By Arun Pratap Singh
Dehradun, 17 Mar: Ordinarily, an assembly bypoll necessitated by the death of a sitting member particularly from the ruling party hardly evokes much political interest or challenge for the government. However, given the fact that the chief minister in Uttarakhand has been replaced just days ago, the bypoll for the Salt Assembly constituency of district Almora declared to be held on 17 April has evoked special interest among political observers in the state. It may be recalled that the by-poll was necessitated by the untimely demise of the incumbent MLA, Surendra Singh Jeena, of the BJP, who died of Covid infection on 12 November, last year. Jeena’s wife had also died of Covid infection days before his death. Jeena was among the most active MLAs and was a three time MLA, continuously winning the assembly polls on account of his popularity among the electorate since 2007.
Though Uttarakhand has a new CM, now, in Tirath Singh Rawat, who is currently a Lok Sabha MP from Pauri Garhwal constituency and he has to get elected to the legislature within six months in order to continue in office, yet party sources claim he is unlikely to contest from this seat.
The Salt seat is part of the Kumaon Administrative Division, while Rawat hails from Pauri district in Garhwal. One may, however, recall that the then Congress Chief Minister, Vijay Bahuguna, who also hailed from Pauri district when he was nominated by the Congress High Command in 2012 to be the CM, had contested from Sitarganj seat of district Udham Singh Nagar after managing to convince rival BJP party MLA Kiran Mandal to vacate the seat for him. He won comfortably though the BJP had put up a formidable candidate, Prakash Pant. Generally, such bypolls are not considered to be a major challenge for the ruling party. However, the BJP in spite of having a brute majority in the state assembly is not in a position to take this election lightly. A lot is at stake for Chief Minister Tirath Singh Rawat having just taken over as the new CM. Party sources claim that the BJP was deliberating on fielding someone from the Jeena family to gain sympathy votes and to encash the popularity of the family. Sources also claim that some BJP leaders are of the view that Tirath Singh Rawat should consider contesting on this seat as the Salt seat has a sizeable population of Garhwali votes.
In the 2017 assembly elections, Jeena had won the assembly election by a margin of 2,904 votes defeating Ganga Pancholi of Congress. In the past, this seat was also held by Ranjit Singh Rawat of Congress who had moved to a different constituency last time. However, he is learnt to be lobbying for the party ticket for his son Vikram Singh Rawat. The problem is, however, that Pancholi – the other claimant to the Congress ticket – had lost the election by a narrow margin of 2,904 votes and is unlikely to give up her claim to the ticket. Ranjit Singh Rawat, once considered to be a close confidante of Congress General Secretary Harish Rawat, has changed his loyalties and is now considered to be in the Pritam Singh Camp. It remains to be seen if he still manages to secure the Congress ticket for his son after having lost the confidence of Harish Rawat, who still has considerable political clout in the Congress party.
Sources claim that some BJP MLAs, including Badrinath MLA Mahendra Bhatt, have offered to vacate their seat in case CM Rawat agrees to contest from there. It is learnt that the party was initially interested in making Chaubattakhal MLA and senior minister Satpal Maharaj vacate his seat as Tirath Singh Rawat has held this constituency in the past, but Maharaj has so far shown reluctance to contest the Lok Sabha by-poll from Pauri and vacate this assembly seat.