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By Harsh Dobhal

Congress has gained 36 out of 70 seats in the maiden assembly election in Uttaranchal. The BJP, despite fulfilling its promise by carving out a separate hill state in September 2000, has cut a sorry figure in the first election itself. Let us look at the socio-political dynamics that have shaped today's politics in Uttaranchal.

Hill districts were strongholds of Congress since independence. BJP was never considered a force here before 1991 when the hill region of Uttar Pradesh had sent for the first time all the four BJP members to Parliament and 17 out of 19 members to the Lucknow assembly. That election had witnessed the fall of several stalwarts like N D Tiwari, Braham Dutt an others , dramatically loosening Congress’ tight grip it exercised here since independence. Unheard and unknown faces like Maj Gen. B C Khanduri emerged on the political horizon of Uttarakhand around that time.

BJP’s 1991 sweeping victory was attributed to just one factor -- its commitment to work for a separate hill state, ‘Uttaranchal,’ the name preferred by the party. Many political observers that time felt that BJP’s decision to support the demand for a separate hill state, raised by others decades before, was partially influenced by a strong Hindu sentiment there, with the region being the land of major Hindu religious places.

Hills of Uttaranchal had never gone saffronised in the real sense of the term. Traditionally a stronghold of congress, the only issue of a separate hill state played an important role. An important point to note here is the fact that while Ayodhya had been a mobilisational factor for BJP in the vast hinterlands of Uttar Pradesh and other north Indian states, the Ram Temple was never an issue in Uttaranchal even during the peak times of its popularity. Not now, not in 1991 and not during elections in between. Also, in the post-Rath Yatra period when many part of the countries were burning in communal flames, Uttarakhand truly remained an oasis of peace. There had not been a single case of communal violence in the region during the worst phase. One should remember that Uttaranchal does have a small muslim minority. In almost every city of the region there is a muslim population while there are many muslim villages in Tehri and other parts.

Though the hills were part of Uttar Pradesh for over five decades, the political dynamics of the region were never the same. Caste, for example, has never been a very rigid institution here. Compared to plains, the region has less scheduled caste population and almost no middle castes but one has not heard of caste-clashes. There are no manifest social tensions emerging from caste-based oppression and deprivation. Consequently, there has been a curb on emergence of powerful caste-based parties like Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party. Though BSP has bagged seven seats in the current polls, the party has managed its base in Haridwar region which, despite being a part of Uttaranchal, does not have a same socio-cultural fabric as hills.

Though of late the caste factor (primarily brahmin and rajput divide) does play a minor role during elections, it still does not dominate the political discourse like in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Other social denominators applicable to plains have also not played dominant role in deciding the course of politics in hill districts in the past and present.

Whether it was the political rout of Congress in 1991 or beginning of the BJP’s humiliating downfall in February 2002, development (absence of it), has been the single issue in all elections in Uttaranchal. And it would be a mistake for Congress or the BJP to take the voters for granted on any lines, ideological or otherwise.

Since the independence of India, the only craving of Uttaranchal has been that of true development. The history of this hill region has been that of suffering of people, huge migration, endless exploitation of resources, neglect and deprivation which resulted in sporadic militancy and the demand for a separate hill state. Despite the strong political presence of the region at national level since independence, the voices of hills went largely unheard or unheeded in the corridor of powers. G B Pant, H N Bahuguna, N D Tiwari, Satpal Maharaj, Murli Manohar Joshi, K C Pant and others!! This region has given India few of the top leaders. These leaders from the region, however, soon became "national"  leaders and one wondered whether the boundaries of their "nation" were redrawn, beginning from the foothills and onwards to plains. Hills remained neglected all these decades.

(To be concluded in part two)