Battlefield To Booth: How Uttarakhand’s Ex-Servicemen Take ‘Mukhiya’ Narendra Modi’s Fight To Tehri Garhwal and Pauri Garhwal Ground

Battlefield To Booth: How Uttarakhand’s Ex-Servicemen Take ‘Mukhiya’ Narendra Modi’s Fight To Tehri Garhwal and Pauri Garhwal GroundPM Narendra Modi with ITBP personnel 
Snapshot
  • When New Delhi’s old media calls Uttarakhand ‘a small state with five seats’, it is missing a movement rumbling beneath the seemingly calm surface of a compact electoral fight.

When bodies of CRPF jawans Mohan Lal Raturi and Virender Singh Rana, of Major Chitresh Bisht and Major Vibhuti Shankar Dhoundiyal came to Uttarakhand for their last journey in February, the nation looked towards the hill state in sorrow, solidarity, anger and pride. Actions taken by Narendra Modi-led NDA following the Pulwama terror attack have assured most people in Uttarakhand on this government’s resolve to take "tough decisions".

The surgical strikes and air strikes have a keen audience in the state. This audience has skin in the game. It votes. It has a sense of the past, a grip on the electoral present, a vision for Uttarakhand, and from the hill state and its lofty military history, a vision for the country's future. It engages in “tark vitark” respectfully on issues relating to national security, defence, the country and nationalism, with the ordinary citizens. It helps turn words into vote. It even leads the voter to the booth.

This audience is the mammoth ‘family’ of retired servicemen who have given their youth to defending India against the enemy over the decades, and other members of their families.

Not everything that the ex-serviceman from Doiwala area, Sergeat Major (Retd.) Dhani Ram Nainwal shares can be further shared in words. Today, his voice and hands seem too soft for the music of a khukhri, which he mentions every time he recalls his days as a soldier. It must have truly warmed his hands. He also recalls a ruthless revenge attack launched on the enemy, which, in his view, could happen because the government in power then was NDA-I. An echo of the clarion call, "Chalo Garhwalion" revisits him as he talks to Swarajya in Dehradun.

They have felt the pain of sacrifice. They know the element of courage required for quick and tough decisions. "I know where the shoe pinches," Mussoorie MLA and ex-serviceman Ganesh Joshi puts it succinctly. Many of them believe that Narendra Modi recognizes both these values and has worked to preserve them in his short tenure of five years.

Today, they are fueling his election campaign by directly contributing to work on strategy, tactics, designation of work on the ground, at booth-level, in a firefighting mode.

That these servicemen know his pulse on matters crucial to India's defence forces, and that he knows their mind, was clear in Modi's speech in Dehradun. Modi was unsparing in his attack on the Congress in his 5 April speech. He attacked the Congress on its election promises centering on national security. He speared into Congress's 'dhakosla patr' and used 'surakshakavach',  a synonym, understandably, for AFSPA, saying that Congress was meaning to weaken military and paramilitary forces who were defending India against "atanki, pattharbaaj, vibhajankaari tatv" by making a set of ominous promises.

He began his speech invoking the devi at the onset of Navratri, thanked Uttarakhand for standing with him to help him make and take tough decisions, and remembered Dehradun's martyrs who gave up their lives while defending the country in Pulwama and after. He even asked the crowds if they think India's soldiers would be secure in the wake of Congress’ election promises made in the “dhakosla patr” on AFSPA.

Modi also invoked the issue of corruption in defence deals, perhaps aware, perhaps unaware, that Uttarakhand ex-servicemen count this factor as vital in his approach to national security and his support to the defence forces. His speech established Dehradun as the centre of middle class emotion and patriotic resolve.

Prime Minister Modi also mentioned the names of veers Mohan Lal Raturi and Virender Singh Rana, Major Chitresh Bisht and Major Vibhuti Shankar Dhoundiyal, in his homage to veers across the country.

