When Harish Rawat was reinstated as chief minister of Uttarakhand by the Supreme Court in May following a botched-up attempt by the Bharatiya Janata Party to dislodge his government, it generated immense public sympathy for him.

Perceived to have been wronged by his Congress colleagues and by the BJP, it was an accepted fact then that Rawat would have returned to power had he dissolved the Assembly after his reinstatement and called for an early election. Billed as the state’s tallest leader, his credibility and popularity was at its peak.

The chief minister was, however, dissuaded from going in for snap polls by Congress legislators, who did not want their five-year term to be cut short abruptly.

As it happens, Rawat may now regret that decision. With Assembly elections in the state only about two months away, the sympathy for him has dissipated to a large extent. According to reports, the sheen has worn off the chief minister and he is now under constant attack for his allegedly authoritarian style of functioning, while charges of corruption and nepotism have also been levelled against him.

The Uttarakhand Congress remains a divided house despite efforts by the party’s central leadership to ensure that it presents a united front. Government employees, who are the backbone of a state government, are openly criticising the chief minister for not addressing their grievances and meeting their demands. In other words, the public mood that had favoured Rawat just six months ago has now turned against him.

BJP comeback

On the other hand, the BJP – virtually written off after Rawat’s return to power earlier this year – has staged a comeback. It has done so on the back of the Army’s surgical strikes across the Line of Control in September and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s move in November to invalidate high-denomination currency notes with the promise of curbing black money and ending corruption.

Both these decisions have generated a wave of unprecedented support for the BJP in Uttarakhand. The attacks on terror camps in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir have in particular struck a chord with the large population of ex-servicemen in the hill state.

“The BJP was lagging behind the Congress six months ago but today, it is on par with it,” said a political observer in the state. “If this trend continues, it will not be surprising if it [BJP] surges ahead to win Uttarakhand.”

The prime minister has emerged as the chief talking point in the poll-bound state. As in the case of neighbouring Uttar Pradesh, which also goes to polls in early 2017, Modi will be the BJP’s face in Uttarakhand as his persona is set to dominate the party’s election campaign. The change in mood is obvious from casual conversations with people who are unwilling to tolerate any critical remarks about Modi, who has refurbished his image as a strong, decisive leader.

As a result of Modi’s growing popularity, the BJP is seeing its electoral prospects in Uttarakhand improve. This has helped the party’s state unit gloss over its weaknesses, including a lack of strong, charismatic leaders. The BJP’s line-up of former chief ministers – Bhagat Singh Koshiyari, BC Khanduri and Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank – had failed to inspire the electorate. The party was also wracked by infighting and there were rumblings in the rank and file over the induction of nine Congress rebels, who are expected to be given tickets in the upcoming Assembly polls. As it happens, all these issues have now receded into the background.

Garhwal versus Kumaon

There has been a role reversal, and it is the Congress that is under pressure today. Besides other factors, the ruling party is facing the brunt of a Garhwal versus Kumaon debate that is growing in intensity. Rawat and several of his senior cabinet ministers, including Yashpal Arya and Indira Hridayesh, belong to Kumaon while party leaders from Garhwal feel that their region is poorly represented in the government.

In fact, the Congress rebels, while joining the BJP earlier this year, had accused the Rawat government of discriminating against Garhwal even though it has a larger population and more Assembly seats than Kumaon. Realising the Congress is on a weak wicket in this region, the BJP is hoping to make gains in Garhwal as well as in the plains where it has a sizeable following.

Rawat has a tough task on his hands in the run-up to the elections. Being an astute politician, he could have successfully deflected the attacks against him as long as he was taking on BJP leaders such as Koshiyari, Khanduri and Pokhriyal. But the chief minister will find it difficult to compete with Modi, who is set to be the chief protagonist of the polls. The wily Congress leader will have to do some quick thinking in the coming weeks to alter the political discourse to his advantage. If not, it promises to be a Modi show all the way.