With party stalwarts, Bhagat Singh Koshyari and Bhuvan Chandra Khanduri deciding to stay out of the poll fray, retaining all five Lok Sabha seats in Uttarakhand appears an uphill task for the ruling BJP. Koshyari, the incumbent MP from Nainital, has decided not to contest the Lok Sabha polls beginning next month to make room for young leaders.
Khanduri, the sitting MP from Pauri, has expressed his unwillingness to contest citing ill health. The retired major general’s decision comes after he was dropped as chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on defence.
Left with no choice, the BJP has decided to gamble on new faces. The party has fielded state unit president Ajay Bhatt from Nainital and his predecessor and Khanduri’s mentee, Tirath Singh Rawat from Pauri. Though neither of them is a newcomer, they will be making their Lok Sabha election debut this year.
Bhatt is pitted against senior Congress leader and former chief minister Harish Rawat.
A five-time MP, Rawat is credited with having defeated BJP veteran Murli Manohar Joshi from the neighbouring Almora in the 1980s, when it was not a reserved seat.
However, in the 2017 Assembly elections, Bhatt lost from Ranikhet seat and Rawat lost from Kichha and rural Haridwar seats.
Pauri is likely to witness an interesting contest with Tirath pitted against Congress’s Manish Khanduri.
Son of BC Khanduri, Manish joined the Congress earlier this month at a rally here in the presence of party president Rahul Gandhi.
It remains to be seen which of the two luck will favour.
Poll watchers said Manish’s entry has strengthened the Congress in the Garhwal seat and it cannot be said with certainty which way the voters will tilt.
Tehri may prove to be another difficult seat for the BJP with sitting MP Mala Rajya Laxmi Shah set for a contest against state Congress president and Chakrata MLA Pritam Singh.
The Congress leader wields considerable clout among tribals, who have a large presence in the constituency, and is likely to prove to a be a tough opponent.
Besides, Shah also faces anti-incumbency.
Before the BJP finalised its Uttarakhand candidates, there was speculation about the party looking for her replacement amid reports of her popularity diminishing in her constituency.
Yet another challenge Shah faces is the split of traditional votes due to the presence of Gopal Mani, a cow conservationist, who is contesting as an independent, a poll analyst here said.
Almora, a reserved seat, is also likely to witness a close contest between BJP’s sitting MP Ajay Tamta and Congress’s Rajya Sabha MP Pradeep Tamta.
The two have faced each other in the past as well. While Ajay defeated Pradeep in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, the Congress leader had defeated the former in the 2009 general election.
The only seat where the BJP may not find the going tough is Haridwar. The BJP has fielded former chief minister Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank from the seat to take on Congress’s Ambarish Kumar.
Kumar, a Vaishya leader, has been around for years but has only been lucky in the polls once. He won from the Haridwar Assembly constituency on a Samajwadi Party ticket in 1996.
He will also be making his Lok Sabha poll debut this year.
While only time will tell what lies in store for the BJP and the Congress, it is clear that the April 11 polls will be a high-stakes battle for the two parties.
The results will be announced on May 23.