The Last Word
As if climbing up to the seat of Chief Minister of the hill state of Uttarakhand was not treacherous enough, Vijay Bahuguna discovered establishing his right on the peak was even more so. But the 65-year-old judge-turned-politician has put all his years of experience in discretion and persuasion — not to mention a formidable family name in politics — to good use in subduing all resistance.
Head of a government that he barely managed to cobble together, Bahuguna has coalition partners who are not easy to please. There were detractors - now tamed - within his Congress party too, tugging at the rug under his feet. It sure looks like the toughest briefs of his career.
Ever since he took over as Chief Minister on March 13, Bahuguna - considered a suave and sophisticated politician who loves his food, especially if it’s non-vegetarian, and films - has been engaged in stabilising the government.
Not only did he manage to sail through the vote of confidence, but also to keep his flock together to win the lone Rajya Sabha seat in the state for the party. Allocating portfolios amidst pressure from various party factions was another hurdle he crossed deftly.
His trick? “I am a humble man who is willing to reach out to everyone, whether within the party or outside,” he says. He needs to, given that in the 70-member House, the Congress has 32 seats, merely one seat ahead of the BJP. It formed the government with support from seven non-BJP legislators - three Independents, three of the BSP and a lone Uttarakhand Kranti Dal ( Panwar faction) legislator.
But achieving all this needs discipline. Bahuguna starts his day at 5.30 am, with a 6 km walk in the sprawling Chief Minister’s residence premises. That helps him handle his diabetes too. A quick breakfast of toast and “poha” with tea has him ready to begin meeting people at 8 am at his residence. There is always a crowd of party workers and common citizens waiting for audience.
After the shocking performance of the Congress in the elections that were marred by infighting and wrong choice of candidates, the decision to appoint Bahuguna as Chief Minister had come as a surprise, as he did not command the support of the majority of legislators.
The party high command held marathon consultations before naming Bahaguna, Member of the Lok Sabha from Tehri Garhwal. He pipped Union Minister for Agriculture, Food Processing and Parliamentary Affairs Harish Rawat to the post, sparking an unprecedented revolt by legislators owing allegiance to Rawat. The rebellion has been quelled - with support from the high command - but how long it is before the rumblings begin again is anyone’s guess.
Speaking confidently in an interaction with The Tribune, Bahuguna said: “In politics, everyone has expectations, but it was Rawat who himself told party general secretary Ghulam Nabi Azad to name either him or me. But that chapter is now over, and the Congress is united.”
Bahuguna - who comes from an illustrious political family - is a family man too. An avid billiards player, he has brought in a table to the Chief Minister’s residence, where he plays with his sons, Saket and Saurab, every time they are in town. “Though I’ve hardly had the time to play since I took over,” he adds. He has a daughter too.
The family has its political roots spread far and wide. Bahuguna replaced his first cousin, Maj Gen BC Khanduri (retd), as Chief Minister (BJP), and carries the legacy of his legendary father, former Union minister and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Hemwati Nandan Bahuguna, who was considered the master of all that is called politics.
While his sister Reeta Bahuguna Joshi, president of the Uttar Pradesh Congress, faced a humbling defeat in the state’s Assembly polls, Bahuguna’s elevation would have brought jubilation to the family. Considered the “first political family” of Garhwal, the Bahugunas have remained close knit. It was Reeta who had managed the first political victory of her brother in a Lok Sabha bypoll in 2007.
Bahuguna’s wife Sudha does her bit by handling the day-to-day politics of managing the constituency. Many believe the Bahugunas’ proximity to the Gandhi family helped him get the coveted post. As he puts it: “My father was a senior Congressman, and I was brought into the party by Rajiv Gandhi in 1989. My appointment as CM was a decision of party president Sonia Gandhi, taken after due deliberation.”
Despite a successful legal career, politics has not been a cakewalk for Bahuguna. He lost four consecutive Lok Sabha elections before making it to the lower House of Parliament in a byelection for Tehri in 2007. “Each defeat made me more determined. There is room for patience, perseverance and ability. As a lawyer, I was trained to take success and defeats in my stride. People accept you if you are serious,” he says.
