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Uttarakhand: The Road Ahead

In many ways the last year and a half have been positive for the Uttarakhand movement. The movement shifted its focus from dharnas and agitations on the streets to discussions in drawing rooms and seminar halls.

Anoop Kumar
Doon City Chronicle, June 1999

If a movement is nothing but a slogan, then it has all the meanings of a revolution that has been hijacked by the existing power brokers. Something similar happened to the Uttarakhand movement, it became a slogan in 1994 and spilled on to the streets. It did catch the imagination of the people, but it also ran riot the imagination of the major political parties active in the region. It was easy for them to don the clothes of the andolankaris and shout slogans, as they understand the dynamics of street-politics and the art of political organization better than the real progenitors of the Uttarakhand movement, who were more of social activists and political novices. For the major political parties in the region – the Congress and BJP, ‘Uttarakhand’ became a slogan that got them votes. In this game of ballots the BJP won and the Uttarakhand movement lost.

The folly appears to have been realized by the real Uttarakhandis. Uttarakhand is not a slogan; it is about better governance, environmentally sustainable development, employment opportunities for the youth, hak-hakuk of the traditional communities, ownership of natural resources, and not the least corruption-free politics and bureaucracy. It’s a huge task and beyond the mindset of the present political class. It is not possible for them to change their decade old habits. Revolutionaries are required for such fundamental changes in the ideology of governance. The BJP was given a chance by the people of the region to make the difference, but its failure on almost all fronts has already led to disenchantment. They were not able to get the Uttarakhand Bill passed in the parliament, for which they would like to pass the buck to the limitations of coalition politics. The BJP cannot escape the responsibility as both Akali Dal that raised the Udham Singh Nagar issue and Loktantric Congress that raised the Haridwar issue are part of the ruling coalition headed by it. Though now the leaders of BJP in the region are claiming that if the budget session had continued and the government had not fallen, it would have got the Uttarakhand Bill passed. As if the people do not know that the Uttarakhand Bill was not even on the agenda of the government. Even if the BJP led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) come back to power at the centre, the limitation and the advantages of coalition politics has become a reality.

Uttarakhand is not a slogan; it is about better governance, environmentally sustainable development, employment opportunities for the youth, hak-hakuk of the traditional communities, ownership of natural resources, and not the least corruption-free politics and bureaucracy. It’s a huge task and beyond the mindset of the present political class.

The growing importance of small parties at the national level in a coalition government has led to new enthusiasm in Uttarakhand Kranti Dal. It has been realized that Uttarakhand statehood can become a reality if a regional party represents the region in the parliament and the assembly. Such a party can push through the interests of the region without sacrificing them for the sake of power. Most of the people I talked to agree that intentions of the BJP MPs elected from the region were always good, but being part of a national party they were forced to put the regional interest in the backburner. They were always first party members, and later representatives of the people. Only in the case of a regional party, the people and the party can become one.

This new thinking among some of the think-tanks of the Uttarakhand movement is driving for new political alignments in the region. The idea is to support neither the Congress or the BJP in the region, but to throw up a third front comprising of small regional parties and groups, if possible under the banner of Uttarakhand Sanyukta Sangharsh Samiti, and in the patronship of the grand old man of Uttarakhand Andolan, Indra Mani Badoni. The idea is to get Uttarakhandi MPs in the Loksabha from all the four seats of Uttarakhand. These MPs will have only one point agenda, that is to get the Uttarakhand Statehood Bill passed in the parliament. They are to support the ruling coalition on only one condition that the coalition agrees to their statehood demand.

At a meeting held on 13th May at Dehradun, UKD stalwart Kashi Singh Aeri made it clear that they have to gauge the public mood, the people of the hills feel betrayed both by the Congress and the BJP. He said that the politics of coalition has become a reality, and the regional parties hold the key to government formation. Only a regional party like UKD can bargain for statehood with the central government.

