The Turnaround Man In Hill County
CM BC Khanduri was brought in to rescue the BJP’s sliding fortunes. Baba Umar tracks what he’s doing right
UTTARAKHAND CHIEF minister Bhuvan Chandra Khanduri, 77, usually wears one of three faces these days. There’s a furious, shocked one — often worn while facing a confrontational scribe — in which his forehead furrows, cheeks go red, black eyes roll, and he pants in surprise that somebody has yet again misinterpreted a statement. Then there’s a kindly and attention- paying look: jaw stiffened, eyes contracted, head nodding in affirmation. And lastly, an enigmatic smile that inspires both devotion and discipline.
Khanduri is likely to need all of this and more to pull off the urgent task he’s been entrusted with by his party. His predecessor Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank had pulled the BJP’s fortunes into a fatal slide in the state with his rampant corruption scandals. On 11 September 2011, with an eye on the upcoming polls, Nishank was sacked and Khanduri brought in to reverse the tide.
The BJP couldn’t have picked a better turnaround man. Khanduri — an imposing broad-shouldered man with a memorable handlebar moustache — is a respected figure with a reputation for integrity and delivery. A retired major general, Khanduri had served in the Indian Army for 36 years from 1954 to 1990, primarily in the engineering corps. In 1982, he received the Ati Vishisht Seva Medal from the President of India for extraordinary service. After retirement, he joined the BJP.
Khanduri’s willingness to allow what he calls “disciplined dissent” makes him fairly popular within the party now. He’s obviously taken his learnings. His first stint as chief minister of Uttarakhand from 2007 to 2009 was marred by consistent demands for his resignation, triggered by internal bickering and resentment over his attempts to transplant strict army values into the internecine sprawl of party politics. In 2009, with the BJP losing all five Lok Sabha seats to the Congress, the chorus against him had finally forced him to cede his chief ministership to Nishank, despite having 28 MLAs in his favour.
Now, in a sharp political irony, he’s been brought back in to clean up his predecessor’s mess, reportedly at LK Advani’s insistence. (An internal survey had apparently suggested that if Nishank was retained as CM, the party would not win more than seven out of the 70 Assembly seats. Khanduri, however, denies this survey and says his reinstatement was routine election “strategy”.) Either way, from all accounts, he’s been doing a remarkable job and seems to have put the BJP back into a fighting saddle.
As DN Bhatkoti, former head of Political Science, DAV College, Dehradun, says, “Had Nishank still been there, the BJP had no chances of winning. Right now, it’s Khanduri’s image that’s working for the party. You won’t find a similar leadership in the Congress.”
But it’s not just image and public optics Khanduri is banking on. In his first 11 Cabinet meetings, held within the first three months of his taking over, it appears Khanduri took 192 decisions that are likely to yield rich dividends. For one, in a season when corruption has high emotive value, he has asked his ministers and top bureaucrats to voluntarily disclose their movable and immoveable assets. He’s also passed a strong Lokayukta Bill that brings the chief minister, his council of ministers, legislators and bureaucrats across the spectrum under its anvil. Continuing with his anti-graft campaign, Khanduri has also brought 60 services provided by the government under ‘Citizens Charters’, ensuring that they will be executed in a transparent and time-bound manner. To stem the favouritism and nepotism that have surrounded prime postings, Khanduri has also brought in a transparent appointment and transfer policy that makes it obligatory for all government employees to work in both plains and the hilly areas of the state.
Other measures Khanduri has taken are:
• Free travel for girl students in state transport buses
• 5 percent interest subsidy on education loans
• A grant of Rs 50,000 to medical students and those in technical courses at IIT, IIM, NIT, NDA and IMA
• Doubling of scholarship money for children of ex-servicemen
• An amended industrial policy that will facilitate the smooth and speedy establishment of industries in the state
• New homes to be built for 7.5 lakh slumdwellers
• And a new, improved mining policy — particularly significant given the spate of mining scams that had dogged Nishank’s tenure. (However, even Khanduri has been unable to have any real deterrent impact on the sort of illegal mining that claimed Swami Nigamananda’s life last year).