Nationalism and the soldier are inherent emotions in Uttarakhand. In 2019, BJP's star campaigners, Jan Sampark Sabhas and star pracharaks are all walking the path. The previous Lok Sabha election in Uttarakhand was about bringing Narendra Modi to power - and removing the Congress. Nationalism, in 2014, worked as balm - calming the angry nerves of Uttarakhand people a year after the 2013 Kedarnath floods. They voted for Modi - for the sake of their state and nation. BJP had won all five constituencies. In 2017, BJP returned to power in the state.

This time, the strain of nationalism steering BJP's work, emotion and presence, in Uttarakhand is different, and way stronger. The restive state unit has enough to go to people with, and to talk about at jan sabhas.

War-toughened hands have wrinkled in time, voices have softened, muscles weakened, but the servicemen keep moving the campaign machinery smoothly, and their sentiment for the nation, burning brightly. In 2019, the sentiment is merging, bleeding into sweat, for nationalism, the soldier, his family and Narendra Modi - the man they describe as their family's "mukhiya".

With their ears, eyes and nose to the ground, with their stamina competing with their tactical astuteness, and the lack of time, some of Uttarakhand's ex-servicemen seem determined to give the entire country a message from the hill state in 2019. Before that, comes the task of helping BJP retain all five seats. According to Ganesh Joshi, there are around 72,000 poorv sainiks in Dehradun alone. Then, there are family members of these poorv sainiks.

Nainwal points at his coarse feet without a hint of discomfort. "Even now I cannot wear slippers. My feet suffered in snow. They burn in the sun. But that doesn't stop me taking and designating campaign and poll-related duties for Narendra Modi."

As an inset of the bigger war, they are working to close in convincing victories for all five candidates, especially Maharani Mala Rajya Laxmi Shah from Tehri Garhwal. In another contest, Teerath Singh Rawat, a "disciple" of Major General (Retd.) Bhuwan Chand Khanduri is contesting  against Manish Khanduri - the son of former Uttarakhand CM and MP and Ramesh Pokhriyal "Nishank", former CM and sitting MP, is once again contesting from Haridwar.

How floodgates of their emotion opened for Narendra Modi

The ex-servicemen fueling BJP's campaign consider 2019 the right time to 'give BJP its due' for its concern for the soldier, the defence personnel and their families. They say they have suffered long owing to bad political decisions that have affected the soldier on the ground, his well-being and his family over the decades, and Modi has brought them relief. Today, they see villages and towns erupt in emotion for a soldier during his last journey.

Nainwal says, like many ex-servicemen Swarajya met, "In our times, the dead soldier would never make a last journey to his village and family. Waheen jalta thha, waheen se raakh ghar bhej dete thhe (he would be cremated and his ashes would be sent home). Photo bhi naseeb nahin thha (even getting a photograph of the body was a distant possibility). And it was not necessary that the ashes reaching his family would be his and not someone else's."

Things have moved - from “one bag and one box” - to an honourable funeral with family, unit, village, town bidding the soldier adieu, and to One Rank One Pension. This served as a watershed mark in their emotion for Modi’s BJP. "This party has given us honour. Men of our own rank were getting less pension than us. We were not ok with that. Modi government has solved the issue," Nainwal adds.

For the ex-servicemen, this change happened because Atal Bihari Vajpayee, his party and government thought about the soldier's dignity and his family's emotions. It is time, they say, to serve the nation once again - by ensuring that Narendra Modi returns as prime minister, as he has not only continued the tradition of backing the soldier with political willingness, but also added to the movement by taking several tough decisions.

According to Nainwal, "Chalo Garhwalion" that he had heard back then, came from a prominent minister in the Vajpayee government. This, and other events shaped his interest in the BJP. His identity - that of a Garhwali ex-serviceman - sometimes erupts from his greying and glistening eyes. He says he is working to keep that pride intact.

Another ex-serviceman Colonel (Retd.) P D Kudiyal was instrumental in establishing the Poorv Sainik Prakoshth. He has been with the BJP since the early 1990s. Since then, and through the Uttarakhand movement, he "has connected a lot of people with the BJP" over the years. He says, "Congress can't even think of doing what the BJP has done for the soldier. In Uttarakhand, every third family is a sainik parivar. The surgical strikes should count in BJP's poll campaign. But we will not do prachaar based on it. It is true that no other leader thought about it before Modi."

