The first thing that grabs your attention when you walk through the gates of the Uttar Pradesh BJP Committee office is the giant face of Atal Bihari Vajpayee looming from a billboard with the words, ‘Na ugahi, na goondayi, na bhrastachar’ (No extortion, no hooliganism, no corruption) peering down at you. This fine exhortation, coming after Battle Uttar Pradesh 2012 has been thoroughly lost for the BJP, seems less the election slogan that it was and more a bitter lesson to be learnt.
The posters around the Vajpayee billboard showcase other prominent party leaders: Rajnath Singh, Uma Bharti, Kalraj Mishra and Nitin Gadkari. Even as Singh, a former UP chief minister, Mishra, a former president of the BJP’s state unit, and Bharti, who came under the spotlights in UP during the Ram janmabhoomi movement, rose to prominence from Uttar Pradesh, they are all well-established central leaders — and members of Parliament — today. They live in Delhi and are seen as national-level Congress leaders.
Not too far away from the BJP office is the UP Congress Committee office on Mall Avenue. Unlike its BJP counterpart, the hoardings opposite the entrance of Nehru Bhavan showcases state Congress president Rita Bahuguna Joshi and her brother Vijay Bahuguna, the latter has since the poll results, become Uttarkhand chief minister. The faces of Rahul Gandhi, Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi are there, but are relegated to the sides. The effect of highlighting the Bahugunas and other local leaders in adjoining posters is that the Congress, unlike the other national party in UP, empowered and chose state leaders to do battle.
That, unfortunately for the Congress, was just not how the battle actually went.
Mohammad Tariq Siddiqui, the 42-year-old chairman of the Research and Development Unit of the UP Congress Committee doesn’t mince his words. “The regional parties were perceived to be more approachable. The Congress here wasn’t accessible and wasn’t seen to be accessible. There is a huge scope for our party to improve in local deliverables,” says Siddiqui, in a checked shirt and trousers, inside the lobby of the Taj Vivanta hotel. “The local leadership lacks empowerment. Like the other parties in the fray, the Congress, too, doesn’t have a real professional structure where responsibilities are clear-cut and there is a pathway for constant feedback from the state. The local Congress was hardly involved in key decision-making such as appointments of
party posts and distribution of tickets.”
What Siddiqui, a man with a corporate background having worked in CEAT in Ahmedabad and Kolkata and now running his family business, says about the Congress central leadership “not trusting” the state unit is echoed by other UP Congress functionaries who are less keen about airing their grievances against their own party’s High Command in Delhi. Siddiqui is not professional politician. He was “accidentally” picked up by Rita Bahuguna Joshi and was given charge of the Congress’ 2009 Lok Sabha campaign. That success led to him becoming an adviser on UP for Rahul Gandhi throughout the election campaign. “But leaders in Delhi had different ideas and RG must have been swayed by their arguments.”
There is an eerie sameness between Siddiqui’s criticism and that of former state minister and BJP state working committee member IP Singh. Over breakfast at the Comfort Inn hotel, Singh, still under suspension for protesting against the entry of the National Rural Health Mission scam-tainted former BSP minister Babu Singh Kushwaha into the BJP, is clear where the blame for the BJP’s disastrous performance lies. “People like Rajnath Singh, Om Prakash Singh, Vinay Katiyar, Lalji Tandon and Surya Pratap Shahi are not interested in strengthening the party. They were interested only doling out rewards and favours to individuals.”
He points to the devastating lack of incentive for local party workers and leaders and echoes Siddiqui’s point about the lack of meritocracy in the party system. “The BJP was to bring up the issue of the massive corruption of the Mayawati government. How could we have possibly done that after bringing Kushwaha into our fold?” Despite loud opposition from the UP BJP unit, Kushawa was brought into the BJP by the central leadership in January. “Jawani mein vidhwa ban gayi ([The BJP in UP] has become a widow in its youth),” is Singh’s diagnosis.
THE CENTRE CANNOT HOLD
The rise of regional parties has not exactly coincided with the decline of the two ‘national’ parties at the Lok Sabha level. But the role of both the Congress and the BJP in states has undergone a major transformation. Where the two parties were earlier supported by regional outfits, the Congress and the BJP are now increasingly playing supportive roles.
And in some states such as Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Bihar and now UP, their presence is barely visible.
Is this trend simply the result of the Indian Union showing its federal character with people of the states increasingly choosing ‘one of their own’ parties? Or is it the inability of the two national parties to ‘localise’ and make their state units more in character with the regions they are in — rather than just being back office operations and functional branches of party headquarters in Delhi?
