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February 21, 1998


Campaign Trail/ Sharat Pradhan

Will Nainital be N D Tiwari's last hurrah?

Time is the biggest healer. Alternately, public memory is short.

Take which of the above cliches you like, either of them explain why the much-hyped demand for a separate hill state, which caused much heat and dust earlier in the decade, is a non-issue in the current general election.

"We have had enough of slogan shouting by politicians of all hues in favour of the creation of Uttarakhand," says Rajiv Lochan Shah. "The whole issue was being turned into a gimmick."

That opinion finds favours with many others in this popular hill station in the Kumaon region. "What have politicians done beyond raising slogans for the creation of Uttarkhand?" asks a professor of the local university, who was closely associated with the movement, and whose mood today is one of profound disillusionment. "It is simply because of the election that they are talking about it now. Did any of these politicians voice the demand in Parliament? No. And that is enough to show you the hollow nature of their poll rhetoric."

Shows you how out of touch the pols are with the electorate's mindset, that everyone ranging from Congress veteran Narain Dutt Tiwari to Bharatiya Janata Party nominee Ila Pant (wife of former federal minister K C Pant) have been promising statehood to the voters of the hill region.

To, it must be added, lukewarm response. "We are fed up of this lip service," remarks government employee Dinesh Joshi, while recalling how the then governor Motilal Vora, had generated much hope among the hill people by setting up mini-secretariats in both Nainital and Dehradun. "Then he left, and another dream of the people of this region died, neither Vora's successor Romesh Bhandari nor successive governments under Mayawati or Kalyan Singh have shown any interest in the movement."

Interestingly, both the BJP and Samajwadi Party governments had, in the past, formally committed themselves to the creation of a separate hill state. The BJP in fact reaped rich dividends from that plank, when in the 1991 assembly election it bagged 18 of 19 seats on offer in the region.

This indicated to politicians that Uttarkhand, properly handled, was a sure winner. So, lo, Mulayam Singh Yadav got into the act with a similar promise, only to mess it up when his police opened fire on demonstrators in Muzaffarnagar.

Came Mayawati's turn to try and cash in -- but by then, the locals appeared to have caught on, for the BSP failed to make any headway with its own version of the Uttarkhand dream.

To top it all, the United Front government's then prime minister H D Deve Gowda announced that a separate hill state would be set up, choosing his Independence Day speech from the Red Fort as the platform.

That check list of empty promises perhaps explains the current lack of response from the voting public to politicians who try to play on this particular chord.

And with the most emotive local issue taken out of the equation, the election has become a matter of personalities, with the individual credibility of the contenders being seen as the deciding factor.

The SP has fielded Abdul Rauf Siddique -- a candidate who, in voter perception, is of little consequence.

A substantial chunk of the Muslim vote is expected to go to Tiwari, who is viewed as the winning card against the BJP. Thus, the contest in effect has resolved into a straight fight between Pant and him.

Tiwari is seen as a man of stature in state politics, while Pant's credentials are solely confined to her kinship with the family of the late stalwart Gobind Ballabh Pant, whose son she married. This, and the BJP banner, are her biggest assets.

A tour through the constituency leaves one with the impression that slowly but surely, the contest is swinging towards Tiwari, with even his critics being forced to concede that he, more than most, has done much for the development of the region.

Of course, the ground reality is that the actual development has been confined to the foothill areas of Haldwani, Kashipur and Pantnagar. Barring perhaps Bhim Tal, the upper reaches of this area have no developmental projects to boast of, and analysts indicate that the voters of this region could consequently turn against Tiwari.

Ironically, it is this same lop-sided development that led to the call for a seperate hill state in the first place. But that, locals agree, has in time turned into a chimera.

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