I met Captain (Retd.) R D Shahi at BJP's Vijay Sankalp Sabha held in Dehradun's Canal Road area. It falls in Tehri Garhwal constituency. According to Shahi, ex-servicemen have observed the impact that the recent air strikes and surgical strikes conducted by Indian Army and Air Force have left on the youth. These actions, he believes, are seen as a reflection of Modi-led BJP's willingness to bring back "Bharatvarsha's pride."

These ex-servicemen believe in serving the people, some through organisations dedicated to ex-servicemen, like People Below Officer Rank (PBOR), which, according to ex-serviceman Vinod Baduni from Doiwala Vidhan Sabha area, has between 40,000 to 50,000 members as of today. “Our focus is on Tehri Garhwal constituency for the upcoming poll. We have kept the momentum on since 2017 Vidhan Sabha election, and I have continued my work and focus on Tharali and other areas,” he says.

For Shahi, Tharali, Gumkhal, Dugadda and Jodikhal are other areas of focus. He mentions a valid aspect in the ex-servicemen's support for BJP. "We have representation. Our issues and concerns have representation. It is backed by strong leadership of Modi and political will power."

How does burning soles for party on the rough electoral terrain count as service to the nation, the "tukde-tukde" tacticians might ask. The ex-servicemen's explanation is simple: bringing back a man who prioritised national security, infrastructure, development and national honour during his tenure, is serving the nation.

In case he doesn’t return to power, which they feel is unlikely, they will continue to add mind and muscle to a party that has nationalism at its core.

Colonel (Retd.) Hari Darshan Bisht hasn’t joined the BJP. He has neither joined Congress. But he is not apolitical. He supports BJP and recounts that during his days in the army, he would observe BJP’s actions. He says, “BJP ki taraf logon ka jhukaav hua hai (people have inclined towards BJP). The development work undertaken during the last five years, plus the political will to support the defence forces, has left a huge impact on people.”

In Dehradun, which partly falls under the Tehri Garhwal constituency, Gurkhas and Garhwalis are sharpening the unsparing edge of their most powerful weapons - discipline and determination - for 11 April. Among them is a queen who is a sitting member of Parliament from Tehri Garhwal, an ex-serviceman, an MLA who is an ex-serviceman, and a chief minister, who is the son of an army man.

Maharani Mala Rajya Laxmi Shah, sitting MP and current BJP candidate from Tehri Garhwal
Maharani Mala Rajya Laxmi Shah, sitting MP and current BJP candidate from Tehri Garhwal
Sumati Mehrishi

The hill state votes on 11 April and the BJP, armed with the support of ex-servicemen, who were turning up from villages in Dehradun, Pauri Garhwal, Tehri and other areas for a huddle between 24 March and 1 April, is working on to reach towards, according to a rough estimate, more than 1,50,000 ex-servicemen and Veer Naris’ (widows of forces personnel) voters. These, in turn, are expected to expand BJP's reach to voters from the families of serving armed forces personnel and ex-servicemen in the state.

Mussoorie MLA Ganesh Joshi, who is working to keep things watertight in Mussoorie Vidhan Sabha area, tells Swarajya, "Honouring the soldier is our duty and the emotion comes from within. Chief Minister Trivendra Singh Rawat has ensured that one person of a slain soldier's family will get a job as per his capability. We are establishing infrastructure for the welfare of family members of the defence personnel in Dehradun and Haldwani. There is a feeling of trust between the serving defence personnel, the ex-servicemen and their families and BJP."

The year 1969 was sort of revolutionary for Suryaveer Singh Rawat, an ex-serviceman from Uttarakhand. He had been associated with the Jan Sangh and had contributed actively to the political cause taken up by Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Then, the calling came. He joined the army. Leaving his Jan Sangh days, work and memories behind, he turned to another arm of selfless duty, to be a soldier serving India.

Today, he is hard of hearing but is in the middle of chalking out some details of action over the next 10 days of BJP's electoral campaign in Uttarakhand. I met him at the BJP state office in Dehradun, where he was to join other ex-servicemen volunteering for the party for a ground huddle.

