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Saturday, 12 November 2011

A soldier's return


With elections nearing, BJP brings back B C Khanduri as CM of Uttarakhand.

Time is short and the target uphill. With elections to the Uttarakhand state assembly five months away, the Bharatiya Janata Party has recalled Major General (retired) Bhuwan Chandra Khanduri. He replaced Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank as chief minister in September. This may be BJP’s last-ditch effort to check the anti-incumbency wave of recent months. Army officers hold great appeal here because of the large population of ex-soldiers. The regiments that draw men from Uttarakhand boast of two Victoria Crosses and two Param Vir Chakras. Khanduri, with his thick moustache and ramrod-straight frame, could help rope in those votes.

 More important, he must clean up the mess in Dehradun. BJP knows that because of the Anna Hazare movement, popular patience is running thin. In two months, Khanduri has tried to make himself the Hazare of Uttarakhand. The Lokayukta Bill, was cleared by the Uttarakhand Assembly on November 1; two days later, Governor Margaret Alva gave it her nod.
The bill covers all government functionaries, including the chief minister and former chief ministers. The Lokayukta need not take permission from any minister or officer before starting a probe. Its recommendations will be binding on the government. Punishment is six months to 10 years of rigorous imprisonment; in the rarest of the rare cases it could go up to life imprisonment. The higher the offender’s rank, the stricter the punishment. If the accused is a business entity, the Lokayukta can recover up to five times the loss and blacklist it for government contracts. Khanduri’s detractors are quick to point out that five of the seven Lokayukta members must concur before MLAs or top bureaucrats can be prosecuted. So they can breathe easy.

Still, Khanduri feels he has struck a chord with voters. “BJP will do much better than expectations,” he says. Why else would Hazare, he reasons, have told the Manmohan Singh government to model its Lokpal Bill on the Uttarakhand Lokayukta Bill? “We want to realise the dreams of our statehood activists who made the real sacrifices,” he says. “We have done a lot of work but a lot more is still to be achieved. Uttarakhand is the first state where such a strong Lokayukta Act has been introduced.”

* * *

He has actually done more. To provide public services within a stipulated timeframe, a Right to Service Act has been formulated which will cover 62 services. More services could be added to this list. A new department called Suraaj, Bhrashtachaar Unmulan and Jan Sewa (good governance, eradication of corruption and public service) has been set up. All ministers, senior bureaucrats and policemen have declared their assets. A new law allowing for the confiscation of wealth and property amassed by public servants through corrupt means has been enacted; assets seized will be reinvested for a social cause. Forest land of up to 400,000 hectares will be released to the people. New laws on postings are formulated to ensure that essential services like health care and education are delivered in remote hill areas, where absenteeism is the norm among hospital and school staff.

For an ex-army officer, Khanduri, 77, has sizeable political acumen. Khanduri rose in BJP after his cousin was denied a Congress ticket to contest the Lok Sabha polls from Pauri constituency in 1991. Khanduri went on to defeat the Congress’s Satpal Maharaj. He became chief whip of the BJP parliamentary party in 1992. In 1996, he lost the elections to Maharaj but became vice-president of BJP’s Uttar Pradesh unit. He was re-elected to the Lok Sabha in 1998 and 1999. In 2000, Khanduri became union minister of state with independent charge of road transport and highways in the Atal Behari

Vajpayee government. Dehradun resident G S Rawat praises Khanduri for his role as highway and road transport minister: “More than his good work, Khanduri is known for his honesty.”

* * *

In 2004, he was elected to the Lok Sabha for the third successive time from Pauri, but BJP lost power at the Centre. When elections were announced in Uttarakhand in 2007, BJP’s central leadership made Khanduri chairman of the election campaign committee, and later he became the chief minister.

Within 10 days of taking the oath, Khanduri directed that no interviews should be held for government jobs. There would be only objective questions, and an examinee would be able to take a copy of his answer sheet home, to know how he had done. The state would publish only the cut-off mark; all who scored above it would be taken in.

“The people of the state were frustrated. There were 40-50 scams going on,” Khanduri had told Business Standard nine months into his new job. “Even my sifarish [recommendation] can’t get anybody a government job in the state now.” He had set up two inquiry commissions to look into scams and misuse of authority during the five years of Congress rule. Some 250 cars with beacon lights, and 350 policemen, were taken off VIP duty. Officers were told that they could travel to Delhi only by train. Khanduri cut his own entourage of cars from eight to three, and would take the overnight train to Delhi. “We are not nawabs, we are servants of the people,” he had said. He also ordered that every file have a slip tracking its movement; officials were told to record when they had received and cleared it.

Khanduri faced the ire of his political foe, former CM Bhagat Singh Koskhiryai, which led to his ouster after the 2009 general elections in which BJP lost all five of its Lok Sabha seats in the state. Khanduri was succeeded by Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank. It is said that Khanduri himself recommended Nishank for the job. As a series of alleged scandals began to swirl around Nishank, Khanduri took advantage of Anna Hazare’s campaign and managed to dislodge Nishank.

The question is: can he do enough before the elections to stem the tide?

1 comments:

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