Since its formation over 20 years ago, power in Uttarakhand has alternated between the BJP and the Congress, giving the impression that it is essentially a bipolar polity.
Now, it is quite possible that the same pattern may repeat yet again. But the Kerala election earlier this year, the 2016 Tamil Nadu election and the 2012 Punjab election showed us that such patterns can be broken.
Such a pattern happens when both the main parties have comparable proportion of committed voters and a small swing leads to a change of government every five years.
The change of power every five years hides two key trends in Uttarakhand politics: Increasing dominance by the BJP and the uneven influence of non-BJP/non-Congress parties.
The interplay of these trends may determine who wins Uttarakhand in the 2022 elections.
BJP may have lost power at the state level in 2002 and 2012 but it has been the dominant party in Uttarakhand.
It has been the default choice of voters at the Lok Sabha level, since even before the state's formation.
Except for the 2009 Congress sweep, BJP has won a majority of seats in the Uttarakhand region in every Lok Sabha election since 1991.
It swept all five seats in 1991, retained three in 1996 losing two to the newly formed Congress (Tiwari), won all five again in 1998 and four out of five in 1999.
In 2004, the first Lok Sabha election in the new state, BJP won three seats losing one each to the Congress and the Samajwadi Party. The 2009 election was the only exception as the Congress won all five seats in Uttarakhand. But in 2014 and 2019, the BJP swept the state with a massive margin.
There are three reasons for the BJP's dominance in the state.
The first is caste. Upper Castes reportedly account for over 50 percent of Uttarakhand's population.
The Upper Caste domination is even higher if one takes Haridwar district out of the equation. In Haridwar, Muslims and Dalits account for 56 percent of the population and as a result, this has been a comparatively weaker district for the BJP.
In the 1990s, when Uttarakhand was part of Uttar Pradesh, the BJP was seen as the main party representing Upper Caste interests in the undivided state.
The second is that in the demand for Uttarakhand, the SP led by Mulayam Singh Yadav was seen as a major antagonist and there was a consolidation in favour of the BJP, which was in favour of the new state.
The third factor is that aspects such as national security have had more of a bearing on Uttarakhand than other states. For instance in the last Assembly election, a far higher proportion of voters in Uttarakhand said that the surgical strikes was an important issue, compared to other poll-bound states like Punjab and Uttar Pradesh.
The first and the third factor – upper caste consolidation and national security – played a key role in the BJP's sweep in the 2017 Assembly election. That was an exceptional election as the party exceeded by over ten percentage points its usual 30-35 percent vote share, getting 46 percent votes.
The BJP is now trying to ensure that it retains its advantage. It's trying to do that by focussing on national security issues and also creating a bogey that the Muslim population is rising in the hill state.
SPACE FOR SMALLER PARTIES
Uttarakhand has also witnessed a decline in the vote share of non-BJP, non-Congress parties. The combined vote share of the BJP and Congress in 2002 was just 52 percent. It increased to 61 percent in 2007 and 67 percent in 2012.
Non-BJP, non-Congress parties – especially the BSP, the Uttarakhand Kranti Dal and the SP – witnessed a decline in this period, from 48 percent in 2002, 39 percent in 2007 to 33 percent in 2012.
In 2017, the "non-BJP, non-Congress" vote was down to just 21 percent, less than half of what it was 15 years ago.
In this election, the AAP is trying to capture and expand this space. Though coming from a very different history, AAP is following a model similar to the UKD – raising local issues and calling for clean governance.
To make an impact, AAP would have to capture a major chunk of the "alternative" vote. However, this is easier said than done as AAP is not in a position to capture the BSP base among Dalits and Muslims at least, which may either stay with the BSP or move to the Congress.
Therefore, AAP can at best get only a part of the the "non-BJP, non-Congress" vote. To make an impact, it would have to win over a sizable chunk of votes from the two big parties.
WHERE DOES THIS LEAVE THE CONGRESS?
In the rise of the BJP and the decline of smaller parties, the Congress has retained a reasonably constant vote share of 30-33 percent all these years.
However, this is a bit deceptive and doesn't mean that the Congress' base has remained untouched.
What seems to have happened is that the Congress lost part of its base to the BJP, mainly among Upper Castes, while it gained at the expense of SP and BSP in the plains.
In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections for instance, the BJP is said to have secured nearly two thirds of the Upper Caste Hindu vote while the Congress led among Muslims and Dalits.
Congress' most popular leader in the state Harish Rawat has made an interesting pitch by saying that the state should have a Dalit chief minister.
Already assured of much of the 14 percent Muslim vote, Rawat is trying to get the lion's share of Uttarakhand's 18 percent Dalit vote as well. The entry of prominent Dalit leader Yashpal Arya back into the party may also help in this direction.
The Congress seems to be trying to capture much of the BSP's declining base in the state.
There's another aspect to this: by bringing caste to the centre-stage of the debate, Rawat is also trying to counter the BJP's attempts to communalise the election with the bogey of "rising Muslim population".
However, in order to come to power, the Congress would need to exceed its traditional 30-33 percent vote share in Uttarakhand. Capturing the BSP's base isn't sufficient for this, it would need to majorly eat into BJP votes as well because the latter had a 13 percentage point lead in the last election.
The problem for the Congress is that its central leadership is extremely unpopular in the state. According to the CVoter's survey, Congress president Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi both have a negative approval rating in Uttarakhand.
In contrast, the state leadership, especially Rawat, is extremely popular. According to the CVoter survey 36.6 percent people want Rawat to be the next chief minister of Uttarakhand, way ahead of incumbent CM Pushkar Dhami at 24.1 percent. It even appears that a major chunk of non-Congress voters also want Rawat to be CM.
The Congress is missing a trick by keeping Rawat busy in the Punjab campaign and not declaring him as the CM candidate in Uttarakhand.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?
The CVoter survey predicts that there is a small decline in the BJP's vote share from the last election and a marginal rise for the Congress but not enough to come back to power.
It also predicts that AAP could get over 10 percent votes but not make a major impact in terms of seats.
As point out earlier, it also shows that Harish Rawat is by far the most popular CM face but that isn't translating into major gains for the Congress, maybe due to the party's own shortcomings or failure to declare a CM face.
However, a lot is likely to change in the weeks to come. Yashpal Arya's return to the Congress may pave the way for the return of a few other leaders into the party's fold. The names of Harak Singh Rawat, Umesh Sharma Kau and Pranav Champion are doing the rounds.
Strong candidates, Dalit and Muslim votes and Harish Rawat's leadership seem to be the Congress' main advantages in the election.
The BJP on the other hand, would want to shift the focus to national issues and tap Prime Minister Narendra Modi's popularity to offset the massive anti-incumbency against the state government.
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