Earlier this year, BJP, reportedly, was considering Rear Admiral (Retd.) Omprakash Rana for the Pauri Garhwal constituency. When Swarajya contacted Rana this week, he was touring the Kedar region — his "prishtbhoomi" — for BJP's campaign in the region.

Teerath Singh Rawat is fighting from the constituency, and Rana is now working on ground to strengthen the support for Rawat — Khanduri's own trusted associate. On the phone, Rana spoke to Swarajya about connecting with the locals in the Kedar region, understanding the observations they have made regarding the positivity of developmental work undertaken by BJP and the "over all positivity in the system as of now, including the issues of surgical strikes, One Rank One Pension (OROP), development and ground work."

An ex-soldier supporting BJP and working for its victory is not to put across 2019 as a mother of all civilisational battles, which is how the electoral battle is being vociferously pitched on social media. For him, winning it is a necessity, as winning any war is for the nation. Dehradun, the capital of Uttarakhand, which itself serves as a pitch for two constituencies of these five on its geographical map, is serving as the arsenal depot for their preparation.

Battlefield To Booth: How Uttarakhand’s Ex-Servicemen Take ‘Mukhiya’ Narendra Modi’s Fight To Tehri Garhwal and Pauri Garhwal Ground
(Twitter.com/AmitShah)

The Men and Maharani Mala Rajya Laxmi Shah’s Tehri constituency

BJP president Amit Shah, in the presence of Chief Minister Trivendra Singh Rawat and other leaders from Uttarakhand BJP, addressed the Vijay Sankalp Sabha in Uttarkashi. He mentioned the developmental work being undertaken in the hill state, including the all weather road, which is currently in progress.

Uttarkashi falls in Maharani Mala Rajya Laxmi Shah’s Tehri Garhwal Lok Sabha constituency. Amit Shah added a good sprinkle of the corruption under the previous government in his speech. He hailed Bhagwan Badri Vishal.

At the BJP state office where Swarajya briefly met Mala Rajya Laxmi Shah - the sitting MP from Tehri - other leaders from the region, including some new members had come to meet her, during the last week of March.

Evidently reticent in interviews given to the local media, she was quick to mention Modi's tough stand on India's security, the developmental work undertaken in India and Uttarakhand, the success of the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana, and the building of toilets as issues that would be pitched in her campaign. She said she was fighting to make Narendra Modi victorious once again and that she has faith in Bhagwan Badri Vishal.

At the Vijay Sankalp Sabha held in Dehradun's Canal Road area during the last week of March, Swarajya witnessed a focused show of support for Shah from various quarters of Uttarakhand BJP.

People from all walks of life turned up to hear the speeches from local Gurkha and Garhwali leaders, MLA Ganesh Joshi and CM Trivendra Singh Rawat. While it is clear that Shah's family history, her gender, and people's emotion and loyalty for the royal family would make an impact on many new voters this year, many other new voters are ready to join their parents to support Shah. Her "persona" still strikes the chord in the voters.

A glance at 2017 Vidhan Sabha election numbers of Mussoorie, Sahaspur, Raipur, Dehradun, Dehradun Cantonment, and Vikasnagar constituencies, which are considered to be carrying a huge share of votes associated with the families of ex-servicemen and men serving in the army and para military forces, points towards the fact that the BJP would clearly like to put more weight behind its lead and try to turn things around the Chakrata factor.

Chakrata is the bastion of Pritam Singh, MLA from Chakrata Vidhan Sabha constituency and Shah's opponent in Tehri Garhwal for the Lok Sabha seat. With Singh firming his voice against BJP's work during the last five years, and with more than two years in the state, Congress supporters believe that this election would not be the same for Shah.

Mussoorie MLA and ex-serviceman Ganesh Joshi at Narendra Modi’s Dehradun rally
Mussoorie MLA and ex-serviceman Ganesh Joshi at Narendra Modi’s Dehradun rally

At a medical store in the Garhi area of Dehradun two elderly men who don't share their names with me, sum up their observation succinctly. "We know which way the youth is swaying this time. It is with Narendra Modi. Modi's action after Pulwama turned things around for the youth here, in this part of Dehradun. It only assured the youth that they had made a strong choice. Unka vote to Rani Ji ko hee jayega." Not everyone agrees.

