The pilot helps Harish Rawat buckle the seat belt. Doors are closed. The engine revs up for the take-off. Harish Rawat closes his eyes, says his prayers and crisscrosses his hands to touch his ears.
The chopper flies low over the Doon Valley before gaining height as it approaches the Gharwal hills, washed clean by rain over the weekend.
Bhagirathi below is an emerald necklace meandering downhill before hitting the Tehri Dam.
Prayers don, the Uttarakhand CM takes out two sheets of paper from his breast pocket and makes some calculations. It’s his horoscope, or rashifal, for 2017.
Rawat’s fate, however, will depend much on how people of Uttarakhand vote on the 15th of February. They have never repeated any government since the formation of the state 16 years ago. Rawat, thus, will need more than just luck to pull it off once again for the Congress this election.
“Mein to kehta hun jaise Shivji ne Ganesh ka Sar joda tha, waise hi High Court aur Supreme Court ne mera Sar jodh diya,” he says, referring to the dismissal of his government last year after 10 Congress MLAs led by Vijay Bahuguna crossed over to the BJP. The tenacious Thakur from Almora fought both political and legal battles forcing centre to restore his government.
In the run up to the polls, more Congress leaders have deserted the party. Veteran ND Tiwari has made an appeal seeking votes for the BJP. Harish Rawat is unfazed. He sees an opportunity here. That one window of opportunity that he was waiting for. He delayed Congress’ list of candidates to see how many rebels were accommodated by the BJP.
BJP took quite a few, almost a dozen in an assembly of seventy. Rawat then moved in to finalise his list, meticulously picking his nominees. With as many as 18 BJP rebels entering the fray, his task was cut out.
“Hamne unke bade netaon ko fasa diya hai,” he says. But even Congress faces rebellion in half a dozen seats. “Yes. But it’s much less as compared to the BJP.” he responds.
BJP, as he sees it, will be fighting the BJP in many constituencies which he feels will help him squeeze through. In a state where many seats are decided by a margin of less than a thousand votes, rebellion in the opposition camp is the straw Rawat is clutching onto to make a comeback.
But all this is easier said than done. His own government in the last two and a half years has been mired in allegations of corruption. He and his aides have been accused by the opposition of patronising liquor and mining mafia. Rawat himself has been stung by a local TV channel. The matter now is before the CBI.
Rawat, with his understanding of the ground level politics, is however attempting to contest this election of an entirely different plane altogether. He seems to have neatly divided the state into three homogeneous segments-Kumaon, Gharwal and the Tarai plains. For each region he has a different strategy.
Rawat himself is contesting from two Constituencies. One each on the Tarai districts of Udham Singh Nagar and Haridwar with substantial Muslim and Dalit population.
Congress did not do well 29 constituencies in the plains of the hill state in the last elections. Rawat this time is banking on a better performance here and a sweep in the Kumaon hills.
Rawat is perhaps one of the last remaining Congressi who is completely at ease wearing tilak on his forehand and invoking local Gods and Goddesses as he is hosting an iftaar party for his voters in Haridwar.
Prashant Kishore’s team is now managing his campaign. Rawat is being projected as Harda, the affable pahari lad next door who is accessible to everyone. In his speeches, he underscores the point, attempting to draw a sharp contrast between him and Prime Minister Modi. Very subtly, he is attempting to make it an outsider versus local battle.
“Wo dadhi wale baba ne 15 lakh dene ko bola tha, kuch mila?” he asks people in his first election rally of the day in Kedarnath constituency.
“I contrast this government has helped you sell your Madva (coarse grain) and gahat (horse gram) at a rate which Modiji is selling Arhar ki daal,” he adds, taking a jibe at the BJP government at the centre.
This election for Rawat is a culmination of so many things. In the last two and a half years he’s been in power in Uttarakhand, all top Congress leaders have joined the BJP.
Some feel irrespective of whether Congress wins or loses here, Rawat has ensured he remains the undisputed leader of the party in the hill state.
Uttarakhand Congress today is Harish Rawat Congress.