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Dream Turning into a Nightmare in Uttarakhand

The disgraceful manner in which the Congress forged a majority in the assembly and foisted an unpopular chief minister on the state will only add to the ongoing degeneration of political culture in Uttarakhand. Social and economic fractures are undermining the dreams on which the hill state of Uttarakhand was formed.

COMMENTARY

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Dream Turning into a Nightmare in Uttarakhand Pushpesh Pant shenanigans of the “victorious” Congressmen that preceded the appointment of Vijay Bahuguna as the state’s chief minister. A Democratic Shock Had this been, as is being claimed, an

The disgraceful manner in which the Congress forged a majority in the assembly and foisted an unpopular chief minister on the state will only add to the ongoing degeneration of political culture in Uttarakhand. Social and economic fractures are undermining the dreams on which the hill state of Uttarakhand was formed.

Pushpesh Pant (pushpeshpant@gmail.com) is a retired professor of international politics from the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

W
hen Uttarakhand was born, it was the realisation of a longcherished dream of an impoverished but proud people – the children of the mountains. Though the formation of the new small state had experienced exceptionally sharp birth pangs in the form of brutal bloodshed (the violent incident at Rampur Tiraha may have faded from public memory but will always remain a shameful blot on the Mulayam regime that then ruled Uttar Pradesh), a glimmer of hope survived. There was talk of a new model of development and governance – decentralised, eco-sensitive, responsive to the unique needs and aspirations of the people and above all respectful of the cultural identity of the residents. It was believed that the strategic location of the state would prompt the centre to provide special packages for it, like it does for Jammu and Kashmir or the states in the north-eastern region. It may not have been “bliss in that dusky dawn” but undeniably there was scope for hope. It has not taken long, just about a decade, for that dream to turn into a nightmare.

These Hills have been ravaged repeatedly in recent years. But nothing had prepared the people of Uttarakhand to cope with the shock administered by

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internal matter of the party, one could have looked the other way and remained silent, though full of disgust. The tragedy is that the election results and the events in its aftermath have made a mockery of democracy, and reduced the small state to a helpless fiefdom under the oppressive nepotistic control of a few families related by blood, marriage and opportunism.

The writing on the wall was clear much before the results were offi cially announced. Retired general B C Khanduri of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and incumbent chief minister had worked hard to make a fight out of what most saw as a lost battle. His predecessor had squandered all goodwill and acquired a dubious reputation as one of the most venal chief ministers in the land. Antiincumbency against the ruling BJP was strong and pundits forecast a clean sweep in favour of the Congress. The Congress, led by Harish Rawat, managed to snatch virtual defeat from the jaws of certain victory – by being overconfident and by the public playing out of the conflicting, irreconcilable chief ministerial ambitions of its leaders. Besides Rawat, there were at the last count

– before Bahuguna was anointed – six contenders for the post. This did not include octogenarian Narayan Datt Tiwari who too, like good old Barkis, had lost

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no time in expressing his “willingness to serve the state as long as health permitted should the party high command so desire”.

In the event, the Congress “party high command” desired something else and quite contrary to the people’s express will. Congress had emerged victorious by the skin of its teeth and to cobble up a majority had “won over” three Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), four independents (read rebel Congressmen) and the lone Uttarakhand Kranti Dal (UKD) MLA. What needs to be highlighted is that though this game plan did not violate the letter of the anti-defection law it played havoc with its spirit. Leaving aside the curious case of independent members it cannot be overlooked that the electors had not voted for the BSP or UKD candidates to facilitate the formation of a Congress government. For that matter they had rejected the BJP equally while electing these worthies as their representatives.

Smarting at the loss of Punjab and Goa and the humiliating drubbing in UP the Congress high command was bent on displaying its might. The lightweight, least popular of all aspirants for chief ministership (nominee of the supreme leadership) was imposed on the startled legislators. But the high command itself was in for an unpleasant surprise. After the shock passed, the worms turned. The self-proclaimed disciplined soldiers of the “grand old party”, for once, refused to follow command. Soon there were signs of a full-fl edged mutiny. Though Rawat kept insisting that he was a “child bride of the Congress” and could not think of divorce, his supporters stridently protested the injustice done to him, stayed away from the oath taking for MLAs, boycotted Bahuguna’s swearing in and dared him to prove his majority on the floor of the house.

Political Fractures and Alliances

Obviously, the high-powered messengers, Gulam Nabi Azad and Virendra Singh, had let their masters down. But why make them scapegoats? What about those who entrusted them with the delicate task of assessing the support enjoyed by the rival chief ministerial candidates? It is worth repeating that this again is not an internal matter of the Congress; such subversion of democratic principles and conventions strike at the root of good governance. Forging (pun intended) a majority by conspiracy and projecting it as a mandate of the people is wrought with grave hazards. This “strategy” has a “trickle-down” effect and is bound to be imitated by other players in the fi eld. It is difficult to imagine how a house so bitterly divided can stand.