Some twenty shops away, a man in charge at the counter of a sweet shop, offers a hint of something he knows and I don't, "Aapko to pata hoga ki Pulwama kaise hua thha (you must be knowing how Pulwama happened)," he says, as his seemingly upset assistant moves away from the counter on hearing it, "As far as the queen is concerned, she will sail through with great difficulty. Not everyone wants her to win this time, but there is a loyal vote, which the rivals cannot move, no matter how much they want to move on away. I am surprised to know that some highly educated people are still loyal to the royal family."

At the Vijay Sankalp Sabha Swarajya attended in Dehradun's Canal Road area, ex-servicemen from the Tehri constituency and Haridwar constituency said that they were determined to make Shah emerge victorious. MLA Ganesh Joshi, among other ex-servicemen, is seemingly leaving no stone unturned. The weight of his political power is behind the queen. He told Swarajya in Dehradun, "I will ensure she wins with a bigger lead than mine from my Vidhan Sabha area." He puts the number of poorv sainiks in his Vidhan Sabha constituency at 6000, in Sahaspur between 5000-6000, and in Vikasnagar at around 2500.

The Rotors of Honour Swirl Votes

The ex-servicemen associated with the BJP see this campaign for Narendra Modi as a matter of honour. If you read between the lines, the unmentioned reference to the aggression India recently displayed in taking revenge emanates. The surgical strikes carried out by the Indian Army and Air Force have settled the dust - it is a closure of sorts for some of the ex-servicemen.

But it is not a campaign that would give a man of honour, honour. There is a pricking, sometimes, a seething burden of the past. The battlefield is the same, only the adversary has changed. "Our tactics in confronting the adversary, this time, in politics, have not changed."

Ex-serviceman S P Keshtwal hails from Pauri region. He says, "The PM's presence with soldiers on festivals and in Siachen has sent a deep message. This was a first. Soldiers feel immensely proud when he visits them."

Nainwal adds, "I am retired, I can speak now, I must. There was a time when we were asked at the border by the adversary. We would be taunted, "Bhai dilli se order nahin aaya kya?" (“Has your order for action not arrived from Delhi?”). It was sad. And it is sad that I have to say this today, that finally even the food and uniform has improved for the soldier. Hum ko kaheen maangne ki zaroorat nahin padegi (we won't have to ask anyone for it)."

In the state known for the chaar dhaam - the four sacred pilgrimage sites in Uttarakhand - emotion is rising for a fifth site - the war memorial for the soldier. "If he becomes PM again, we can see the fifth pilgrimage turning into reality," Nainwal adds.

Events taking place in the defence forces were getting an appreciative audience. They were also getting registered in the memory of men who would not only vote but also be free to voice their political views after retirement. Early in 2014, Admiral D K Joshi resigned from his post, taking moral responsibility for an accident on board the INS Sindhuratna. This event stayed in Colonel (Retd.) Hari Darshan Bisht's memory. What also got noticed was how the Modi-led NDA set the past record straight.

He says, "Admiral Joshi ultimately took moral responsibility and resigned. They tried to defame General General V K Singh. He is a very honest General. Look at what's happening today. We, the defence forces, are becoming stronger each day.  Pakistan is shaken up. Ki yeh kya ho gaya hai (what has happened). That's good for the soldier's morale. China is shaken up, too. Why did it not happen earlier? Why does Pakistan get a befitting reply only when the BJP is in power?"

Bisht also refers to Operation Parakram - which saw the largest stand-off between India and Pakistan since the 1971 war. "It was under the Vajpayee govenment - again BJP-led NDA government. Rajasthan mein hamare tambu sard jaate thhe (our tents would rot in the sun), but we would say, give us one chance and we will show them. It was a strategic war India fought without firing a bullet. Not only that, whenever BJP government came to power, development happened. Communication network improved."

