As Modi and Yogi meet, the story behind BJP’s UP saga

CM Adityanath is not politically naïve. He fully knows that rarely have CMs survived after taking up cudgels with the PMs.
Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath meets Prime Minister Narendra Modi at his official residence, in New Delhi on Friday. (Twitter/@CMOfficeUP)
Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath meets Prime Minister Narendra Modi at his official residence, in New Delhi on Friday. (Twitter/@CMOfficeUP)
Updated on Jun 12, 2021 01:50 PM IST
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By Sunita Aron

Soon after Yogi Adityanath was sworn in as the chief minister (CM) of Uttar Pradesh (UP) in March 2017, the architect of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s spectacular victory (and now the Union home minister) Amit Shah visited Lucknow.

In an informal chat with editors, he quipped, “We had consultations with 44 senior party leaders before deciding on Yogi’s name. Still, the media remained in dark.” Other names were subjects of widespread speculation, but Yogi Adityanath wasn’t considered one of the front runners.

And that is why, till the BJP high command makes a categorical announcement on the decisions taken at their meetings regarding the political situation in UP, all contentious issues, right now in public domain, will remain in the realm of uncertainty.

However, it can be safely concluded that a range of meetings in recent weeks, in Delhi and Lucknow, have largely revolved around the state assembly polls (to be held early next year) and remedial steps needed to iron out friction in the party, correct caste equations through cabinet expansion and poll alliances, defuse the rising anger against Adityanath in the party’s rank and file, and steps needed to improve the government’s image after what is widely perceived to be the mismanagement of the second wave.

Significantly, this is not the first time that a section of party cadres and lawmakers have rebelled against the CM’s style of functioning, sharing their angst with the central leadership. But addressing these voices have become more urgent, as the party high command knows a friction-ridden party can’t swim through choppy electoral waters especially after a clear dent in the state government’s image.

Also read: UP CM Yogi Adityanath meets BJP brass amid talk of rejig

Chintan baithaks spark speculation

The uncertainty was triggered by a flurry of meetings held during the devastating second wave of Covid-19. Though “chintan-baithaks”, internal review meetings, are an integral part of the BJP’s culture, and in an election year the deliberations are obvious, the seeming madness in the method.

Amid growing complaints of Covid mismanagement by BJP lawmakers and upsets in panchayat polls, Adityanath went on a tour of the state, visiting all the 18 divisional headquarters. He did his last divisional tour on May 30.

A day later, on May 31, two senior party leaders — national vice-president and UP-in-charge, Radha Mohan Singh, and national general secretary (organisation) BL Santhosh — landed in Lucknow. They held three-day long feedback sessions with a dozen odd ministers, members of legislative assembly (MLAs), members of Parliament (MPs) and party functionaries. They also had a dinner meeting with the chief minister and visited the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) office in the city. The meetings ended on June 2, with the leaders tweeting in favour of Yogi. Despite the tweets, the political uncertainty did not subside while Yogi refused to discuss anything in the media.

However, what intensified the speculations was Radha Mohan Singh’s sudden visit to Lucknow again on the night of June 5. He met Governor Anandiben Patel on June 6, which was a Sunday. He even met the UP assembly speaker Hriday Narayan Dikshit the same day; the latter said, “they discussed literature”.

Generally, Raj Bhawan gives appointments on Sundays only when necessary and the explanation from Singh that “it was a courtesy call” did not convince many.

The fallout was obvious. A flurry of political activities raised a range of questions about what was in the offing — from buzz about a change of leadership to murmurs of a cold war between PM and CM over cabinet expansion to disagreements about who should be the primary face for 2022 assembly polls. Interestingly, a party which usually discourages washing dirty linen in public , somehow encouraged it through its actions.

Also read: Yogi brings suggestions for BJP’s Mission Uttar Pradesh

Cold war between CM and PM?

Party leaders often describe Adityanath as stubborn and short-tempered, but he is also not politically naïve. He fully knows that rarely have CMs survived after taking up cudgels with the prime ministers. He is young and is ambitious, but willing to wait.

One reason quoted for the growing differences between PM and CM was the induction of AK Sharma, a Bhumihar from Mau and a former bureaucrat from Gujarat who is understood to be close to the PM, in the UP cabinet. Interestingly, ever since Sharma became a member of the legislative council (MLC) in January 2021, speculations have been rife about his induction in the cabinet as deputy chief minister.

The CM’s detractors claim that while he has no issue in inducting a third deputy CM (he already has two deputy CMs), he would be unwilling to part with the crucial home and appointment departments.

Political experts feel that the issue is overblown, and it’s too trivial in the larger scheme of things to cause a discord, especially when the PM’s wish — if indeed Sharma’s appointment was a source of discord — would easily prevail.

Thus, if there is a thorn in their relationship, the sense in UP’s power corridors is that there has to be a more serious reason than Sharma’s induction.

The CM would not like to burn bridges with the all-powerful PM, even if he enjoys support from Hindutva organisations. Rarely have those CMs who defied the party high command survived. Kalyan Singh, the temple hero who grew in RSS, had challenged the late Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpyayee and had to eventually quit the party. He formed Rashtriya Kranti Party, allied with Mulayam Singh Yadav in assembly polls only to rejoin the parent party. Again, his differences grew in the party he quit and campaigned for Mulayam Singh Yadav in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections only to return home.

