In Uttarakhand, the battle lines were drawn sharp and clear – the Assembly election was billed as a fight between Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata party and incumbent Chief Minister Harish Rawat of the Congress. While the Congress had projected Rawat as the face in its campaigns, the BJP deliberately chose not to project a chief ministerial candidate. On Saturday afternoon, with the BJP leading in as many as 56 out of the state’s 70 seats, the question remained: who will be the chief minister if the party wins. As it turns out, there are quite a few in the race.

The names that have so far topped the lists of speculations in the media include – the party’s state chief Ajay Bhatt, its national executive member and former Lok Sabha MP for Congress Satpal Maharaj, party spokesperson Anil Baluni, senior leader who rebelled against Congress Yashpal Arya, former legislators Prakash Pant and Trivendra Singh Rawat, and even former Chief Ministers Vijay Bahuguna, Gen BC Khanduri, Bhagat Singh Koshyari and Ramesh Pokhriyal “Nishank”.

Race to the top

Ajay Bhatt, the state BJP president and leader of opposition, has been associated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh since his childhood. He has previously been the state’s health minister. Bhatt was prominent in the momement in the 1990s to have Uttarakhand carved out of Uttar Pradesh to become a distinct state. He was elected Ranikhet legislator in 1996 and was re-elected in the same constituency in the state’s first assembly in 2002. In 2017, he fought against old rival Karan Mahara, a relative of Harish Rawat’. Mahara had defeated him in the 2007 assembly elections at Ranikhet, a seat that Bhatt won back in 2012.

Satpal Maharaj, son of a prominent spiritual leader, was elected to the Lok Sabha as a Congress candidate for the Pauri constituency in 2009. In 2014, he left the Congress following a dispute with Chief Minister Harish Rawat over slow reconstruction of areas hit by flash floods. His wife Amrita Rawat is a three-time MLA from the Garhwal region. While she did not get a BJP ticket, Satpal contested from the Chaubattakhal constituency in Pauri district.

Bharatiya Janata Party spokesman Anil Baluni was brought into the party fold after Amit Shah took charge as national party president. Though he had lost out to Bhatt in the race to become the BJP’s Uttarakhand chief and has not had a prominent political career so far, the young and dynamic Baluni is still considered a strong contender for top job. He was very close to RSS veteran Sundar Singh Bhandari, who became the governor on Bihar and took Baluni with him as his Official on Special Duty. Baluni also followed Bhandari to Gujarat before he finally came to Dehradun in 2002, two years after the formation of Uttarakhand. Under Chief Minister R P Nishank, he was made in charge of a forest and environment task force.

Senior political leader Yashpal Arya was considered the most prominent Dalit face of the Congress party in Uttarakhand and was among the front-runners to be chief minister in 2012. He was one of the most prominent leaders to have joined the BJP earlier this year –
so prominent that the party not only gave him a ticket within two days of joining but also gave one to his son Sanjeev Arya. While Yashpal Arya contested from the Bajpur assembly constituency, a seat that he had won in 2012, his son contested from Nainital.

Prakash Pant became a legislator from Pithoragarh constituency in 2007, a seat that he had lost in the next assembly elections. In 2017, he contested from Pithoragarh again. He was the first speaker of the Uttarakhand legislative assembly and has held portfolios including tourism, culture and Parliamentary Affairs. Like Pant, Trivendra Singh Rawat has administrative experience. Apart from being a legislator from Doiwala constituency twice, he was appointed the state’s BJP president and has been closely associated with the RSS. He also held the portfolio of agriculture minister.

Former Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna is on the list too. During the 2013 floods in the state, Bahuguna was severely criticised by his Congress party colleagues at the Centre. Three years later, Bahuguna himself who led the state’s first group of rebel MLAs out of Congress. While Bahuguna did not contest from any seat himself, he got tickets for some of his associates. His son Saurabh Bahuguna contested from the Sitarganj assembly constituency, a seat that Bahuguna had won in 2012.

Maj Gen (Retd) BC Khanduri is the eldest among the four former chief ministers who are believed to be on the race for the top position once again. Khanduri was in the race in 2012 too but had lost to Congress’s Surendra Singh Negi by a margin of 4,623 votes in Kotdwar. At 81, Khanduri is still considered a popular leader. Closely following him in the race are former chief ministers BS Koshyari, an RSS veteran, and RP Nishank. Khanduri, Koshyari and Nishank are members of parliament..