As the BJP readies for the crucial electoral battle in Uttar Pradesh next year, the ruling party at the Centre seems to be caught up in a Hamletian dilemma: to project or not to project a chief ministerial candidate?
A series of internal consultations in the past few weeks has not produced an answer.
According to the party leadership’s assessment, the BJP needs to project a face to take on Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati, who are most likely to be the respective chief ministerial candidates of the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party.
The BJP’s electoral debacle in Bihar recently was attributed in part to its failure to project a chief ministerial candidate unlike the three-party grand alliance which went to the hustings with the face of Nitish Kumar.
Following the Bihar fiasco, the party promptly named Union minister Sarbananda Sonowal as its chief ministerial candidate much ahead of the assembly polls in Assam this year.
The problem for the BJP in UP, however, is that it does not have many credible options to choose from in the politically crucial state where the party got 71 out of 80 Lok Sabha seats in 2014.
“We are discussing two issues amongst us. Should we project a face in UP and if yes, who should it be? We will have to strike a caste balance between our CM face and party president. The two assignments have to be shared between a backward and an upper caste leader. Unless there is clarity on one issue, we cannot take a call on the other,” a Union minister from UP who is part of the consultation process told HT.
According to sources, five-term MLA Dharampal Singh, a Lodh leader from Ruhelkhand, and junior railway minister Manoj Sinha, a Bhumihar leader from eastern UP, are the choices for the state president’s job. Who gets the job would depend on the party’s decision about projecting a CM face, the sources added.
BJP chief Amit Shah is meeting UP leaders here on Monday to discuss the election of the state president. Ramlal and Sunil Bansal, the RSS representatives working in the BJP, would be part of the deliberations.
“A formal decision on whether or not to project a CM candidate would be taken only after consultation among top BJP leaders and the RSS later. If the party decides to project a face, it will be announced at a later stage,” a BJP functionary said.
Given the consolidation of backward voters against the BJP in Bihar, party leaders admit, the central leadership is wary of the political fallout of projecting an upper caste as its face in Uttar Pradesh. The backward communities hold the key to government formation in the state.
But the BJP is equally worried about the prospect of its upper caste support base drifting towards Mayawati if it failed to project itself a serious contender to form the government.
Rajnath Singh, now the Union home minister, was the last upper caste leader to occupy the post of UP chief minister between October 2000 and March 2002.
Also being the seniormost leader from the state, Singh is seen as the most acceptable face in case a forward caste leader has to be projected. Singh, however, is not willing to return to state politics, said sources.
Sultanpur MP Varun Gandhi could be another contender for the CM post, but he does not enjoy a rapport with party chief Amit Shah who dropped the young leader as national general secretary after taking over as party’s national president in 2014.
The BJP had subtly projected Union minister Kalraj Mishra as the CM candidate in 2012, but did not do well. Given his limited mass appeal, Mishra is considered “not suitable” to become the face in the high stakes battle next year.
HRD minister Smriti Irani gave a tough fight to Congress vice-president Rahul Gadhi in Amethi in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and her frequent visit to the high-profile constituency has set tongues wagging about the possibility of her taking up a role in UP.
But her lack of experience in electoral politics, especially in a caste sensitive state like UP, is seen as her disadvantage.
Rajasthan governor Kalyan Singh and Union minister Uma Bharti are seen as possible contenders from the backward castes. Kalyan Singh, 83, however, is too old to take up that responsibility and Bharti is seen as an “outsider”.