An interesting battle is on the cards in the five Lok Sabha seats of Uttarakhand going to polls in the first phase on Thursday with the BJP banking on the success of Balakot air strikes to garner votes and the Congress betting on the alleged Rafale scam to dent the prospects of the saffron party.
As in the past elections, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress are once again locked in straight contests on all the five seats which have been going en bloc to either of them alternately.
In 2009, the Congress had won all the seats while the BJP wrested them in 2014.
The saffron party is confident of retaining its 5-0 tally while the Congress is making every effort to stage a comeback in the hill-state after the 2017 assembly poll rout when the BJP won 57 of the 70 seats to storm to power.
The Congress and the BJP have emerged as the dominant parties in Uttarakhand in all the general elections held since the state’s creation except once in 2004 when Samajwadi Party’s Rajendra Singh had won the Haridwar seat.
Having fielded party veteran and former chief minister Harish Rawat from Nainital against BJP’s Lok Sabha poll debutante Ajay Bhatt and state Congress chief Pritam Singh against sitting BJP MP Mala Rajya Laxmi Shah in Tehri, Congress hopes to make the going tough for the saffron party.
However, the ruling party remains unnerved and has its own reasons to explain its confidence about bagging all the seats.
“Balakot air strikes have triggered a wave in support of Narendra Modi which is even stronger than the one in 2014. Our candidates this time are bound to win with bigger margins,” Pradesh BJP spokesman Munna Singh Chauhan said.
The BJP whose campaign has centred around Narendra Modi’s strong leadership hopes to make the most of India’s counter-terror offensive in Balakot after Pulwama especially since the hill-state had a large number of serving and ex military personnel.
The party has also raised the issue of Congress promising to review the AFSPA and doing away with the anti-sedition law in its manifesto to stoke sentiments against the Congress.
The Congress, on the other hand, has primarily targeted the prime minister by raising the issues of Rafale deal and his alleged failure to address agrarian distress and unemployment.
The fortnight-long campaign saw the grand old party also trying to make the most of its Nyay Yojana promise in its manifesto to credit Rs 72000 per annum directly into the accounts of 20 per cent of the country’s poorest families which Rahul Gandhi terms as a “surgical strike” against poverty.
The BJP may find the going tough in Nainital and Tehri constituencies but the Modi factor may help the party sail through ultimately, poll watchers here said, adding that the candidates too have their own strengths.
While state BJP president Ajay Bhatt who faces Rawat in Nainital is credited with piloting the party to a thumping victory in the 2017 assembly polls, Mala Rajya Laxmi Shah, despite the allegations of not being an “active MP”, wields considerable clout as she hails from the erstwhile Tehri royal family which has a traditional and loyal support base.
“The Shah family members are worshipped as demigods in Tehri. No one can challenge them on their home turf,” Rajesh Raturi a resident of New Tehri said.
When asked whether state Congress chief Pritam Singh can pose a challenge to her, Raturi said though a prominent leader, Pritam Singh’s influence is confined to Chakrata segment of the constituency only.
The Pauri/Garhwal Lok Sabha seat too is drawing people’s attention as sitting BJP MP BC Khanduri’s son is fighting on a Congress ticket against BJP’s Tirath Singh Rawat, who is considered to Khanduri senior’s protege.
Both claim to have the former chief minister’s blessings even though BC Khanduri has not come out in support of either of them.
With both the nominees fighting to claim Khanduri’s legacy, it would be interesting to see who will have the last laugh.
In Almora reserved seat it would be a fight between two sitting MPs– Pradeep Tamta of the Congress who is a member of the Rajya Sabha and Ajay Tamta of the BJP, a member of the 16th Lok Sabha.
Ajay had defeated Pradeep by a margin of nearly one lakh votes in 2014 and are facing each other once again.
Meanwhile, sitting BJP MP from Haridwar and former chief minister Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank faces Congress’s Ambarish Kumar who is a senior leader but is fighting his first Lok Sabha poll from the seat and seems to be having the odds stacked against him against a seasoned opponent.
Viewed as a minor player in the clash between two titans, the Bahujan Samaj Party is also contesting from four seats while the Uttarakhand Kranti Dal, which had spearheaded the statehood movement, has put up candidates on all the five seats.