BJP needs a face in UP
The meeting of the political executive of the ruling BJP in the city of confluence of rivers Ganga and Yamuna has concluded. What is the message which 300-odd members present at the occasion carry home?
The party spokespersons at the briefing were at pains to explain that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is party’s sole brand. If any doubts persisted in his inaugural address, party president Amit Shah made it clear, in no uncertain terms, that Prime Minister Modi did not share the tag of prima donna with any leader.
Through a series of points, Shah said that while Modi has empowered the office of Prime Minister at domestic level, on the international front he has “helped India emerge as beacon of 21st century.” Shah also indicated while the Bharatiya Janata Party government may not have broken the ice with the minority community within the country, at the international level, Islamic nations were falling over each other to felicitate Narendra Modi.
To the surprise of many, Shah preferred talking about the Assam mandate and the excitement in the BJP top brass for the expansion of the party in Coromandel region over the clear road map the party would adopt for the crucial Assembly polls in the politically significant state of Uttar Pradesh. He went to the extent of enlightening the executive members on increased vote percentage in Kerala and West Bengal but skipped the issue of Chief Ministerial face for Uttar Pradesh, leaving it for the more exclusive club of party parliamentary board to make a decision regarding this.
The confusion within the BJP leadership on their road map over Uttar Pradesh became amply clear when Shah, and to an extent, the Prime Minister talked of genetically different issues of development and exodus of the Hindu families from Kairana in the same breath.
Briefing reporters on the proceeding of the executive, Telecom Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad was at his persuasive best to claim that “Vikas Mantra” was going to be the anthem for the upcoming Assembly polls in just not Uttar Pradesh but also the states of Uttarakhand, Punjab, and Gujarat and that the party has decided not to endorse any fringe elements.
The BJP leadership decided to call the communally sensitive Kairana exodus, which has been raised by senior lawmaker Hukum Singh, an issue of prevailing lawlessness in the state. No wonder Mathura and Kairana appeared in the bold letters in the menu served at the high table of the executive with Shah saying that the largest party was ready to fight the situation ideologically. An ideological battle could have many portents, the earlier BJP’s rivals understood the matter the better for them.
But to the leadership’s chagrin, and Shah, in particular, the atmospherics of the session was painted in the hue of the vociferous demand for making Young Turk Varun Gandhi the Chief Ministerial candidate in Uttar Pradesh. To BJP’s Gandhi, Nehru’s hometown of Allahabad is as much part of his heritage as of the rival family line represented by Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi and his sister Priyanka Vadra.
Having captured the Nehru family’s home turf of Sultanpur in the last Lok Sabha polls, Varun saw an opportunity in pushing his claim with the backing of very vociferous young supporters drowning completely the presence of Shah’s team in Allahabad – Keshav Maurya and Shyamacharan Gupta, both representing constituencies in Allahabad district in Lok Sabha. Maurya, in fact, has just been appointed president of Uttar Pradesh BJP and was looking forward to showcase the executive as a success of his personal organising skills. His thunder, however, was stolen by Varun Gandhi, whose road shows and sloganeering dominated the media space.
In UP, unlike Assam, BJP’s contest would be with politically much stronger regional parties and not a “downhill” Congress. Though Assam victory dominated the discourse and Assamese “gamocha” (scarf) adorned on the shoulders of the executive members, the executive realised that duplication of the Assam campaign model, wherein it went to polls with a Chief Ministerial face in Sarbananda Sonowal and another local leader Himanta Biswa Sarma as campaign manager, was difficult in UP as in their estimation and to suit their game plan, there was no local leader with a pan-UP appeal.
The most popular local leader as per the party’s own surveys was Varun Gandhi but the leadership as of now, specially party president Amit Shah, has indicated that they don’t trust him for his flamboyant ways and reaching out to popular masses on his own initiative. Gandhi for past few months has worked overtime to shrug off an aggressive Hinduvta image which had stuck to him during the Lok Sabha poll campaign and worked among youth in 20-odd districts of the vast state.
While a section of leadership within the party did try pushing the candidature of HRD Minister Smriti Irani, however, her presence was completely drowned in the deluge created by Varun Gandhi's supporters. The leadership also has doubts over the ability of Irani to fend off the political challenge of stalwarts from Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party. They realise the disaster they brought upon the party by side lining leaders like Harsh Vardhan and Vijay Goel during the 2015 Delhi Assembly polls and fielded an apolitical face, Kiran Bedi.
Given the setback in Bihar Assembly polls last year, the party also doesn’t want to risk the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party president Amit Shah as poll mascots in the politically most significant state. Varun Gandhi - they don’t trust and Smriti Irani doesn’t measure up to the challenge. Given the dilemma, they are pitching for Rajnath Singh to play the role of the grand patriarch during the campaign. But will the Union Home Minister like to be pushed towards an early retirement from national politics?
(The author is President, Centre for Reforms, Development & Justice, and Consulting Editor, Millennium Post. Views expressed are strictly personal.)