Rawat was accused of undermining the authority of ministers. For instance, he would call departmental meetings, without the minister concerned.
On March 17, a day before the Uttarakhand assembly passed the budget, hectic parleys were on in the state capital. Senior BJP leaders were in town to meet disgruntled Congress MLAs, especially former chief minister Vijay Bahuguna.
BJP leader Kailash Vijayvargiya, who was campaigning in West Bengal, rushed to Dehradun apparently on party president Amit Shah's orders. He was assigned the task of talking to Bahuguna, who has been nursing a grudge ever since he was replaced by Harish Rawat in 2014.
The plan was to have the rebel Congress MLAs and the BJP legislators force a vote on the finance bill, to prove that the Rawat government did not have majority in the assembly. The success lay in the surprise, and senior BJP leaders were assured of the support of 12 Congress legislators.
On March 18, when the budget was taken up, minister Harak Singh Rawat demanded division of the house to pass the finance bill. He was joined by fellow rebel MLAs and BJP legislators. Apparently, fisticuffs ensued. Speaker Govind Singh Kunjwal, however, refused permission for division and later said the bill had been passed by voice vote. The government survived. However, Governor K.K. Paul has asked Rawat to prove his majority by March 28.
The Congress has accused the BJP of trying to repeat what happened in Arunachal Pradesh by ganging up with party rebels. The BJP, however, claims the Rawat government has no right to stay in power as it does not have majority.
The events are a culmination of the serious discontent that has been brewing against the chief minister for several months. The disgruntled leaders have been in contact with BJP leaders, and it is said that the chief minister failed to preempt the rebellion.
The discontent began when the Congress passed over Rawat to appoint a politically junior Bahuguna, son of former party stalwart H.N. Bahuguna, as chief minister after the assembly elections in 2012. This was done to balance the rival power centres in the party. However, after severe criticism of Bahuguna’s handling of relief to the Himalayan deluge victims, the party leadership replaced him with Rawat.
Rawat was seen as a grassroots leader, whereas Bahuguna was an outsider who was more in sync with the Mumbai crowd than with the people of the hill state.
Soon enough, there were complaints about Rawat's style of functioning, that he did not listen to the MLAs, that he was surrounded by sycophants and that even ministers found it difficult to get an appointment with him. He was accused of undermining the authority of ministers. For instance, he would call departmental meetings, without inviting the minister concerned.
The rebel MLAs were also miffed with the Central leadership for ignoring their concerns. MLA Umesh Sharma said party vice president Rahul Gandhi could devote one hour to meet Jawaharlal Nehru University students’ leader Kanhaiya Kumar, but would not meet the disgruntled MLAs.
Bahuguna was also angry that Rawat was trying to thwart his ambition to enter the Rajya Sabha. Now he has become the BJP's point man in its efforts to topple the government. In the meeting that the rebel leaders and the BJP delegation had with Paul, Bahuguna took the lead in demanding that the government be dismissed.
The Congress government, however, hit back aggressively, removing Harak Singh Rawat from the state cabinet the day the budget was passed. It also expelled Bahuguna's son Saket from the party for six years. Speaker Kunjwal issued show-cause notices to the rebel MLAs, asking why they should not be disqualified from the assembly for disobeying the whip.
“Senior BJP leaders camped in Dehradun and conspired against the government,” said Ambika Soni, All India Congress Committee general secretary in charge of Uttarakhand. “They accosted our MLAs and took them in a bus to meet the governor. A Union minister waited in a special plane to bring them to Delhi.”
Apparently, Rawat was to go to Delhi to hold talks with AICC leaders, but Rahul asked him to stay put and ensure that his government had the required numbers in the assembly. To do that, Rawat has to ward off defections and win back the disgruntled MLAs, except Bahuguna, Harak Singh Rawat, Subodh Uniyal and Amrita Rawat. He is also in touch with disgruntled BJP legislators.
In the 70-member assembly, the Congress has 42 members—36 of its own and six others. After the rebellion, its strength has come down to 33. The BJP has 28 MLAs, but one of them has defected to the Congress. Together with the nine rebel Congress MLAs, the BJP has 36 legislators. On its side.
The Congress, it seems, has two options. First, win back four or five rebels. Second, disqualify the rebels and reduce the working strength of the house on the day of the trust vote. “Now, they are trying to buy our MLAs. Only yesterday, they appointed a BJP MLA vice chairman of a board,” said Vijayvargiya.
The BJP, it seems, missed a trick or two. After it failed to block the passage of the finance bill, there were questions about why it tried to topple the government just months before the state elections.
A section of the BJP said it was a misadventure. Said a senior leader: “The decision of the speaker is final. What can be done now?” Also, the BJP was assured of the support of 12 Congress MLAs but, after the bill was passed, only nine crossed over.
There is also criticism within the party that aligning with leaders like Bahuguna and Harak Singh Rawat, who are not too popular in the state, would bring disrepute to the BJP. “Harish Rawat could find himself in an advantageous position. If the government goes, he can play the victim card. Rajput votes will consolidate behind him,” said a senior BJP leader.
Said the chief minister: “The BJP has spent money like water to topple my government. The people of the state are watching all that is happening.”
As the battle continues, the BJP seems to have conceded the advantage to Rawat.