton of leadership to pass to their region. Harish Rawat and some other contenders would have satisfied this balance, but again, the high command violated this unspoken rule by appointing yet another Garhwali. The fact that the party president hails from Kumaon means little when the preeminent position in the state remains in the hands of one region election after election. Given this disparity, it is no wonder that no MLA from the Kumaon region above Udham Singh Nagar was present at Bahuguna’s swearing in.
Most importantly however, the majority of MLAs as well as political observers recognize that Rawat has been the frontrunner for the position since 2002, when was first “cheated” of the opportunity to lead the state. Combined with his long innings as both an elected representative and grassroots worker of the party, his case has remained by far the strongest of any candidate in the state. Moreover, he has remained loyal to the party for over forty years even through its roughest patches, a feat unmatched by most politicians in the region who have zigzagged between political outfits throughout their careers. This includes Tiwari who started his career in a smaller party and Bahuguna’s father who broke with the Congress several times in his career and died as a leader of the Lok Dal.
In the 1970s, Rawat joined both INTUC and the Youth Congress before winning his first Lok Sabha election in 1980 by knocking off Jan Sangh heavyweight Murli Manohar Joshi in Almora. In the same year he also become head of the Congress Seva Dal and a member of the All India Congress Committee. He would go on to serve in the Lok Sabha until 1991 when Congress was wiped out in the state. After years spent rebuilding the party’s credibility by joining and contributing to the Uttarakhand movement, Rawat would lead the party back to power in Uttarakhand’s first state elections in 2002.
However it was in the aftermath of the surprising but brilliant victory where Harish Rawat first encountered his personal glass ceiling. Instead of himself, the Congress high command picked veteran UP politician Tiwari to become chief minister. Tiwari had himself broken with Congress in 1995, winning the 1996 Lok Sabha election as a member of his own faction with Satpal Maharaj. He later rejoined, but remained implacably opposed to the notion of Uttarakhand since his real ambitions were in Lucknow and Delhi.
Rawat was upset by this slight, but given Tiwari’s seniority, he eventually relented and went on to join the Rajya Sabha. In the following years, Rawat would go on to play the role of unofficial opposition from his position as party president, as the BJP had become moribund during Tiwari’s term (in fact, Tiwari was often on better terms with the BJP than his own party). In 2009, he shifted to Haridwar seat after Almora became reserved and handily won with one of the largest margins in recent memory. His victory owed no small part to his good rapport with minority communities and more recently he has won the loyalty of current and former BSP legislators.
For twelve years, Harish Rawat has nursed the dream of becoming chief minister more so than climbing up the ladder at the centre, a fact that was all too clear to the party high command but which it inexplicably chose to ignore. If Rawat climbs down from the post-election confrontation and facilitates the functioning of Bahuguna’s government, the party will owe him and the bulk of the party’s MLAs that support him a favour beyond measure. Even a cabinet berth is too minor an offer in exchange for his assent. As for the Uttarakhand Congress, it may very well want to carve out its autonomy from the high command that is so out of touch with the political ground realities in the state.