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Election 2014

Missing cricket matches is hot topic as Himachal votes tomorrow

Just like everywhere else, corruption rather than poor infrastructure is driving the campaign agenda in both Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand.

Bharatiya Janata Party prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi’s decision last week to appropriate the slogan of a soldier killed in Kargil may have fuelled the daily controversy machine for one cycle, but it also reminded national audiences that there are elections still to be held beyond the Cow Belt.

The hill states of Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand both go to the polls on May 7, but you wouldn’t know it from surveying the press. The reason is simple: Himachal brings you just four Members of Parliament and Uttarakhand five Lok Sabha. Even combined, the two states don’t have enough political heft to dislodge even Haryana (with 10 seats), which means they are irrelevant to overall electoral calculations.

But this doesn’t mean elections there are missing the tension of races elsewhere. Himachal, for example, has managed to get a politician into trouble because he denied them two cricket matches.

BJP MP Anurag Thakur happens to also be a joint secretary in the Board of Control for Cricket in India, which has allowed him to turn even the T20 league into political ammunition. Thakur revealed that the BCCI had approached the Himachal Congress-run government to host between two and five IPL matches at its stadium in Dharamsala. When the files reached the state authorities, which would have to sanction appropriate security for the matches, they sat on them for so long that the BCCI had to look elsewhere.

To Thakur — who is contesting from Hamirpur in Himachal — this matters not just because the residents of his state would be missing out on some sport. It would also mean a substantial financial loss. “The shifting of matches has led to a revenue loss of Rs 500 crore to the state exchequer,” Thakur told IANS.

In neighbouring Uttarakhand, the hot topic also appears to be missing money, not with the cricket but with the country’s other major obsession: religion. Here the Congress party has levelled allegations that between Rs 500-Rs 600 crore in government funds allocated for the 2010 Kumbh Mela, when the BJP was in charge, has simply disappeared.

These corruption allegations are propelling the campaign led by the state’s chief minister, Harish Rawat, of the Congress, who has managed to put into play a state that seemed prime to hand the BJP a clean sweep of its five seats. Rawat only became chief minister in February, after the previous Congress CM’s name had been so tarnished by corruption allegations that he had to be replaced.

Rawat has spearheaded the fight in the Haridwar constituency, where his wife Renuka Rawat is up against another former chief minister, the BJP’s Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank, who was at the helm during the Kumbh Mela. Without the taint of graft affecting him, Rawat has found it easy to aim the corruption-allegation gun at his rivals.

Since it is the flavour of this election season, it’s not surprising to see corruption top the election-campaign charts in both of the states. Yet politicians in both the hill states appear to be studiously avoiding issues that are more specific to them.

The aftermath of Uttarakhand’s disastrous deluge last June should have turned environmental issues and distress migration into central plot points. Yet the main campaigns have barely touched on the slow pace of the rehabilitation projects, the flood damage caused as a result of hydel projects or the massive migration of people from the hills down to the plains.

And in Himachal, the need for a genuine conversation on policy matters can’t be better demonstrated than by the willingness of entire sections of the electorate apparently willing to boycott the polls just to raise their grievances.

All the panchayats along one 20-km stretch of broken road in Bilaspur district have threatened to refrain from voting altogether unless there is a promise that the section will be fixed. In Sion, in Sirmaur district, residents of local villages came together because they were “angry with the fact that even 67 years after Independence they were yet to get better roads, schools and health care facilities". As a result the entire village has declared that it will not be voting.

But the most interesting outcome in either of these states might come in the way of something that is set to happen after elections. Already convinced that it is coming to power — or seeking to put word out of its confidence — the BJP has made indications that it might meddle with Uttarakhand’s government.

The state was created by the BJP under former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, yet all five of its seats went to the Congress the last time around. The assembly is also run by the Congress — but probably not for long. Murmurs from the Modi-run BJP have suggested the party might look to turn some of the seven MLAs from the Progressive Democratic Front, which has so far used its numbers to ensure that the Congress runs the government despite winning just 32 seats in a 70-member assembly. If this happens, the party would essentially be toppling the state government and turning Uttarakhand into a saffron state.

Since similar wafer-thin majorities are in play in Bihar and Jharkhand, even just the suggestion that this might be the BJP’s approach starting in Uttarakhand only reiterates how hill state politics might end up mattering nationally, even if their seat numbers don’t.

 
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