As the virus ravaged the rural areas, the state BJP has figured out it is impossible to underplay or escape its impact on its political plans, reports Radhika Ramaseshan.
'Apna booth, corona mukt booth (Our booth will be Covid-free)' is the pledge that the Bharatiya Janata Party cadre was recently sworn to as part of a larger motivational pitch served in the prelude to the assembly polls in February-March 2022.
More than anything, it reflected the BJP's preoccupation with the pandemic that has weighed on the blueprint that was originally drawn to get itself a second term in the hill state.
The BJP's game plan went askew after the Kumbh Mela that was planned to showcase as a highlight of its rule caused an unprecedented Covid surge in villages.
As the virus ravaged rural areas, the state BJP figured out it was impossible to underplay or escape its impact on its political plans.
"We hope to minimise the effects of the pandemic in the coming months but it will influence the election. In fact, it is our greatest challenge to ably manage the crisis because people’s expectations are big and it is impossible to meet them all," said Madan Kaushik, the BJP's Uttarakhand president and Haridwar MLA.
Ajay Bhatt, Lok Sabha MP from Nainital-Uddham Singh Nagar, explained what the problems were.
"Take the example of the drugs needed to cure the black fungus (mucormycosis). Hardly 10 patients required these medicines in normal times. Now, over a thousand need them. We asked pharma companies in Haldwani and Rishikesh to augment supplies.
"Similarly, efforts are on to make our state self-sufficient in other aspects of medical treatment like hospitals and health centres, and equipping ourselves with oxygen supplies so that when a third wave hits, we won’t have to beg other states for resources," said Bhatt.
However, while the government’s proposed push towards 'self-reliance' is centred largely around cities and towns, sources admitted that the challenge lay in villages.
Ajay Kumar, state general secretary (organisation), said: "The upper reaches are under-serviced by doctors and paramedics. Doctors treat postings in hilly areas that are not very accessible as a punishment.
"That makes the spread of health services uneven."
A reason why villages have seen a record number of deaths that elude census is because even the nearest primary health centre, leave alone a hospital, is 15 km away or more.
The scenario is a far cry from the absurdly optimistic picture which the newly appointed chief minister, Tirath Singh Rawat, conjured when the Kumbh congregation began building up at Haridwar in March.
Tirath Singh, who had just replaced Trivendra Singh Rawat, dispelled fears of the record crowds triggering a Covid upsurge, saying, "Most importantly, Kumbh is on the banks of the Ganga. Maa Ganga’s blessings are in full flow. So, there should be no corona."
While the CM's statement was roundly criticised by the medical and scientific communities for his assertion, the devout took his words seriously.
In replacing one Rawat with another -- at the tail end of the government's tenure -- the BJP followed a practice endemic to Uttarakhand.
Ever since it was carved out of Uttar Pradesh in 2000, no chief minister from the BJP or the Congress that ruled alternately survived a term.
Narain Dutt Tiwari of the Congress was an honourable exception.
Apart from the 'controversial' policies that Trivendra Singh had authored in his rule, BJP sources said a major reason for the changeover was Tirath Singh's 'accessibility' to the party cadre and people in general.
"The BJP high command was aware that the previous CM never met our workers, let alone people. His officers handled their requests and complaints in an ad hoc manner.
"We could have lost the election under his stewardship or lack of it. Tirath Singh is available to anyone. So, part of our problems is taken care of," a source claimed.
However, it is not clear if the BJP planned to project the CM as the centrepiece of electioneering.
"Last time, we did not have a face. The parliamentary board will decide if we need a face or not," said Anil Baluni, Rajya Sabha MP from Uttarakhand and the BJP's chief national spokesperson.
Kaushik said: "Everything is fluid in our party. Tirath Singhji was an MP who became CM. I was a minister who moved to the party organisation. Responsibilities are swapped but we are expected to carry these out with dedication."
Tirath Singh's appointment afforded the BJP a reprieve of sorts in that he annulled some of his predecessor's 'unpopular' moves.
Among them was the suspension of a new administrative division, Gairsain, that was to be the third division after Kumaon and Garhwal.
Some BJP legislators alleged Tirath Singh took the decision on the advice of a 'cabal', without evolving a political consensus.
The passage of the Uttarakhand Char Dham Devasthanam Management Act by the Trivendra Singh government in the assembly raised the hackles of the clergy because it allowed the government to take over the major religious institutions and nominate its members to the management boards. Tirath Singh promptly rescinded the law.
While the leadership change may be a gamble, the BJP is counting on two factors to see it through in the polls: Its organisation and a 'shambolic' Congress.
"Uttarakhand has one of the strongest BJP organisations. There is perfect coordination between our workers and the elected representatives," said Dushyant Gautam, national general secretary in charge of the state.