For the most part, though, this impressive mood of determined action has dominated Khanduri’s second stint. “His first acid test came in the form of a communal incident,” narrates a close aide. “The riots had allegedly begun after a religious text was insulted in the industrial town of Rudrapur on 2 October 2011. Muslims blocked roads to demand action against the culprits. The district administration failed to anticipate the fallout and four people were killed, while scores of business establishments were set on fire. However, after Khanduri visited the riot-hit town, he took charge of the situation, returned to Dehradun and transferred and replaced the entire civil and police administration of the area. The new faces brought the situation under control.”
Khanduri, who has been a Lok Sabha MP in 1991, 1998 and 1999, has demonstrated this capacity for decisive action earlier too. As Union minster of state with independent charge of road transport and highways in the NDA government, he had worked resolutely on the Golden Quadrilateral Highway Project. When land acquisition had proved a major impediment to the Rs 56,000 crore project, he had roped in the director-general of Border Roads Organisation as adviser and personally called chief ministers of various states to align them to the project and help speed things up.
But despite his principled ways, he’s had to refashion some of his earlier positions. As Khanduri’s aide reveals, “He had ruffled feathers in his first stint following his refusal to allow industrialists and investment in the state. For instance, he was blamed for closing the doors on the Tatas, who were interested in shifting the Nano project from West Bengal to Uttarakhand.”
Ironically, other grouses against Khanduri included the fact that he had been too hard on the administration and sanctioned probes in 50 scandals involving bureaucrats. He had also slashed the size of plots outsiders could buy in Uttarakhand from 500 sq yards to 250 sq yards, which angered real estate developers. These measures had created a band of antagonists within the party.
OF COURSE, in any election, it’s impossible to be rid of antagonists within the party. This time too, apart from the Congress, many feel the BJP’s real challenge is likely to come from its 11 sitting MLAs who were denied tickets, mostly for being Nishank loyalists, and who might contest as independents, cutting into the party’s vote share. “No one had expected the BJP would deny tickets to these MLAs and two ministers,” says senior journalist SMA Kazmi. “The Congress is likely to benefit from this feud.”
Khanduri’s own prospects look good in Kotdwar constituency, from where he is contesting against Congress stalwart Surinder Singh Negi. Khanduri had earlier defeated Negi in the 2007 bypoll from the Dhumakot Assembly seat by 14,000 votes, and Negi acknowledges him as a formidable opponent.
However, as Negi says, “The internal rift is so intense, Khanduri has had to leave his constituency in Dhumakot and fight from Kotdwar this time.” According to him, Khanduri’s personal stature is a saving grace for the BJP, but barring that, the party’s involvement in corruption and lack of development activities will hit them hard this time.
There are other factional symptoms that are likely to make things difficult for Khanduri. In Kotdwar, the BJP has refused to give a ticket to MLA Shailender Singh Rawat. A few days ago, 2,000 of Rawat’s supporters surrounded the BJP office in Dehradun raising slogans against Khanduri. Nityanand Swami, a party veteran and first CM of Uttarakhand, also recently called a press conference in which he reprimanded the BJP leadership for “compromising on ideology and idealism”. BJP veteran Devinder Shastri has also been vocally critical of Khanduri.
Another threat to the BJP, poll observers say, comes from another ex-army man who has launched his own party, the Uttarakhand Raksha Morcha. Lt General (retd) TPS Rawat had resigned from his Dhumakot Assembly seat in 2007 to pave the way for Khanduri to enter the state legislature. But now, Rawat, who is contesting from Lansdowne, has turned an opponent and is billed to secure the most ex-serviceman votes. (A large number of people from Garhwal and other areas were given jobs in the army while he was DG, Assam Rifles.)
However, Khanduri is giving it his best shot. With three weeks to go for the Assembly polls, he wakes at 5 am, goes for a jog, performs his puja, reads the papers, takes briefings from officials, meets lots of visitors and hits the road. He wants to be judged on his development agenda and his efforts to weed out corruption. “These are the chief election planks of our party in the elections,” he says.
Thanks to him, at least the BJP in Uttarakhand can now claim that with a straight face.
Baba Umar is a Correspondent with Tehelka.