Born in Allahabad on February 28, 1947, Bahuguna received his degree in law from Allahabad University, and went on to practise at the Allahabad High Court. He was designated senior lawyer at a young age of 35.
“I may be from the legal profession, but I was brought up in a political family. My father was a senior politician and my mother an MP. I used to serve as the chief polling agent for my father in all elections, including the famous Pauri Garhwal bypoll of 1983, when I argued before the Chief Election Commissioner, leading to the countermanding of the poll due to rigging,” he recalled.
In 1992, Bahuguna was elevated as Judge of the Allahabad High Court and later transferred to the Mumbai High Court. He resigned from the Bench during the Uttarakhand statehood agitation in 1995, and joined politics full time. Earlier, he had tried to get the Congress ticket in the 1989 and 1991 Lok Sabha polls from his father’s constituency of Pauri Garhwal, but failed.
The denial of ticket has an interesting anecdote attached to it. After his father’s death in 1989, Vijay Bahuguna formally joined the Congress. In the 1991 general election, he was the favourite for the Congress ticket from Pauri-Garhwal, but did not get it. At the time, his cousin Khanduri was given the BJP ticket to contest from Pauri. Khanduri is on record saying he would not have contested from Pauri then had Vijay Bahuguna got the Congress ticket.
Bahuguna’s missing the bus, thus, was Khanduri’s ticket to politics. He won the Pauri seat, and today acknowledges the quirk of fate. Bahuguna got to contest his first election from the Pauri Garhwal Lok Sabha seat in 1996, but lost it to Satpal Maharaj, then a candidate of Congress (Tewari). Khanduri lost too.
“Khanduriji is my cousin and elder to me, but being in rival parties, we do not talk politics. His mother Durga Bua was the eldest sister of my father, and used to visit us in Allahabad. But I only saw Khanduriji as an army officer coming to meet my father,” Bahuguna says.
In 1998, he shifted to Tehri Garhwal for the Lok Sabha election, but lost to Maharaja Manvendra Shah of the BJP. He lost yet again to Shah in 1999 and 2004.
Shah, Maharaja of the erstwhile Tehri state, died in 2007. In the byelection that followed, Bahuguna scored his first win from Tehri Lok Sabha seat, defeating Manujenda Shah, son of the deceased Maharaja. He won in 2009 too. “It is grassroots work that has paid,” he says.
During the previous Congress regime in Uttarakhand led by N.D. Tewari, Bahuguna was Chairman of the State Planning Commission from 2002 to 2007.
Asked about the responsibility of running a coalition government, Bahuguna says each day is going to be a challenge. “But I intend to work hard for the people, with honesty, and without self-interest,” he adds.
Being a senior lawyer and former judge, he is quick to grasp issues and quick in decisions. Many transfer seekers have been turned away. “No favours, transfers will be done according to rules,” he told one transfer seeker bluntly. But he is generous to those seeking financial aid for medical ailments.
“I eat light food in the afternoon,” he says, which is often followed by a quick siesta, much needed to cope with the hectic schedule. Bahuguna, despite now being a politician, loves to be turned out immaculately, which means safari suits in summers.
The evenings at his residence are hectic with a large number of officials and politicians seeking audience. Usually, the meetings last till 8.30 pm, after which he devotes time to clearing files.
On his priorities, Bahuguna says Uttarakhand is in dire financial straits due to bad fiscal management during the five years of BJP rule. “The non-plan expenditure has shot up from Rs 5,000 crore to Rs 13,000 crore. The planned expenditure is met on 70 per cent borrowings. There is acute shortage of power, and industry has started shying away from Uttarakhand. We’ll have to work really hard,” he says.
An avid golfer, Bahuguna is member of Delhi Golf Club, and also loves to play chess and billiards. On the games being played on the political chessboard of the state, he quips, “Politics is not picnic for me, but a passion that I will pursue with vigour.”
A test for his vigour and acumen is coming up in six months, by when he has to quit his Lok Sabha seat and win one Assembly seat to enter the