The polls have not given an unambiguous mandate to either of the national parties. At the same time the voters have totally rejected the regional party option leaving the UKD on verge of extinction. The decline in the fortunes of the BSP has extinguished its ambition to play the role of the kingmaker. What is clear is that the hill state is torn apart and stands bitterly divided between supporters of the Congress and the BJP. Ironically, the supporters of neither party are committed to any ideology or programme. The loyalties are to individual leaders based on caste, region and coincidence of self-interest.

Chief ministers are appointed, changed (dismissed) on a whim and even nomination of candidates to Rajya Sabha are done in a manner that rubs salt in the wounds of the wailing Uttarakhandi. The latest example of this is Mahendra Mehra’s “selection for election” to the council of states after his defeat from Lohaghat in the assembly election. The only explanation for this is that it has been done to placate the rebellious Harish Rawat and break the logjam in Uttarakhand. Before this it was the name of Rawat’s wife that was doing the rounds, who, according to the husband, is a political leader in her own right (her only claim to fame is that she contested the Lok Sabha elections once when the husband had put her forward after he had lost the election). Anand, his son, is the president of the Youth Congress in the state and Karan, his brother-in-law lost from Ranikhet by a small margin. Indeed, like the Bonapartes, the Rawats are a family overflowing with talent and zeal for public service. The Bahugunas are not far behind. Congress’ chief minister Vijay Bahuguna is a first cousin of outgoing chief minister and BJP leader B C Khanduri.

Social Fractures and Alienation

It is part of conventional wisdom that electoral behaviour in the state is governed by the Kumaon-Garhwal divide and signifi cantly influenced by the competing Thakur-brahmin ruling elites. Identity politics of dalits and the minorities – Sikhs and Muslims – we are told must be factored in the shifting power equations. It is also taken for granted that retired servicemen of the uniformed forces form a special pan-Uttarakhand lobby or pressure group that no party or candidate can afford to antagonise. To complicate matters further, there exists an undeniable chasm between the Terai/Plains region and the mountains – the real pahar. Many of these myths have been shattered in the recent elections.

The demographic profile of Uttarakhand has changed greatly in the past quarter century. The population is comprised of a majority of youth who are restless and rootless. The satellite revolution has brought television to remote villages and the rising tide of consumerist expectations and desire has spawned a mindset that politicians fail to read. An irresistible urge for instantaneous gratification has dangerously accelerated the “lumpenisation” among school dropouts and the unemployable educated.

Emigration to the Plains has been a feature of life in the Hills for almost a century and more. Recruitment into the army was the most preferred option that took away able-bodied men from their homes but the number of those who failed to become soldiers and had to eke out a living as domestic drudges or menials in government service was also very large. Clerks, teachers and lawyers were relatively well off both in the Hills and in domicile in the Plains. For generations, Uttarakhand has relied on the infamous “money order economy”. A microscopic minority – mostly landowning brahmins and a few Thakurs – could educate its progeny to become professionals like doctors and engineers or higher level civil servants. This is the small elite that has

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dominated public life since the days of the freedom struggle.

The past two decades have witnessed a radical transformation. The deprived and the disenfranchised may not have been genuinely empowered but they are no longer utterly helpless. They are bristling with discontent and never miss any opportunity to snatch what they perceive is their due.

What is distressing is that the young do not appear committed to the democratic system or the electoral process. They are tempted to follow the line of least resistance and are drifting towards anti-social employers like the forest, mining, alcohol, land and building mafi a, which have only grown in the decade since the region got a state of its own. The nexus between these elements and political leaders in the Congress and BJP is out in the open. The participation of young voters in Uttarakhand belies optimistic hopes about their constructive and decisive intervention in politics of the state.

Successive governments led by the Congress and BJP have followed selfserving policies detrimental to the interest of the people. Uneven regional development has assumed dangerous dimensions. Entrepreneurs from outside the state have managed to monopolise and milk the schemes allegedly for the benefit of its residents. Tax rebates, subsidies and myriad other concessions have attracted a lot of outside talent but investment and employment generation have remained confined to Udham Singh Nagar, Haridwar and Dehradun, all areas outside of the mountainous tracts.

