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Has a political malaise set in Uttarakhand?

Monday, 22 November 2021 | Anup Kumar

GUEST COLUMN

Anup-Kumar Anup Kumar

On November 9 Uttarakhand celebrated completion of two decades of statehood and a few months later the people of the state will elect its fifth government and its eleventh chief minister. The incumbent BJP government has seen a quick turnover of three chief ministers. The current chief minister, Pushkar Singh Dhami, is the third one in  a matter of a few months. He seems like a person who potentially can give the state a long-term vision. He is young and has a career ahead in politics and all the evidence suggests that he is unlikely to be focused on building a quick retirement chest.  

Nevertheless, all the indications coming from his party seem to be that for the Bharatiya Janata Party the upcoming election in 2022 is not about a vision, long-term or short-term, it is just another horse race they must win. Among the five states where elections will be held, Congress is in the best position to defeat the BJP in Uttarakhand. Also, the state voters have alternatively elected the Congress or the BJP governments. Although this time the anti-incumbency sentiment is being tapped by a motley group that is coalescing around Ajay Kothiyal who is Aam Aadmi Party’s chief ministerial candidate. It is too early to say if Kothiyal will be able to put up a serious challenge to the incumbent BJP and opposition Congress but his popularity and work done during natural disasters has earned him enough social capital. Will that capital turn into votes? It is difficult to say now. But 2022 can surely be a springboard for 2024.   

The above state of the play in Uttarakhand is especially significant because if there is any hope for the Congress in 2024, in face of a seemingly undefeatable Prime Minister Narendra Modi, then that renewed Ganga of hope will have to start from the Himalayas. Despite the opportunity Congress has there seems to be no excitement about the political contest in the state with only about four months left. It seems a political malaise has set in the state that one feels talking to the people who generally are engaged in the politics. 

To understand the malaise, we need to understand an underlying irony in the choice of chief ministers since 2000. This is one of the reasons why Uttarakhand has faced political instability from day one. The grassroots mobilisation, primarily led by women and youth, failed to throw up leaders who could embody the ideas and ideals of the Jan Andolan and give the state a long-term vision. Ironically the only chief minister to serve a full term was Narayan Dutt Tiwari. Prior to leading the government of the fledgling state, Tiwari had been twice the chief minister of the Congress government in Uttar Pradesh. The only chief minister to complete the five-year term, Tiwari, was not only skeptical of the viability of Uttarakhand statehood but had kept a distance from the Jan Andolan.  

In my study of the Uttarakhand Jan Andolan I have argued that the grassroots mobilisation was co-opted by the BJP and the Congress when it became obvious that statehood was not only a matter of if but when. The co-optation and the failure of the protagonists of the Jan Andolan to successfully transform into a political force in the last two decades has manifested itself as a political malaise.  

Since its founding, Uttarakhand has seen an increase in corruption, misgovernance, and betrayal of the ideas and ideals that inspired the demand for regional autonomy, and socio-ecological logic that justified the demand. To many who participated in the populist social mobilisation (Jan Andolan) the new state instead of distinguishing itself from Uttar Pradesh of the 1990s has become a smaller version of it and Dehradun has become a mini version of Lucknow with overcentralised and entrenched bureaucracy. There seems to be no expectation among people that the present political class will undertake course correction. 

The Jan Andolan for Uttarakhand had achieved a remarkable distinction among numerous statehood movements in the country since Independence. It had succeeded in fostering a regional political consciousness that cut across caste, class, religion, and ethnolinguistic differences by privileging ideas and ideals of the andolan. Ideas and ideals were primarily rooted in ecologically sustainable development. Not surprising that many scholars including myself have argued that statehood was a logical culmination of socio-ecological struggles such as nasha nahi rozgar do, women’s empowerment, Chipko, and Tehri Dam. 

In my conversations, over the years, I have often heard from andolankaris that they wanted to create a decentralised governance architecture that would follow the 73 and 74th Amendment to Constitution on Panchayat and Municipal governance. What Rajni Kothari, the political theorist, saw as restoration of the true spirit of federalism with devolution of power to the third tier of governance. 

During the andolan one often heard from andolankaris how the commons including forests, rivers, bugyals, snow-capped mountains, and the culture of the pahari lifeworld were the resource of the state. To bring about an ecologically sustainable and decentralized governance local management of jal, jungle, and zameen was not only a slogan but a vision and a plan. It was once compellingly articulated by Professor Data Ram Purohit, of HNB Garhwal University, that the fundamental guiding preamble for the governance of the state was going to be “cultural ecology”. Ecological thinking that conserved and cultivated the symbiotic interdependence between culture and nature. 

The two biggest resources that the state has are – its educated people who can become a competitive advantage in a service economy, especially with the revolutions in digital communication and technologies; and its snow-clad mountain peaks, alpine meadows (bugyals), white-water rivers, forests, wildlife, temples nestled in locations that are hikers paradise, and rich folk and classical culture. Despite the above being clear to everyone, the state has never been able to formulate public policy and legislation that could show a path to the rest of the world on an ecologically sustainable economic development model. None of the above panned out as andolankaris had imagined. Can the state return to the ideas and ideals of the jan andolan? Yes, I think it can. But I suppose for that we need the current political malaise in the state to end. First the state will have to return to the first principles of the jan andolan for Uttarakhand: models of development that work in the plains cannot be applied to mountains.  

(Kumar is a professor of communication  and the author of The Making of a Small State: Populist Social Mobilisation and the Hindi Press in the Uttarakhand Movement. Views expressed are personal )

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