Captain (Retd.) A P Ghildiyal gets agitated when he talks about the past. "They say that surgical strikes is about the soldier's pride and has nothing to do with the government. I want to remind them of the events of the 1971 war..."

He chokes with emotion while narrating how action had to wait for political willpower. He collects himself and shoots off a point immediately. "Why should Modi not be given the credit? In the last five years, the air strike happened, surgical strikes have happened, owing to the government's will power. Why was it not done earlier? Why did the previous governments not take action? We are associated with the BJP because it works for the country. Desh hit mein kaam karti hai (it works for the country's welfare)."

The spark of faith a Diwali celebration ignited. Dressed in heavy mountain gear, when Modi celebrated Diwali with the ITBP personnel at the Indo-China border in Uttarakhand, many termed it as part of his political shenanigans. But for these ex-servicemen, these visuals opened the flood gates of emotion towards Modi. The ex-servicemen say, "A message went to the soldier from Modi that he is their family. This made it clear that he had the courage even for tough decisions."

OROP is Not About Money Alone

In March, at the Shaurya Samman Samahroh, a ceremony organised by Ganesh Joshi in honour of the Veer Naris, Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman boldly stated that the previous government had approved a proposal of mere Rs 500 crore for OROP. She added that the NDA government under Narendra Modi had transferred Rs 35,000 crore, in three years, into the accounts of former armed forces personnel.

The occasion was a solemn one. Sitharaman requested the families of defence personnel to not believe rumours being spread by the opposition on Modi government’s welfare schemes meant for them. The timing of her statement made it clear that sorrow and anger go hand in hand in Uttarakhand's polity and that Sitharaman was aware of it.

The ex-servicemen I met say that while some in their fraternity are not completely happy with the arrears they have received, the change through NDA's handling of OROP has certainly motivated the soldiers. When they are on ground, they talk about the change OROP has brought - to their self esteem, their lives and families.

They say, "Earlier, when I was in fauj, fauji upto a rank used to be like bael (bullock). Jahan jod do, wahan (he would be used anywhere). We were not even aware that we are entitled to casual leave. Today, the fauji is coming home on casual leave. In 1982, a Gandhi had said that a soldier should not be paid for Sunday. Ek din ki baat kar rahe hain, ek ghanta fauj hatt jaati to Dilli mein kisee aur desh ka jhanda hota."

Nainwal retired from Infantry. He says, "I used to get Rs 5000. Today I am getting Rs 50,000. Am not the only one.  Colonel saab is sitting before you. There are people who have retired from Subedaar rank. I am from district Chamoli. I have connected with villagers door to door and requested them to support the man who is working to make India a sonaey ki chidiya again. Aaj ardh sainik balon ko bhi samman mil raha hai (even the para military personnel are getting honoured)."

And here is the chorus from the ex-servicemen: "Congress kaafi saal tak OROP par bhatkaate rahe, they kept maneuvering and postponing it for decades. But Modiji's five years have resolved the matter. This government understood the matter and acted accordingly. This government had the willpower to not only successfully bring OROP to a strong conclusion but have given the soldier the power to take decisions on the front. He knows that this government cares for him."

OROP, for them, is not about money alone. It is about BJP's action towards restoring their pride and honour.

Development is a Core Issue for the Uttarakhand Soldier

Do not try telling a soldier from Uttarakhand that development work initiated, or in progress, and completed during the last five years or working towards it, is not a core issue. He tends to get pretty angry.

His family stays back in the hills. He needs to visit his family. Better roads means he spends lesser time in traveling, hiking up, safely, and spends more time with the family. Members of his family need and deserve opportunity, communication, access and availability of essential commodities, and education and jobs on the hills. The developmental work that the BJP has undertaken is on going. He has patience. He sees the developmental work on the hills as the nation's asset, as it is. His country's future and his family's well-being fall in the same domain.

Bisht says, "Gaanv se jude hain hum loag (we are connected with the village). Whenever I used to visit my village, it used to take an hour and a half for ascent and one hour for descent every year. Today, I drive all the way to my village. Today, our village is electrified. People are well-informed. Jaagruk ho gaye hain. Every fauji from the hills is saving time when commuting to his village and back. Earlier, he used to spend two days or more just climbing up or down. Communication has improved."