The strategy rightly this time is to generate a favourable public opinion for the Uttarakhandi candidates through silent town to town, village to village and house to house campaign. The idea is not to confront the BJP and the Congress on the streets. It is not even possible for the Uttarakhandi parties to match the financial and infrastructural resources of the big parties. The failure of the BJP to get the Uttarakhand Bill presented in the parliament has already led to a feeling of betrayal in the hills. The problem has been further compounded by anti-people and anti-Uttarakhand policies of the BJP led UP government. First there was the controversy over the backdoor attempt by the UP government to keep their hold on the resources of Uttarakhand. Then there was the rumour of sell-out of Maneri-Bhali and other projects and then finally the controversy over the recruitment and the cancellation of LT teachers in Garhwal. All this has projected an anti-Uttarakhand image of the BJP government. As if this was not enough, charges of rampant corruption are being leveled against the BJP Minister from the region, especially Dr Ramesh Chandra Pokhriyal and Matwar Singh Kandari. During election time no one will have the opportunity to go into the veracity of these charges, but it will become a scoring point for the opponents of BJP.

Another major scoring point for the opponents of the BJP in the region will be inept handling of the two natural disasters – Ukhimath-Malpa landslides and the Chamoli earthquake. The failure of the administration to respond swiftly and effectively after the disaster has led to a lot of resentment among the people of the region. It will not be easy for the BJP to enumerate its achievements other than national ones such as, The Bomb, and the unjustified fall of the Atal Behari Vajpayee government at the behest of Jayalalitha and Sonia. It is more likely that regional issues will dominate the coming Lok Sabha elections.

Even grave national issues such as the war in Kargil will be a handicap for the BJP in the region. As large number of families in the hills have someone or the other in the armed forces, the family members will see the Kargil affair as yet another failure of the BJP government. It was too occupied in saving its government to take notice of the infiltrators. The charge of complacency is already being put on the government by the people whose near and dears are fighting on the LoC.

At present among the Uttarakhandi parties only two groups are such that they can have an impact on the ballot box. One is UKD, which has both traditional, and new support base, the other is the combination of various organizations of former military and para-military personnel. The idea is to field joint candidates under the banner of Uttarakhand Sanyukta Sangharsh Samiti. But the real problem will crop up when the choice of the candidate will have to be made. There may be many aspirants. This may overturn the apple cart. There are people who have been with the Uttarakhand movement from the beginning and there are those who have joined the Uttarakhand Sangharsh Samiti from other parties. And then there are some senior retired bureaucrats and military personnel who may also be nursing the idea of contesting the elections. One of the organizations, the Uttarakhand Purva Sainik Evam Ardh Sainik Kendriya Sangathan which has been formed recently, held its meeting on 12th June at Pithoragarh to form the candidate selection committee, Principal Secretary Uttaranchal, S.S. Pangtey is its co-ordinator and PC Thapliyal is its Convenor.

Once the difficult task of selecting the joint candidate is over, then the effort should be to take the real issues to the people, feels a UKD activist. The choice of the joint candidate will be right only if local issues such as the statehood demand development, employment opportunities and community control of resources will dominate the elections. If the two national parties are allowed to bring in the national issues such as stable and able government, and Sonia-foreigner controversy then the contest will restrict itself between the Congress and the BJP. Uttarakhand statehood will again become a tag to be worn by both parties. There are strong chances of the Congress reaping the benefits if such a situation arises. Though it is quite easy to say whether Uttarakhandi parties will be able to throw up a genuine regional outfit and field the joint candidate. If it really happens and does not get bogged down by ego clashes and squabbling on nominations, then even the marginal parties in the region such as Samajwadi Party and Communists may lend support to the joint candidate. There is enough time before the elections, which is due sometime in September, for the Uttarakhandi parties to build a network of support base from village to village in the region. NGOs are expected to play a major role in the new political alignment. Their sympathies for natural reasons lie with the UKD. After talking to some of the leading NGOs working in the hills it has been learnt that most of them favour a regional party for Uttarakhand. The concerns of NGOs are that the Uttarakhand movement goes beyond slogans and talks about real issues such as environmental sustainability, development and employment opportunities. They are confident that the villagers are enlightened enough to understand the real issues. It is now the prerogative of the political parties to shift the electoral debate to the issues that matter to the ordinary citizens of Uttarakhand.