THE RUMBLINGS WITHIN
India Today|June 21, 2021
EVEN AS THE BJP’S EXPANSIONIST DRIVE CONTINUES AT A NATIONAL LEVEL, IT IS BATTLING ATTRITION IN SEVERAL KEY STATES IT RULES, INCLUDING SOME THAT GO TO POLLS EARLY NEXT YEAR
ANILESH S. MAHAJAN

0n May 8, the BJP top brass, including party chief J.P. Nadda, Union home minis­ter Amit Shah and general secretary (organisation) B.L. Santhosh, went into a huddle with Prime Minis­ter Narendra Modi. They had to decide on the party’s pick to lead the As­ sam government—incumbent chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal or his challenger Himanta Biswa Sarma. Sarma’s political acumen, his hold over Assam’s politics and his contributions in helping the BJP spread its wings in the Northeast were in no doubt, but then Sonowal was equally popular in the state.

The dilemma was justifying the change in leadership just after retaining power in the ass­embly poll. The central leadership decided to bite the bullet and go with challenger Sarma; Sonowal will reportedly be “adjusted” in the Union cabinet soon. To be fair, the BJP had not projected either as CM candidate, yet it was assumed the incumbent would continue in office. Two months before this, the central leadership had replaced Uttarakhand chief minister Trivendra Singh Rawat with the low­profile Tirath Singh Rawat after state legisla­ tors rebelled against the former CM. In November 2020, the party pulled Bihar deputy CM Sushil Modi to the Centre after he had successfully led the party in the assembly poll in alliance with Nitish Kumar’s JD(U). These are just some of the glar­ ing examples of the BJP not hesitating to shake up things in the states it rules if it does not fit the central leadership’s scheme of things.

Meanwhile, the par­ ty is grooming leaders grown from the ranks loyal to the central Mo­ di­Shah duo. The current lot of chief ministers in BJP­ruled states fall un­ der one of three catego­ries—state satraps such as B.S. Yediyurappa (Karnataka) and Shivraj Singh Chouhan (MP); incidental appointments after the party came to power like M.L. Khattar (Haryana), Yogi Adityanath (UP) and Jairam Thakur (Himachal Pradesh); and young turks like Sarma who have earned their party stripes.

The bigger challenge for the party is working out a succession plan for the veterans. The delay and lack of clarity on this is already creating chal­ lenges in Karnataka and MP. Whereas in states where the party came to power riding the Modi wave, there are new claimants for the top job. The BJP has already paid a price for not changing the leadership in Jharkhand and Haryana despite the negative feedback before the assembly polls in 2019. While the Raghubar Das­led party was swept out in Jharkhand, Khattar’s government scraped through after a post­poll alliance with the Dushyant Chautala­led Jannayak Janta Party.

Another fear factor is Modi’s waning pow­ ers as a vote­catcher in state elections since 2018 (Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and MP). Despite a high­voltage BJP campaign, the theory that credible regional satraps are crucial to get the mandate was proven again in Bengal; it will be put to test yet again in the five assembly polls next year.

Meanwhile, the states where it is in opposi­tion throw up other challenges. In Rajasthan, the leadership toyed with the idea of elevating RSS favourite Gajendra Singh Shekhawat while cutting out ex­chief minister Vasundhara Raje. But the botched ‘Operation (Sachin) Pilot’ and the fact that Raje is still a formidable force has stymied that move. Matters are a tad simpler in Chhattisgarh with three­time CM Raman Singh fading away and MP Saroj Pande spreading her wings.

For the BJP cadre, a return to the heat of electoral battle will come as early as February 2022 when UP, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Manipur and Goa go to polls. With the exception of Pun­ jab, the BJP is in power in all these states and retaining them will be crucial if the party is to remain the fulcrum of Indian politics. The Bengal verdict, the Covid second surge and its manage­ment along with local issues will have an impact on cadre morale.

Where there are no powerful satraps, newer leaders have emerged and in some cases caste equations have been altered. A prime example is chief minister Khattar in Haryana, who is from the Punjabi Khatri community that makes up less than 2 per cent of the population in the state. “It’s always good for a political party to have multiple choices. It gives the leadership flexibility to work out their electoral math. They just have to make sure the factions don’t work against each other,” says Shri Prakash Singh, a professor of political science in Delhi University.

Meanwhile, the recent strategy of replacing CMs (like in Uttarakhand) to quell rebellions has let loose a virus in at least four other BJP-ruled states— Karnataka, MP, UP and Tripura.

In MP and Karnataka, the biggest grudge among senior party leaders is that the turncoats have been given red carpet treatment and plum ministries while party old-timers have been left high and dry. The induction of turncoats from other parties is a constant BJP endeavour, part of its bid to hold on to power at any cost. It possibly serves the party and the Sangh’s long-term national agenda but it also causes much heartburn among the faithful. Electorally too, it’s a double-edged sword. The defectors worked well for the BJP in the 2017 UP election, but they bombed in Bengal in 2021. In Bengal, out of the 148 turncoats who got tickets, only six won.

Meanwhile, with state elections just months away, the party is analysing the changing post-Covid political scenarios on the ground, especially in crucial Uttar Pradesh. There is a strong buzz that the central leadership wants CM Yogi Adityanath to accommodate more leaders in the state government and party organisation to strengthen caste equations and broaden the party’s base. The saffron-clad Yogi, the erstwhile Gorakhpur MP and chief of Gorakhnath muth, has positioned himself as the party’s Hindutva icon. He faces resistance from the state unit—including a large section of legislators and many of his key ministers—but party sources confirm that Modi, who has the last word in CM appointments, is firmly backing Yogi to lead the UP campaign next year. The party will find out soon enough if the PM has backed the right man in the electorally vital state.

UTTAR PRADESH

The Yogi Case Diaries

The BJP headquarters opposite the Vidhan Sabha in Lucknow had not witnessed any activity since April and the second Covid wave when it suddenly sprung to life with BJP national general secretary (organisation) B.L. Santhosh’s arrival on May 31. Santhosh camped at the BJP office and had one-on-one meetings with 14 ministers, including deputy chief ministers Keshav Prasad Maurya and Dinesh Sharma as well as many other leaders. Most of the leaders he met had at some point expressed their displeasure with the Yogi Adityanath government.

The talk of friction between Mau rya and chief minister Adityanath has been on for a few years now. However, Maurya dismisses this as speculation and says the “BJP will once again win over 300 seats in the coming assembly election” in February 2022. Others on the Yogi unfriend list include state BJP spokespersons and cabinet ministers Siddharth Nath Singh and Shrikant Sharma. Shrikant has on several occasions highlighted corruption in the bureaucracy. Siddharth Nath, who as health minister did a remarkable job in halting the encephalitis breakout in Gorakhpur in 2017, is unhappy as he has been shunted out to the relatively insignificant MSME (medium, small and micro industries) department. Transport minister Ashok Kataria and labour minister Swami Prasad Maurya are the other heavyweights with a list of grouses.

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