New Delhi: In the end, the Uttarakhand political crisis ended with a whimper. But not before it bruised the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and gave a fresh lease to the political career of Harish Rawat—the original eye of the storm.
The crisis began as a rebellion within the Uttarakhand unit of the Congress party against the leadership of Rawat and, but for the intervention of the courts, would most certainly have ended up toppling his government.
The fact that this script never played out has enabled Rawat to survive the rebellion, strengthening his credentials within the Congress.
The party, given the sympathy it has garnered in the last few weeks, gained an edge over its rivals. Critical, given that assembly elections are due early next year, unless Rawat decides to cash in on the momentum and call for early polls.
BJP’s bete noir
Political jostling between Rawat and the BJP is not new. It dates as far back as to 1980, when Rawat made his debut in the Lok Sabha by defeating the BJP’s Murli Manohar Joshi in Almora; he won again in 1984 and 1989.
Neither is the 69-year-old Rawat new to political controversy. Two months before the 2014 general election, in which the Congress received a historic drubbing, Rawat replaced Vijay Bahuguna as Uttarakhand chief minister.
His elevation was resented and continued to be questioned by Congress insiders. Now that Bahuguna is as good as out of the party and Rawat has managed to pull back from the brink, disgruntled Congress politicians are likely to stay quiet—at least for the time being.
Almora-born Rawat’s permanent residence is in Haridwar. In a way, his political roots go back to his days as a student of Lucknow University, from where he graduated with a law degree. According to people familiar with his early days, Rawat was then known as ‘dabangg,’ or feisty.
Like most Congress politicians of his age, Rawat launched his career as a grassroots politician at the village level, rising to block pramukh (head), chief of the Congress party’s Sewa Dal (volunteer group), and secretary in the party’s youth wing Indian Youth Congress, eventually rising to the Lok Sabha.
It was only after the formation of Uttarkhand in 2000 that Rawat found his groove. He served as president of the Congress party’s state unit between 2001 and 2007, having led the Uttarakhand Sanyukta Sangharsha Samiti that led the campaign for Uttarakhand’s statehood.
Right place, right time
By destiny or design, Rawat has been a politician with a knack for being with the right people at the right time. He was taken under the Congress party’s wing by Sanjay Gandhi, son of prime minister Indira Gandhi in the late 1970s. It was this association which won him his first Lok Sabha ticket in 1980.
When he was the secretary of the Indian Youth Congress, it was headed by Ghulam Nabi Azad, who is now one of the most important leaders in the Congress party and is also leader of the opposition in the Rajya Sabha.
“The political crisis of the last two months has given a shot in the arm to Rawat, who already holds a caste dominance in the state. He was the face of the party in the state, but now his position is further cemented. No matter what rebellion the party faces or what allegations are made by rival groups, the party cannot deny him that position," a senior Congress leader from the state said on condition of anonymity.
On the ground, Uttarakhand politics is a battle for dominance between two caste groups—the Brahmins and the Thakurs, with the latter holding an edge.
Rawat, according to senior party leaders, is the first influential Thakur chief minister in the state, so he becomes more indispensable for the Congress.
After the crisis
The last two months have been a real test of Rawat’s survival skills. According to a Congress member of the legislative assembly (MLAs), Rawat stood his ground and was instrumental in keeping the morale of the party members high after nine rebel MLAs defected to the BJP in March.
The Centre imposed President’s rule on Uttarakhand on 27 March, one day before Rawat was to face a floor test, citing a breakdown of governance in the hill state. The resulting constitutional wrangle was resolved on Tuesday when Rawat won a floor test ordered by the Supreme Court in the absence of the nine rebels, who were disqualified.
“I am a first-time MLA in Uttarakhand. Rawat led us at a time when most of us had lost hope. He kept meeting us, inspiring us and making us remember that political careers come with their own share of ups and downs and eventually we overcame this situation. I am sure the chief minister will emerge stronger out of this crisis," the legislator said on condition of anonymity.
Even his most bitter rivals concede that he is a “mass leader beyond doubt" and praise his oratorial skills. Add to it the fact that he has a good grip on both the Kumaon and Garhwal regions of the state and his organizational skills and political experience.
“He is a mass leader but he has a problem in taking people together and which is why a situation like this emerged in the first place. People feel he does not communicate well to his deputies and leaders who work under him. A lot of people, including ministers under him, have had complains on this aspect," a Congress functionary working in Uttarakhand said, requesting anonymity.
“One thing that can be said is that he has emerged as a stronger leader and survivor out of this crisis. Everything was pitted against him and he has made it clear that he has a strong political acumen to manage situations like this. The immediate challenge for Rawat is managing the cabinet and incorporating the non-Congress MLAs who supported him as well as Congress ones who stood by him in this time," said Annpurna Nautiyal, dean of school of humanities and social sciences at H.N.B. Garhwal University in Uttarakhand.
“Rawat is an astute politician and he realizes that this is a temporary development and people’s electoral support matters much more than their sympathy. He will have to fight all odds to make the Congress the first choice of voters in Uttarakhand which seems to be a very difficult task right now," she added.