This has resulted in strangely skewed migration from the hilly regions. The first step is from the village to the shack cum residence at the road-head, the next move takes the unhappy villager to the nearest market town and thence to the district headquarters in an elusive search for employment, better health and educational facilities for children. Unplanned, unregulated mini-urbanisation has only resulted in the mushrooming of slum-like settlements in places like Rudraprayag, Gopeshwar, Sringar, Almora, Pithoragarh and Bageshwar. The villages are fast getting depopulated and families are getting scattered. The erosion of values that bind a community together is tragically transparent.

The government’s obsession with “developing” tourism has made matters worse. Even hard to reach pristine places like Munshyari and Dharchula have suffered irreparable damage. Pilgrim traffic in season is frightening and puts an unbearable pressure on the fragile ecosystem. The massive landslide at Kaliyason bears testimony to the folly of man and the wrath of nature that inevitably follows. Vested interests that profi teer by blending religion and commerce in Haridwar, Rishikesh are a powerful lobby. It is difficult to imagine if any government can show the political will to regulate their activities. Packaged yatra of pilgrims is threatening to destroy the traditional cultural identity of the local mountain people.

Call for Research Concept Notes

Economics of Natural Resource Use and Environmental Change

Deadline 27th May 2012

The South Asian Network for Development and Environmental Economics (SANDEE) is a regional network that provides research support to South Asian researchers and institutions interested in the interconnection among development, natural resource use and the environment. SANDEE is currently inviting research concept notes on the Economics of Natural Resource Use and Environmental Change in South Asia. Concept notes, if accepted, will lead to an invitation to submit a full research proposal.

SANDEE requests research concept notes in three prioritized areas:

Ecosystems Management: Ecosystems provide a variety of provisioning, regulating, supporting and cultural services that are being lost at an accelerating rate. Research on ecosystems management will focus on: a) understanding the implications of ecosystem changes for economic and social systems; b) identifying trade-offs, i.e. the costs and beneſts to different stakeholders (particularly the poor), from conserving ecosystems services; and c) examining different institutional arrangements to manage ecosystem services.

Economics of Climate Change: With climate change, South Asia is expected to get warmer and witness more extreme events. SANDEE’s climate portfolio will support research on: a) valuation of the impacts of climate change; b) evaluation of adaptation and mitigation strategies, particularly those that offer local co-beneſts and c) examination of institutions and policies that need to be in place for low carbon growth and long-term adjustment to climate change.

Policies and Instruments for Greener Growth: Governments and NGOs in South Asia put forward a variety of policies and regulations to manage local to global environmental problems. In order to ensure that these strategies are effective, this thematic area will emphasize: a) programme evaluation of the impacts of environmental policies, regulations and programmes; and, b) assessment of the economic incentives associated with different regulatory and market mechanisms and their contribution to policy compliance.

While SANDEE’s focus is on environmental management, proposals have to include a strong economics component. Multidisciplinary projects with a robust economic focus are encouraged. Institutional afſliation is required for receiving support. Concept notes will be evaluated on their academic merit and policy signiſcance.

SANDEE will collect proposals throughout the year. However, to be considered for our next research competition, please send concept notes by May 27th, 2012. The average grant size in recent years has been 20,000 USD for one to two year projects. Larger grants will be considered if a multidisciplinary team of natural and social scientists ar e involved and there is a clear identiſcation of roles and tasks. Please upload concept notes on SANDEE’s website at www.sandeeonline.org. For any additional queries, please contact us at research@sandeeonline.org.

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COMMENTARY

The Plains Truth

The delimitation of constituencies extinguished what little hopes remained for Uttarakhand to realise its long cherished dreams. Earlier it was exploited and neglected as an internal colony by those who ruled from Lucknow and now the hilly region has been reduced to abject dependence and servitude on its brethren in the terai and maidan. The cruel joke is that Haridwar and Udham Singh Nagar were districts that had protested their inclusion in the then proposed Uttarakhand state as they did not wish to share their prosperity and progress

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with the “backward” paharis. The wheel seems to have turned full circle. They are the real Uttarakhand now. This is not merely parroting of populist slogans about sons of the soil and settler outsiders. The balance of political power that is exercised through elected representatives has been deliberately shifted in favour of the Plains. Of the 70 seats in the state’s legislative assembly, 29 are from the mountainous tracts and 41 are now from the Terai and Plains area of the state. The rule of the majority is the essence of electoral politics. There is no space in it for the minority, however

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substantial. The street-smart youngsters know that there is no future in the Hills. They are voting with their feet without waiting for elections.

If one tries to unravel the tangled strands which make up the political reality of Uttarakhand today it becomes clear that the bankruptcy of ideas and utter lack of vision is what should bother the people more than the hung assembly and feuding retainers masquerading as leaders. Torn apart between nostalgia and narcissism Uttarakhand is slowly slipping to the nihilistic precipice.

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