The case can be proved by an exception: Gujarat under Narendra Modi.
GUJARAT: CONTROL ROOM
In the BJP’s scheme of things, chief minister Modi’s government could well be an entity of its own. During the tenure of Modi’s predecessor, Keshubhai Patel, outfits such as the RSS and the VHP, as well as the BJP’s ‘national leaders’ would have a say not only in organisational and political affairs but also in the affairs of governance.
All that ended with Modi’s arrival. He ‘centralised’ everything in the government as well as in the state unit of the BJP. Some of the Rajya Sabha members selected by Modi were hardly known political entities. Natuji Thakor, for instance, was nominated by the BJP to the Rajya Sabha without even being a primary member of the party. For years, no BJP leader from Delhi was willing to be in charge of Gujarat. From 2007 to 2011, there was no central leader ‘looking into’ Gujarat’s affairs. It was only in 2011 that BJP president Nitin Gadkari appointed the relatively lightweight Balbir Punj as an emissary.
During the last assembly elections in 2007, Modi denied tickets to over 45 MLAs, many of whom had approached various BJP ‘national leaders’ for help. Modi allowed no remote-controlling from 11, Ashoka Road, New Delhi. He handpicked (all) the 182 candidates for the 2007 polls. He is going to do the same for the elections this year.
KARNATAKA: BULLYING TACTICS
The utter confusion in the ruling BJP’s ‘centre-state’ relations in Karnataka continues with the tussle between the BJP national leadership and tainted former BJP chief minister BS Yeddyurappa, the latter hankering for the chief ministerial post and central leaders such LK Advani and Sushma Swaraj vehemently opposing this. With the Congress unable to take up local issues incorporated with the scam-hit BJP government in Bangalore, the regional Janata Dal (Secular) of former Karnataka chief minister HD Kumaraswamy is happy to wait in the wings for the right moment to come.
RAJASTHAN: SIGN OF THINGS TO COME
In Rajasthan, the ruling Congress and the opposition BJP may still be the only players, but the instability of the state units of both the national parties is evident. Leaders of both parties are increasingly expressing their unhappiness over the lack of autonomy in decision-making. This resentment has surfaces in internal party meetings. “On the selection of candidates, election issues and ticket distribution, the local unit is never consulted by the High Command,” Rajasthan Congress president Chandrabhan says openly, adding cautiously that the local leadership is also to blame for such a state. “We do not have proper feedback mechanisms. We don’t consult our local leaders either,” he says. This is borne out by the fact that for several years until 2011, there were no local Congress committees in Rajasthan.
According to spokesperson and member of the BJP’s national executive Sunil Bhargav, there is a “communication gap” between the state and the central party. “Because of the weakening of the state unit and state leadership, the High Command decides everything. We will never get good leaders till there is democracy at the lower levels,” he says.
Perhaps complaints of this nature were also made in the late 90s by the state Congress and BJP leaderships in Uttar Pradesh. But no one in Delhi took them seriously.
UTTAR PRADESH: FADE ACCOMPLI
The decline of the Congress in UP has been relatively steady when compared to the sudden implosion of the BJP in the post-Kalyan Singh era. Rajnath Singh ‘Surya’, a former UP BJP minister and now a political columnist, traces the decline of the BJP that swept to power in 1991 with a whopping 221 seats — three less than SP’s record 224 seats this year – to the BJP tying up with the BSP in 1995 to come to power. “After 1996, the BJP turned into a supporting party in UP. The final nail in the coffin was struck in 2003, when in collaboration with the Samajwadi Party, the BJP withdrew support from the Mayawati government. By piggyriding the BJP, the two regional parties clambered to the top as the BJP sank,” says Singh at his residence in the Patrakar Puram area of Lucknow.
But it is the Congress that may have come closest this year in regaining its foothold in the state. Tariq Siddiqui is convinced that 50-60% of the Muslim support came to the Congress thanks to various schemes, and because of the general belief that UP’s Muslims should give the old, ‘Muslim-loyal’ Congress another chance. “That was till December. With the remarks made by Congress ministers in Delhi — the Batla House business, the quota ‘hand-outs’ — the Muslim voter just turned around and ran back to the Samajwadi Party.”
And why was such a “terrible blunder” not averted? Siddiqui answers deadpan: “Because the central leadership refused to empower the state unit. It was a disaster.”
With inputs from our bureaus in Ahmedabad, Jaipur and Bangalore