On BJP campaign hoardings across Uttar Pradesh, there are four state-level faces besides Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party chief Amit Shah.
Yet, none of the four have been declared the chief ministerial candidate despite assembly elections being just over a month away. BJP - the pioneer in turning a parliamentary contest into a presidential one in 2014 - is ironically facing the challenge of being the party with no face. The problem has been compounded in recent weeks with polls showing Samajwadi Party’s Akhilesh Yadav to be the most popular candidate for CM.
Four faces, yet no CM
Take the four faces.
Till last year, Keshav Prasad Maurya was little known outside the Allahabad-Phulpur area. Elevated to state party president in order to woo the substantial Maurya vote which is an OBC group, Keshav Maurya is now visible - yet with little charisma or track record, voters beyond his community find it hard pressed to relate to him.
Rajnath Singh is the party’s tallest leader from the state. He is a Thakur - an influential, muscular upper caste group - and his face is a signal to the community. And he has made it clear he does not want to return to state politics. When asked by reporters recently about going as CM, he joked, “Don’t I look good at the Centre?”
Kalraj Mishra is the third face on the poster. He has crossed Modi’s age limit of 75 to be in the council of ministers, but has got an extension as a signal to the state’s Brahmins that the party represents them.
And the fourth face is Uma Bharti - the one time firebrand Hindutva leader, who belongs to the Lodh community, an OBC group. The Lodhs may well be returning to the party this time, but Bharti’s limitations are clear. She was the face of the party in 2012, the year BJP came back with its worst result in the assembly polls in over 20 years.
The party now finds itself in a spot of trouble.
Declaring a CM candidate at this stage would upset the carefully constructed social coalition of upper castes and non-Yadav OBCs that the four faces represent. Admits a party spokesperson, “If we make a Thakur the candidate, Brahmins and OBCs may move away; if we make a Maurya the face, the upper castes may get alienated. We have to be everything to everybody for now.”
But what is also true is that the party does not have a strong local face in the same league as the others.
“We do not have a local face to counter either Akhilesh or Mayawati, I admit. But we have Modiji. If we win, it will be in his name,” says an MLA from a Purvanchal constituency, as he visits different localities in his area.
And why is that the case?
One explanation is the BJP has become like the Congress with its high command culture. There is a strong central leadership represented by Modi and Shah; they do not wish to see strong regional leaders emerge; and would rather pick a nominee after winning polls so that he remains pliant. In that sense, BJP’s success now contains the roots of potential failure - for the lack of strong regional leaders eventually erodes the party’s national strength, as the Congress has seen.
There is second explanation, offered by a close aide of Shah and party strategist. “Is it Modiji and Amit bhai’s fault that for 15 years, new leaders have not emerged in the state? We have to work with what we have. Given the activities we are now doing, the intensive campaign and meetings, a new generation of leaders are being groomed. It will take time.”
But time is precisely what the BJP does not have. For this election, like the polls in Bihar, it is now reliant only on one man and his credibility to win them the election - Narendra Modi of Gujarat will have to win the BJP India’s most populous state for the second time in three years.