Governance strategies can take a back seat, but the last word hasn’t been said on how the BJP leadership will address Dhami’s lack of experience, reports Aditi Phadnis.
It was out with the old and in with the new -- and then freshly minted!
While Uttarakhand struggles to manage the Covid-19 outbreak with a decrepit health infrastructure, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s choice of chief minister is a novice in government work.
The newest Uttarakhand CM, Pushkar Singh Dhami, 45, has been MLA only once before and never a minister. But he has a powerful backer in former chief minister and now outspoken Maharashtra Governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari, a long-time swayamsevak.
Dhami’s work in the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha and his campaigns to organise youth in Uttarakhand might have been a decisive factor in his selection as CM. For all practical purposes, for the BJP, he is a wartime CM.
This much is true for Dhami: Unlike his predecessor Tirath Singh Rawat, he won’t have to scramble to find a seat in the assembly and beg his colleagues to vacate a “safe” seat. He is already an MLA from Khatima.
Rawat had to step down, supposedly for constitutional reasons. After the Madras high court’s tongue-lashing (a judge said the Election Commission should be booked on murder charges for holding assembly elections when the Covid-19 pandemic was at its height), the poll panel might have sent a message to the government that it would think twice before holding an election unless constitutionally necessary.
But Rawat’s problem was not just that a by-election might not be held -- it was also that he was not sure of winning. He wanted to contest from his area of Chaubattakhal but the incumbent, Satpal Maharaj, made it quite clear he wasn’t going to vacate the seat.
The Gangotri seat is vacant but there was no guarantee the EC would notify a by-election there. Besides, the party was not sure Rawat could win the seat.
There was some talk that he could get his mentor B C Khanduri’s daughter Ritu, an MLA from Yamkeshwar, to step down, so that he could contest from there. The plan was to eventually field Ritu from his Lok Sabha seat, Pauri Garhwal. But now we will never know. For him, it is back to the pavilion.
Dhami doesn’t have these problems -- but the problems he will face are aplenty.
He has been very active in the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad and knows the state well. Although he belongs to Pithoragarh, he is elected to the assembly from Khatima, almost 200 km from his village.
Between 2002 and 2008, he travelled the entire state to organise unemployed youth under the BJP banner.
He was successful in ensuring 70 per cent reservation in local industries for local youth. In 2005, he organised a massive gherao of the assembly in support of the demand for employment to young people of the state. This is remembered to this day.
Many say that if Dhami did not become a minister despite all this, it wasn’t his fault.
One of the reasons why Tirath Singh Rawat replaced Trivendra Singh Rawat was that the latter was found wanting in the representation of Kumaon and favoured Garhwal. The rivalry between Kumaon and Garhwal in the hill state is legendary.
Trivendra also ignored the Thakurs from Kumaon, even as the region gave the party 23 of total 29 seats there. According to local BJP sources, every second Thakur voter in Kumaon supports the BJP. Yet the region and the caste found little or no representation in the Trivendra Rawat government.
Dhami, on the other hand, is a Thakur from Kumaon.
But some things haven’t changed. The BJP has 57 MLAs of a total 70 in Uttarakhand. All previous chief ministers have had a serious problem in accommodating all the interests the BJP now represents. As the objective numerical reality in the assembly has not changed, the chances are Dhami will have the same problem.
Trivendra Singh Rawat had announced Gairsain as the new capital of Uttarakhand. Tirath Singh Rawat reversed that decision. In the 100 or so days of his tenure, Uttarakhand has seen at least one scam (fake Covid-19 testing and inoculation certificates) and highly elevated rates of infection, after the Kumbh.
It will be Dhami’s job to ensure the optics of all this are fixed. Governance strategies can take a back seat, but the last word hasn’t been said on how the BJP leadership will address Dhami’s lack of experience.
Will a deputy chief minister be appointed to carry out government work, leaving Dhami free to run the election campaign? There is no clarity yet.
But this much is clear: Dhami’s job of ensuring the BJP has another term with more than 57 MLAs is not going to be an easy one.