While the robust and ambitious all-weather road project is in progress, village digital connectivity requires the same momentum of work, they say.

Ex-servicemen from Uttarakhand mention that developmental work done or initiated in the state and the country in the last five years is the strongest point in their campaign, and a recurring factor in their communication with people on ground. They connect the dots for you. Development - access - opportunity on the hills - villages - internal security - borders - India.

Weaponry of a Movement

Standing firmly behind the Tehri queen, the ex-servicemen are also moving support towards Khanduri’s trusted general, Teerath Singh Rawat, and the sitting MP from Haridwar, Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank.

In 2019, Pauri is watching the bout between bloodline and a bastion, son and disciple. In the 1990s, BJP first barged into the Congress citadel by fielding Khanduri, who would become the face of the honest, courageous and laborious Pahadi ex-servicemen serving the hill state and people as also the nation.

Most servicemen Swarajya met in Dehradun came from Pauri and Kotdwar (Pauri Garhwal constituency). Ex-serviceman Pramod Singh Rawat makes a sharp observation. He says, "Congress voter in Uttarakhand is its traditional voter. The day this personal emotion for the party falls, Congress will be over. Uttarakhand mein nahin rahegi. Vajpayee ji and Modi ji have turned the tide in BJP's favour in their own different ways.  Modi's ichcha shakti - will power - is in harmony with values and lessons we had picked up as young soldiers."

It takes times to adjust to the inherent indiscipline outside the armed forces. Pramod Singh adds, "We help people gel with a disciplined environment in day-to-day work. We are around 750 members of a group of ex-servicemen (military and para military) in Kotdwar alone. We consider ourselves a samajik sangathan. Discipline is the key to what we achieve - big or small. You must have seen how we all gathered together on time in discipline."

It is not always smooth. "Sometimes, we face friction for our efficiency. People say, 'yeh to fauji hai, iska bandooki dimaag aur dhyaan hai (his mind and focus is ferocious is that of a gun)",' but we tell them, we will make you realise why we say or said something that has hurt you."

How does it work? "In the army, we speak politely, sometimes, to a senior and he understands. We tell them 'agar hamara dhyaan wahan nahin honge, to tum maare jaoge', if we shift focus, you all will suffer. To make them realise this aspect is our job."

Their phones keep ringing. When they are in the Pauri Garhwal constituency, villagers tell them over phone when a certain leader from BJP is visiting. They are expected to reach the village at the earliest. "We are the point of connect between the villagers and MLAs and candidates. There is a lot of warmth and trust with which people from non-defence background connect with us. We are clean. We are honest. We have no personal interests. We treat others respectfully. People are assured that we operate in honesty. Distribution of work and duties happens smoothly," say soldiers who have fought for the country in 1962, 1965, and 1971.

A village meeting in progress in Pauri Garhwal region
A village meeting in progress in Pauri Garhwal region
Sumati Mehrishi

Nationalism and Regional Identity Double Edge

Shahi is making every effort to keep the support for BJP, for the three candidates from Tehri Garhwal, Pauri Garhwal and Haridwar, through phone calls, and constant contact with members of the large Poorv Sainik family spread across the state. I met him at the Canal Road Jan Sabha (Tehri constituency). He says, "Maharani ji is Gorkha. The Gorkha sentiment in defence personnel, serving and former, and their families goes for her."

There are voices in Anarwala and Gangol Panditwadi against BJP, no doubt. Then comes Johdi.

Prashant Lama, son of an ex-serviceman, is a voter in his early 20s. He will be voting for the second time. He voted for the BJP in 2014. Johdi village, according to Lama, like youth in other villages falling under the Tehri Garhwal constituency in this part of the Dehradun, would be voting for BJP.

Lama is impressed by Narendra Modi's tough decisions pertaining to national security and defence. He rattles off three reasons why he would vote for Modi once more, "Action against Pakistan aggression. Hindutva. Equality - taking the narrative and development beyond caste, and giving equal treatment to everyone."

