Should the BJP and the Congress decide to project their chief ministerial candidates for the 2017 state assembly elections, it would be the first time when voters will have the choice to directly elect the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh.
Till date, both national parties preferred the tradition of the new MLAs electing their leader after the results were announced. A mere formality though, it still had some semblance of an exciting election in which suspense remained till the central observers flew in to thrust the party high command’s choice on them.
Experts recall how Narain Dutt Tiwari, minister in Rajiv Gandhi’s government, was summoned to Lucknow to take over as chief minister in 1988. Tiwari was on a foreign tour and had to cancel it to reach Lucknow. The fact is the Gandhis won the assembly elections for the Congress and later anointed chief ministers.
Senior journalist Gyanendra Sharma explains the changing phenomenon. “The few stalwarts campaigning in the state used to be the natural choice but their fate was decided by party high command more than the voters,” says Sharma. The high command apparently avoided taking the risk of projecting a face as it often triggered internecine troubles, affecting their overall performance in the elections. The problem in a large party, with many claimants, is of two kinds- one is the selection of the caste, second loyalty to the party high command.
However, the scenario changed after personality-driven regional forces--the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party--came on the scene, taking away the zing from the traditional election of the legislative party leader. The SP did hold a perfunctory meeting of their legislators before staking claim to form the government.
“There was never any ambiguity on the chief minister’s name,” says Gyanendra Sharma. Some uncertainty prevailed in 2012 when the choice wavered between Mulayam Singh Yadav and his son Akhilesh Yadav in the SP. Now the voters want to know the chief ministerial nominee of the parties before they go to the polling booth, compelling both the BJP and the Congress to seriously deliberate on projection of their chief ministerial face.
The BJP’s stakes are high though the Congress is inconsequential . Their hunt is for a face that could vie with formidable Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati. Though there is no one formula for all states, post Assam the BJP is of the view that a local leader’s connect with the masses along with the popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi could see them through.
While the party won Assam with a young local face, Maharashtra and Haryana were won without a face. In between, they lost Bihar; was it on account of their decision of not projecting a chief ministerial candidate or the alliance of caste led parties?
A senior BJP leader gives the entire debate a different twist, “We won the states where we had a direct fight with the Congress but failed in states against strong regional parties.” UP is one such state. Here it is facing stiff challenge not from one but two strong regional forces.
If they adopt the Maharashtra formula where state president Devendra Fadnavis was rewarded with chief minister’s position, the new UP BJP chief Keshav Maurya can hope for the same. He is young and he belongs to the backward caste that the party is trying to woo. But his caste could work to his disadvantage also as the BJP has to retain the upper caste support to win this election.
They could afford a backward face when Atal Bihari Vajpayee, a Brahmin, was active in political life. Today when party has a backward prime minister in Narendra Modi, the UP chief minister could preferably from the upper caste. A senior party leader said, ‘Or else the Brahmins would move to the BSP and Rajputs to the SP.’
There are several names in circulation but the two strongest are of the two Union ministers Rajnath Singh and Smriti Irani. While Smriti Irani is still considered an outsider like Uma Bharti despite elections they from the state, Rajnath Singh is said to be reluctant to move from his number two position in the Union government to the choppy waters of UP.
Rajnath Singh had once said before the Lok Sabha elections, “I am all-India president of the BJP, why should I join any ministry, it will be too small as against the position I hold?” Things changed and he became number 2 in the government--Union home minister. Once again, when people are mooting his name, many ask, “Why should he and for what? If the party loses, then what? And if it wins, he will be just the CM of a state.”
As of now, surveys are on to help the party take a call and decide on whom to bet.
Coming to the Congress, there is a demand for a Brahmin face. The name in circulation is of Pramod Tiwari, an eight-time MLA and now a Rajya Sabha member. But will the Gandhis trust Tiwari or gamble with a Muslim face, knowing the long pending demand of the community? Nonetheless, neither their stakes are high nor their chances bright, at least in 2017 polls.