The Congress decision to project a Brahmin leader as the party’s chief ministerial face in Uttar Pradesh has upset the BJP’s preparations to fight next year’s assembly elections in the country’s most populous state.
Struggling to find its CM candidate yet, the saffron party is a little concerned, if not worried, about its poll strategy in the politically important state with 403 Vidhan Sabha seats.
On Thursday, the Congress announced 78-year-old Sheila Dikshit--she hails from a Punjabi family of Khatris, who consider themselves of Vedic descent--as its CM face in UP, where influential political parties are into a social engineering of Hindu castes.
To its credit, the BJP, which is keen wooing the Brahmin community in UP, has an array of senior leaders in the state. But that only makes the selection for CM candidate a tougher task.
Union home minister Rajnath Singh, the BJP’s “first choice” for the CM face, is reluctant to take any formal role in UP. A Thakur stalwart, the 65-year-old leader with strong RSS connections is by far UP’s last forward-caste chief minister. He is also the BJP’s last CM in UP and one of the party’s two leaders with a pan-state appeal.
But, Singh has moved on from UP politics, sources point out. “Currently the number two in central government, he won’t mind campaigning aggressively for the party in his home state. Even so, taking up a formal role as the CM or becoming campaign committee chief is something he is not open to,” a source close to Singh told HT.
Also, they say it will not be a wise move to pit Singh against a young leader like Akhilesh Yadav, whose father Mulayam Singh is Rajnath’s contemporary.
Caste-wise, Brahmins and Thakurs have historically fought with each other for political dominance in post-Independence Uttar Pradesh. On its part recently, the BJP gave the lone Rajya Sabha seat to a Brahmin and appointed one more union minister from that community without dropping Kalraj Mishra, who is a Lok Sabha member from UP.
Rajnath’s image of a Thakur leader and his association with central UP leaders such as Raghuraj Pratap Singh and Braj Bhushan Sharan Singh could force the BJP into a rethink. The party’s dilemma with 75-year-old Mishra is that age is not on his side.
That leaves the BJP with its second option: young Sultanpur MP Varun Gandhi, another leader with a Brahmin lineage. The two-time parliamentarian is the only leader after Rajnath having some following in every pocket of the state.
Varun, 36, however, is not known for sharing best his relationship with the party brass. BJP national chief Amit Shah dropped him as the party’s national general secretary in 2014, while giving prominence to lesser-known UP Brahmin faces such as Lucknow mayor Dinesh Sharma and Noida MP Mahesh Sharma.
Gandhi has also set out to alter his image from a “firebrand Hindu leader” to a “left of the centre” liberal leader. That also doesn’t go well with Shah’s “polarising” strategy.
But, as a BJP functionary says, a situation has come where ignoring Varun’s claim won’t be easy. “He is young, and has personal following in about two dozen Lok Sabha seats,” he notes. “Both sides (Varun and Shah) will have to walk towards each other to find a common ground.”
Varun’s name did figure on Thursday in a discussion at an ongoing RSS meet in Kanpur, but the Sangh decided to take a call on the matter at a later date. A coordination meeting of the Sangh and the BJP is expected in September, where the issues will again be taken up. “Any call on projecting a CM face will be taken closer to the election (the dates of which have not been declared),” an RSS leader said.
Om Mathur, who is in charge of the BJP affairs in Uttar Pradesh, sounded a similar note. “It is an issue that will be decided collectively. We will decide as and when the time comes,” he told HT.
But concerns have already started building in the BJP. The party is excited with the new enthusiasm among party cadre after last month’s executive meeting in Allahabad and Shah’s extensive tour to the state to meet booth-level workers. It has started realising the need for a CM face in UP to capitalise of this new enthusiasm.
“We have to find one, soon. Else, it will be a perfect recipe for disaster,” said a BJP leader. “It would be like seeking a good film--with good script, dance and music--but without knowing who the hero is.”
This time, the BJP is targeting 60-65% of the UP electorate, which excludes the dominant Muslim, Yadav and Jatav.
In Akhilesh and Mulayam, the SP has strong OBC faces. The BSP’s Mayawati remains tallest leader of Dalits, particularly Jatavs.
It is for the first time the Congress has projected a Brahmin as its CM face in UP to win over the priestly community, which owes allegiance to party veteran Narayan Dutt Tiwari who is now 90. The grand old party having dared such an experiment, the BJP cannot remain faceless when it comes to its CM candidate in the run-up to 2017.