Lama, who is graduating from a private college in Dehradun, was manning a shop run by his father when I visited Johdi. His father had gone to Lakshman Siddh, a well-known temple on Haridwar Road - the other side of Dehradun which falls in Haridwar constituency. His father's circle in the Gurkha community and families of ex-servicemen is huge. "There are people who are voting for the Congress. I don't understand them. I understand my father, his choices, my own views on politics and BJP," he grins.

His support for BJP is not coarsely focused on the most powerful leader in national politics. Lama has an eye on the "good work" being undertaken by Rajiv Gurung, a charismatic leader from Johdi village who is working tirelessly towards connecting with voters in his village and the Hathibadkala estate. Both Lama and Gurung are proud of their roots and it counts as a vital factor in their support for the BJP.

 Chief Minister T S Rawat at a Jan Sabha in Dehradun
Chief Minister T S Rawat at a Jan Sabha in Dehradun
Sumati Mehrishi

As for Gurung, the campaign action converges into the efforts being undertaken by MLA Ganesh Joshi, who is getting constant feed back from many Gurkha workers and supporters in his constituency.

Ex-serviceman Rajendra Prasad Gubral does not like the tone and tenor used by certain Congress leaders for Narendra Modi. He says, "He is the strong mukhiya of the country. How can people use such words for him?"

Ex-serviceman Balwan Singh Rawat from Kotdwar shares some thoughts regarding leaders and leadership and mistakes, effectively. Mistakes are human. He says, "Even Mahatma Gandhi took decisions. He is poojya. But even he made mistakes in the freedom struggle movement. Narendra Modi is a good decision maker. He has truly made BJP a party for the welfare of the poor."

The roving ex-servicemen are a connect between the Uttarkhand youth, the BJP and its policies. When New Delhi's old media calls Uttarakhand 'a small state with five seats', as it has been addressed until 2014, and again this year, it will be missing a big movement rumbling beneath the seemingly calm surface of a compact electoral fight. The ex-servicemen would have passed the baton of a narrative, their work skills, style and discipline, booth and ground tactics, to the youth by 12 April.

Their axis of action - Dharmnagri Haridwar on one side, Tehri and Maharani's faith in Badri Vishal on the second and Pauri Garhwal's new lease of legacy and faith in Baba Kedar on the third, would speak for the electoral character of Uttarkhand on 23 May. Until then, Lama, Gurung, Joshi, Rawat, Bisht, Nainwal and so many other identities would blend towards the booth.

Nainwal talks about the khukhri fondly. Its mention leaves a smirk on his gentle face. The weapon is also a recurring motif of his identity as a soldier from Uttarakhand. He is battle ready but the gear has changed. Today, he holds a pen, a booklet and loads of telephone numbers and other contact details of fellow ex-servicemen.

He declares before leaving, "Sainik ki boorhe se boorhe Ma ko booth tak lana hai 11 ko (we will bring the soldier's mother, the oldest, to the booth)."

Rajiv Gurung sets out wearing traditional cottons and a Dhaka Topi for long hours. He mingles with the ex-servicemen. He says, "Congress is good at spreading myths. Their time will be up soon."

During the last five years, the BJP has spoken enough about panna pramukhs being their strength. The style is now being emulated by other parties, I read. Not surprising at all. What the BJP has in Uttarakhand in ex-servicemen being its valuable asset and strength, in addition to panna pramukhs, however, cannot be emulated in emotion and numbers easily in other areas.

Their rivals might see them as a small unit of the workforce, but they drive invisible currents of action and emotion on the ground, all of which lead towards the polling booth. The emotion is nationalism. Its renewal as an identity factor makes the ex-servicemen of Uttarakhand the face of a pan-India emotion in 2019.

This wave of support from ex-servicemen determined to fetch BJP all five seats in Uttarakhand could become a new story in the party's nationalism chapter. It could become BJP’s weapon of a silent strike in 2019, much like Nainwal's khukhri during his days on the battlefield.

This report is part of Swarajya's 50 Ground Stories Project - an attempt to throw light on issues and constituencies the old media largely refuses to engage. You can support this initiative by sponsoring as little as Rs 2,999. Click here for more details.

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