NEW DELHI: Uttarakhand Chief Minister Harish Rawat, who is fighting in the upcoming state Assembly by-election, believes that Narendra Modi factor will not work this time around and people will vote for his government to bring in stability in the hill state.
In an interview to PTI, Rawat blamed anti-incumbency and failure to counter the BJP's campaign against the UPA as reasons for Congress' drubbing in Lok Sabha polls and its inability to win from any of the five constituencies in Uttarakhand, ruled by him since February this year.
Taking responsibility of the debacle, Rawat said he got "less time" to prepare even though he maintained that excuses should not be given for such defeats. The Uttarakhand Assembly by-poll scheduled for July 21 is significant for Rawat's future as it is mandatory for him to make his entry into the state Assembly within six months of being sworn in. He will be contesting from Dharchula seat.
His remarks have come at a time when a top panel of the party led by A K Antony is going into the reasons of the defeat of Congress in the general elections and holding one to one meeting with leaders from the states.
Rawat, who served as Union Minister in the past and is one of senior Congress leaders, vociferously countered contentions that Rahul Gandhi is to be blamed for the party's debacle and even justified the decision of neither Sonia nor Rahul becoming the Leader of Opposition in Lok Sabha and said they should spend time with people instead of the Parliament to strengthen the party.
Replying to questions about the growing criticism of Rahul Gandhi's leadership in the party, Rawat shot back, "The same Rahul factor had worked for us in 2009 and brought us in power. It connected youths to Congress on a large scale then."
He added "This time after running a government for 10 years, there was a different atmosphere. People wanted a change. They wanted to have a change of taste. There were also some other factors like price hike due to which the voters of Congress were very disturbed. We could not stop the spiral of price. Our negatives were highlighted in a big way by the BJP and we could not counter it as an organisation. Rahul Gandhi led us in such a period. It was a challenging time."
Rawat said that even the thought that Congress should look beyond the leadership of Gandhis is not practical, adding "we should not forget that Gandhis have provided us the leadership in most difficult times."
Asked about the criticism over Rahul Gandhi not agreeing to become party's Leader of House in Lok Sabha, Rawat said, "Rahul Gandhi is leading from the front irrespective of whether he accepted the post of Leader of House or not. In Lok Sabha polls, he was already leading and addressed more than 200 rallies. "It is a politically wise decision that he did not accept the leader of House post from the party and spared himself for the public.
As much Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi meet the public, it will be better for the Congress. It is a wise decision on their part not to take up LoP post in Parliament and make a Dalit face and a Muslim face Mallikarjun Kharge and Ghulam Nabi Azad Parliamentary leaders LoPs in Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha," he said.
Asked about the prospects of Congress in Uttarkhand by-poll and its significance for him, Rawat said," Every election is important. Recently held Panchayat elections in the state have raised our expectations. We have great hopes with these by-elections now. We are fully confident that due to the initiatives we have taken in different areas, people will support us.
Our victory is not only important from the angle of politics but also to bring stability in the state polity".
Panchayat elections were held in the state in three phases on June 18, 21, and 24. The Congress Government in Uttarakhand functions with a wafer thin majority. The party has 33 MLAs in the 70-member Assembly and it has the support of three BSP members, three Independents and one Uttarakhand Kranti Dal (UKD) member. The Congress unit in the state is faction-ridden.
The Uttarakhand Assembly's term ends in March, 2017. Rawat gave Cabinet ranks to as many as 18 MLAs last month. Making the situation difficult for the Chief Minister, he is admitted in AIIMS in Delhi after sustaining a neck injury in a flight to Delhi over a fortnight ago and is unlikely to be discharged before July 15.
Rawat has his back to the wall in this by-election but discounts the possibility of his defeat.
"I do not see any reason why people will like me to lose the election. People will vote for Congress this time," he said asserting that while Modi as Prime Minister may have some attraction at national level "but in Assembly elections and by-elections local issues dominate. Modi factor did not work in Panchayat elections in Uttarakhand."
The Assembly by-poll slated for July 21 is significant for Rawat's future as it is mandatory for him to make his entry into the state Assembly within six months of being sworn in.
He was sworn in as Chief Minister on February 1, replacing Vijay Bahuguna.
While Rawat will contest from Dharchula seat, Hira Singh Bisht from Doiwala and Rekha Arya, who joined the party just a couple of days back, from Someshwar in the by-elections.
Dharchula is the seat which party MLA Harish Dhami vacated for the Chief Minister, while Doiwala is an Assembly segment under Haridwar Lok Sabha constituency which the Chief Minister represented in the last Lok Sabha at the time of taking over from Bahuguna.
Congress had lost all five Lok Sabha seats in the state to BJP and the candidates included Rawat's wife Renuka from Haridwar parliamentary constituency.
She lost by a margin of over 1,77,822 votes to former Chief Minister Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank.
The Chief Minister admits that the result of Lok Sabha elections in Uttarakhand was a setback.
"It is a setback. If I say it is not my failure, it will not be appropriate. But the percentage of votes that we got was better if we compare it from what the party got in rest of North India. It was more than the votes Congress candidates got on average at the national level but we could not win any seat and there cannot be any excuse for not winning," he said.
At a time when the Antony panel is digging deep into the reasons for Congress' crushing defeat in Lok Sabha elections, Rawat says that it was a mix of issues that caused this.
"Narendra Modi marketed himself well and a particular image was created about him in people's mind....when we were going for elections for a third term, we should have given it a thought that things have changed and people's expectations have risen much more than the popular belief.
"They were nursing bigger hopes from us. We could just launch the food security scheme and the benefits could not reach by the time elections happened. People's expectation from us had risen much beyond this time," Rawat said. "When Trinamool Congress and BJD could do it in West Bengal and Odisha and even Congress governments in Karnataka, Kerala and Assam could stop the march of BJP to some extent, why not Uttarakhand? I accept my responsibility.
I got a little less time. We could not reach to people the impact of the the decisions that were taken like Food Security. That is why we lagged behind and our candidates in many seats lost polls even after getting 4.5 lakh votes," he said.
When asked that a change of guard in Uttarakhand should have taken place earlier, Rawat said, "These are matters of speculation. I would not like to say anything. My predecessor had also done good work."
Asked how would he prepare to fight the by-election as he is hospitalised, Rawat said "I continue to do the work of the government from the hospital.
There is no denying the fact that when you do it from the front it makes a difference, but I have not allowed the government work to suffer. Ministers and secretaries come to me with files and I am disposing them even from the hospital."