Will Adityanath actually take up cudgels with the Prime Minister Narendra Modi and potentially jeopardise his political career? He may be the mascot of Hindutva but not bigger than Modi. While he has been denying his national ambitions from the day he took office, there is also no doubt that he has emerged as a frontline leader in the party.

But this was only because the BJP created a national “Yogi brand”, sending him to campaign in every election held since he took charge. Unlike his previous avatar, where Adityanath ran his own organisation, he is aware that there is a larger party organisation with which he has work to realise his ambitions.

Change of leadership?

While there is speculation about a change in leadership, this appears unlikely at the moment.

Before leaving Lucknow, the Delhi-based BJP leaders had tweeted and hailed the CM’s management of Covid in the state. BL Santosh tweet read as, “Remember it’s a state with 20+ Cr population.When municipality CMs could not manage a city of 1.5Cr population, Yogi ji managed quite effectively.”

BJP’s national vice-president and UP in-charge Radha Mohan Singh described the UP government’s handling of the Covid situation as “unparalleled” and described speculations about change in leadership as a “figment of someone’s imagination.”

All these were followed by the CM’s meetings with Shah, BJP President JP Nadda, and on Friday evening, PM Modi. And so far, the message is, “no change in leadership”. Yogi has thanked all for their ‘ guidance.

There are good reasons why status quo may prevail.

For one, unlike the Congress, where CMs have been changed at fairly regular intervals in states governed by the party, irrespective of political exigencies such as elections or controversies that directly hurt a CM’s image, the BJP leadership has not experimented with frequent changes in the states. And now with barely a few months left for the party to hit the campaign trail, any change of leadership, leaders believe, will do more damage than good.

Second, though Adityanath was earlier associated with the erstwhile Akhil Bhartiya Hindu Vahini, and is not a homegrown Sangh leader, he was groomed in the same ideology by his Guru Mahant Avaidnath, who was closely associated with Vishwa Hindu Parishad.

Many in the BJP do flag stories of the time when the CM, as head of the Hindu Vahini, used to dictate terms for an alliance with the BJP and fielded candidates against the party. Interestingly, in 2002 assembly elections, he had fielded Radha Mohan Das Agarwal against the BJP from Gorakhpur and won the seat too. (Agarwal won the 2007, 2012 and 2017 elections on the BJP ticket.) But all of this is now history. Hindu Vahini is by and large lying defunct. Adityanath has thrown his lot almost fully with the Sangh-BJP machine. He is a monk who prays before people wake up, thereafter its politics and politics.

Three, the BJP appointed Adityanath as CM, ignoring claims of several senior party leaders, as a part of their long-term vision of generational transition.

The overall arching argument is that elections are too close to take the risk of changing leadership, which may upset his supporters. There is a TINA (There is no alternative) factor at play — with the sense that changes at this juncture may ruffle more feathers than ironing them.

As said earlier, BJP high command can always spring surprises.

Should Adityanath be the face of 2022 polls?

Apparently, the BJP high command faces a dilemma on contesting state polls on Modi’s face. Amplifying their concern are the recent reverses in West Bengal where despite the display of their might, the party lost to a two-term CM, Mamata Banerjee, who is the leader of a regional party, the Trinamool Congress (TMC). The anti-incumbency factor did not work against her, nor did the desertions from TMC on the eve of elections.

There is, therefore, a view that state elections should not always be held with Modi as the face, for a loss is interpreted as a dip in the popularity of the leader or deterioration of the party’s national strength.

The 2017 assembly elections were fought on the basis of Modi’s charisma and appeal, and even the coming together of the Samajwadi Party and the Congress had miserably failed to check the BJP from decimating the Opposition. The BJP and allies independently won 325 assembly seats without projecting any chief ministerial candidate. However, 2022 is going to be different. Can the CM win the state for the BJP? Will he be able to activate the disgruntled party cadres and leaders?

Apparently, the party has yet to find an answer to this tricky question – Adityanath or Modi or both. To be sure, the PM will campaign, but the question is the messaging around the state polls and leadership.

Is this a plan to distance Centre, channel anger?

But none of these theories fully help explain the controversy.

Some party insiders claim that through the political churn of the last fortnight, two purposes have been achieved. The first is the party has distanced its tallest leader, PM Modi, from the “Covid mess” that prevailed in the state.

Second, much of the public anger has been defused. Right now, UP voters are discussing the central leadership’s unhappiness with the state government more than the floating bodies in the Ganges.

The cadre is also more content. They have found an outlet to express their woes, and have been heard. The ministers have been pushed to the wall as their performance too has been questioned. The MLAs, too, have been told to explain their service to their constituency. They would want the ticket again.

With the CM’s meeting with the PM on Friday evening, either the recent unrest in the party will come to an end — or it could well mark another chapter in BJP’s UP saga. Either way, as details emerge, what is clear is that the state will remain the primary focus for the party in the coming year.

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Tuesday, October 26, 2021