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Highway to disaster

June 27, 2009 12:08 IST

It seems like a page out of Lalu Prasad's book. Prasad's performance was dismal as Bihar's chief minister, but he shone as railway minister at the Centre, with the right sort of bureaucrats (whose advice he actually took) and without the pressure to keep colleagues together.

Impressed by B C Khanduri's sterling performance as transport minister in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government -- where he made his career on building roads and built so many of them that the Golden Quadrilateral became the centrepiece of the achievements of the Vajpayee government -- the BJP thought he would be the best candidate for the chief ministership of Uttarakhand.

When he went to the state in 2007, he vowed to shake things up. "I am going to give the bureaucracy two weeks. If they can't sort themselves out in two weeks, they will be sacked," he said, days after he took over. He also listed his priorities for development of the state -- "Uttarakhand has natural resources that are so vast, a year's income can last five years if harnessed properly. My immediate priority is to develop irrigation, health and education. Uttarakhand has vast hydel potential. We can give 40,000 to 50,000 MW to the nation. Each MW can earn us Rs 1 crore. The possibilities in tourism-development are unlimited. We have to welcome tourists, not drive them away. Then there is development of agriculture, horticulture and floriculture. Also cottage industry."

But that was then. Within weeks, Khanduri found himself surrounded by problems, some of others' making but many of his own.

Like the rest of India, the regional and caste divide dominate the politics of Uttarakhand too. The state knows only two regions -- Garhwal and Kumaon -- and the rivalry between them is so intense that it would have been comical if it hadn't been so dangerous. The powerful elite is either Brahmin or Thakur and this division is quite deep too. Without really intending to, Khanduri became a victim of the politics of both.

His army background added another layer to the pressure groups operating on the government. Ex-servicemen were a natural constituency so he tried to promote them. Former government servants needed to be kept happy as they are a big chunk of voters -- 200,000 employees.

Despite not really being able to afford it, Uttarakhand announced it would implement the Sixth Pay Commission report in the state. Non-plan expenditure has been ballooning, the Plan size has shrunk and when the state government presents its budget in July, balancing books is going to be hard.

His one great achievement was the 304 MW Maneri Bhali Phase III hydel project, the first phase of which, producing 76 MW, was inaugurated within 10 months of his taking over as chief minister. Although the previous Congress-led government had set up the project, a badly designed Draft Project Report had delayed the project. Khanduri's Hill Development Industrial Policy was designed with the best possible intentions but it failed to attract any industry.

Despite intending to move forward aggressively on the administrative front, Khanduri found himself surrounded by Garhwali Brahmins.

Khanduri faced his first public revolt in the ranks of the BJP in 2007. Two Thakur leaders, Rajnath Singh and B S Koshiyari, led the campaign in the state elections in 2007 against Congress Chief Minister N D Tewari. The BJP won 34 seats in a house of 70, also securing the support of four MLAs of the Uttarakhand Kranti Dal (UKD). But it was Khanduri who was made chief minister, with Koshiyari rejecting the deputy chief ministership (he was made an MP of the Rajya Sabha later to keep him out of the state).

At that time in 2007, supporters of the Koshiyari and Khanduri factions fought pitched battle against each other, breaking furniture and glass windows and manhandling party observers Venkaiah Naidu and Ravi Shankar Prasad. However, Khanduri did not forget the sight. Residents of Uttarakhand noticed that after an election, when leaders customarily link hands to fete victory. Khanduri pointedly refused to hold Koshiyari's hand, things had gone that bad.

But have they really? Although Khanduri has bowed out, it is not Koshiyari who has become chief minister but Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank, formerly a Koshiyari acolyte who later jumped ship to join Khanduri. This is why Khanduri says that the projects he was unable to implement in the first two years of his tenure (because the state had to go through so many elections), will be rolled out by his successor. Nishank is also a Garhwal Brahmin so the more things change, the more they remain the same.

Koshiyari may have lost his chance but this could be a punctuation mark in his political career. As there is little chance of the BJP being re-elected in the next assembly elections due in 2012, he is out for the next eight years. But for B C Khanduri's political future, the next three years will be crucial.

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Aditi Phadnis