Congress leader Jitin Prasada at the BJP headquarters in New Delhi after joining the party.
Congress leader Jitin Prasada at the BJP headquarters in New Delhi after joining the party.

Entry of old Cong loyalist good optics for BJP in run up to UP polls

The party, which is hoping to return to power in India’s most-populous state, also gets a chance to underline that loyalists of the Congress party’s first family --- Prasada was considered close to former party president Rahul Gandhi -- were abandoning the party.
By Saubhadra Chatterji, Smriti Kak Ramachandran, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
UPDATED ON JUN 10, 2021 12:52 AM IST

Former Union minister Jitin Prasada’s induction into the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on Wednesday came in the backdrop of caste realignments in Uttar Pradesh, which goes to the polls early next year and where Brahmins form an influential vote bloc.

Though Prasada’s influence within the community may be limited, his entry gives an opportunity to the BJP to showcase a Brahmin face in a state where reports of dissidence within the party have surfaced in recent weeks amid allegations that the administration was biased towards Thakurs.

The party, which is hoping to return to power in India’s most-populous state, also gets a chance to underline that loyalists of the Congress party’s first family --- Prasada was considered close to former party president Rahul Gandhi -- were abandoning the party.

“They say Modi ji is intolerant. Then why so many senior Congress leaders are abandoning the “tolerant” Gandhi family and wanting to work with Modiji? People prefer to work in a democratic culture rather than work for a delusional dictator disconnected from the masses,” tweeted Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, who left Congress to join BJP in 2015.

But the Congress insisted that losing Prasada was a minor loss because the 47-year-old had no electoral heft and had ceased to be a mass leader. The Congress pointed out that Prasada lost from his home seat of Dhaurara in the last two Lok Sabha elections. “Make no mistake. He is no Jyotiraditya Scindia or Himanta Biswa Sarma who have mass support and had followers in the organisation,” said a senior Congress strategist requesting anonymity. Scindia and his followers quit the Congress in 2020, causing the party’s government in Madhya Pradesh to fall.

Prasada’s entry into the BJP comes months before crucial elections in Uttar Pradesh, which BJP won in a landslide in 2017 by forming a rainbow coalition of upper castes, non-Yadav Other Backward Classes and non-Jatav Scheduled Caste communities. Before that election too, BJP had inducted key Brahmin leaders -- Brajesh Pathak from Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and Rita Bahuguna Joshi from Congress -- into the party.

A senior BJP leader who did not wish to be quoted said it was the bulk of the Brahmin vote that helped BJP secure massive wins in the last two national elections and also get a huge mandate in the 2017 UP assembly elections.

The ruling dispensation is also counting on Prasada to counter the perception that Brahmins, who form roughly 13% the state’s population but have wider social influence, moved away from BJP after chief minister Yogi Adityanath, who is from the Thakur community, was made chief minister in 2017.

In a tweet, Adityanath welcomed Prasada. “His entry will definitely strengthen the party in UP,” the CM said.

Over the past year, Prasada tried to consolidate his position among Brahmins by holding a Brahmin Chetna Samvaad. He claimed his community was facing persecution and being ignored by the Yogi Adityanath-led government.

But his efforts were somewhat overshadowed by the Samajwadi Party (SP) and BSP after the regional outfits promised to build statues of Parashuram to attract Brahmin support.

“The impact of statements by Prasada, [BSP chief] Mayawati and SP insinuating that there is a Thakur vs Brahmin sentiment in the state, which has been lent support by the CM’s preference, cannot be denied. Various Brahmin social groups have over time conveyed their concerns to the party leadership,” said a second senior BJP leader.

In the 2007 elections, BSP won a simple majority by crafting a coalition of extremes between Dalits and Brahmins. To woo the upper caste community, Mayawati even changed her party’s slogan from Tilak, Tarazu aur Talwar, Inko Maaro Joote Chaar’ to ‘Haathi Nahi, Ganesh Hai; Brahama, Vishnu, Mahesh Hai’

“The Brahmin vote has always played a decisive role in the past. The dip in the popularity of the Congress, which at one time had popular and tall Brahmin leaders in the state as CMs, was exacerbated when the community shifted their loyalty to the BJP after the Ramjanmabhoomi movement. In between there were times when the community even supported the BSP,” a third senior BJP leader said, requesting anonymity.

Two of Prasada’s aides claimed he was increasingly getting marginalised in the Congress organisation, and had even told them how in his home turf of Shahjahanpur, SP turncoats were getting more importance than his loyalists. Once an integral part of ‘Team Rahul’, he was among the so-called G23 leaders who demanded sweeping changes in the party organisation last year.

They also claimed that despite being named poll incharge for West Bengal earlier this year, Prasada had little say in strategy, alliance and communication plan.

“I knew him as a good person. He was a prominent Brahmin face for our party. He must have joined the BJP for greener pastures,” said leader of Congress in Lok Sabha, Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, who worked with Prasada closely during the West Bengal polls.

“The BJP does not believe in caste politics. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, we believe in sabka saath sabka vikas. The coming of Congress leaders such as Rita Bahuguna Joshi and now Prasada is also a seal of approval on the administration of Modi-Yogi double-engine government,” said Chandramohan, a BJP spokesperson in UP.

Asked if Prasada’s inability to win the previous two Lok Sabha elections is a cause for concern, Chandramohan said the Prasada family has a certain heft in the state’s politics. “Both the party and he will benefit from coming together,” he said.

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