As expected, Vijay Bahuguna easily won the state assembly bye-election from Sitarganj in a landslide, entering the Vidhan Sabha with the largest margin since Uttarakhand’s formation. As Sitarganj was originally occupied by BJP legislator Kiran Mandal whom the Congress had successfully lurred away on promises made to the Bengali community, the Congress tally went up to 33 in the state assembly, solidifying Bahuguna’s hand and the stability of the coalition government.
Bahuguna owes his lopsided victory to several factors. As the incumbent Chief Minister, any constituency he contested would have benefited from the patronage of the leading politician in the state. This factor almost always guarantees a victory in cases like this, even if the opposition decides to take their chances by fielding a strong candidate. Locally, the long-neglected Bengali community had also found a champion in Bahuguna since partition brought them to the region. The fact that the seat was originally won in the BJP’s near sweep of the Terai did not prevent communities from strategically placing their bets with the winner.
Most importantly as a harbinger of things to come, the Congress also routed the BJP’s veteran politician Prakash Pant in a straight up contest, 77.1% to 19.8%. The BSP, SP, and UKD (P) had all declined to field candidates for the seat, and bitter internal factionalism did not arise at all during the campaign. Indeed, Bahuguna took steps to placate Harak Singh Rawat by elevating him to cabinet, while Harish Rawat ever loyally put in an appearance during the campaign.
The historic magnitude of Bahuguna’s victory thus sharply reveals that if third parties continue to decline in Uttarakhand, Congress will probably emerge with a built-in advantage over the BJP that may not match Congress’ more cross-communal appeal. How the Congress candidate for Bahuguna’s vacated Tehri Lok Sabha seat performs will be well worth watching to see if this trend holds up in the hill region of the state. It will also test whether factionalism will reemerge within Congress given that the state assembly elections generated a lot of bad blood between the candidates and the camps with the party, especially in Tehri district.