Politics to akhada: How Brij Bhushan ruled with iron fist
The senior BJP leader is facing the toughest challenge of his career from an arena far removed from the murky world of Uttar Pradesh politics.
Roughly 15 kilometres from the bustle of Karsevakpuram — for decades the nerve centre of the Ram Temple movement — stands a gleaming white mansion. The sprawling two-storey structure is ringed by manicured lawns, and the row of luxury cars lining the driveway is only matched by the steady stream of people vying to get a glimpse of the owner.
It is from this house, in the heart of Nawabganj town on the other side of the Saryu river, that six-time Member of Parliament (MP) Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh has run his fiefdom for close to three decades. In this part of the world, where industries are sparse, jobs are scarce and law enforcement is erratic, Singh’s strongman image is a virtual writ, enough to resolve local disputes and move administrative processes.
For decades, Singh, 66, has used a mix of faith, crime and political clout to browbeat opponents and control a region notorious for its baahubalis. But now, the senior Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader is facing the toughest challenge of his career from an arena far removed from the murky world of Uttar Pradesh politics. Accused by a raft of India’s top wrestlers of sexual harassment and intimidation, Singh, also the chief of the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI), has now been booked in a First Information Report (FIR) filed by Delhi Police and the tide of public opinion now appears to be turning against him.
Yet, despite the mounting outrage, political experts say the leader’s political future may be far from over, given his vice-like grip over the political machinery in a region where weak state capacity has historically given way to parallel extra-legal structures governed by strongmen.
“It’s true that Singh has considerable supporters in the area and his association with Ram temple movement has increased his acceptance in the region that shares its borders with Ayodhya. But it’s difficult to hazard a guess on his political future,” said Irshad Ilmi, a political expert.
Born in Nawabganj on January 8, 1957, Singh joined the akhada in his teens and became a kushtigir of some local repute. His career in politics began during his student days at Ayodhya’s Saket College. The holy town was in tumult during this decade as the Ram temple movement slowly gained steam, creating a vortex of power in which young men like Singh were able to successfully project themselves as politicians.
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In 1991, at the height of the Ram temple movement, Singh fought his first Lok Sabha election on a BJP ticket and won, defeating Anand Singh of the Congress by 102984 votes. That year, the BJP also won its first majority in Uttar Pradesh, forming its first government in India’s most-populous state.
The next year, the Babri Masjid was demolished and Kalyan Singh’s government dismissed. But the ensuing churn proved a boon for Singh, who publicly boasted about being one of the men who helped bring down the 16th century structure. “During the movement, I was the first person from the area to be arrested by Mulayam Singh. I was also the first person arrested by the CBI after the controversial structure was demolished,” he said. Singh, along with senior BJP leaders LK Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi and former chief minister Kalyan Singh was charged by the Central Bureau of Investigation in the case, but was cleared of all charges in 2020.
It was this ability to fashion himself into a firebrand Hindu leader – he would be frequently seen with seers and leaders of the temple movement – that helped him emerge from his other big legal trouble in the 1990s with relatively little damage. In 1992, he was also charged under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA) for allegedly helping associates of gangster Dawood Ibrahim and spent several months in Tihar jail before being released in 1999. But during this time, his influence didn’t wane.
Over the course of the next 15 years, Singh consolidated power and became indispensable in a political milieu where electoral support was increasingly fragmented and parties struggled to win outright majorities, which meant every seat (and every baahubali) was important. He used this power to sometimes challenge decisions made by the state government. Locals in Gonda still remember that he even resisted then chief minister Mayawati’s bid to rename Gonda as Lok Nayak Jayprakash Narayan Nagar. “He (Singh) challenged Mayawati and took out a ‘padyatra’. Even Atal Bihari Vajpayee had to intervene in the issue and called Mayawati to withdraw her decision,” said one local in Gonda, Angad Singh. Sensing a change in the political winds, he switched from the BJP to the Samajwadi Party ahead of the 2009 general elections, and won his seat. He returned to the BJP before the 2014 polls.
Wrestling was a key element of this appeal. Every event he hosted at his alma mater in Gonda’s Nandini Nagar became a major political event. He would arrive in a cavalcade of SUVs, with a throng of 20-30 followers in tow. The officials bowed to him, touched his feet, and chanted “Neta ji zindabad” as he settled in his high chair. A stream of sweets and food would be served to attendees, as hordes of people pushed towards the dias to take a selfie and touch his feet. Singh often stopped bouts with a wave of his hand, shouting at wrestlers, offering advice, threatening to throw parents out, and even going after referees if he thinks they missed a move. As was the case outside the akhada, his word was the law.
“In fact, the wrestling events at Gonda allow him (Singh) to meet and greet his followers, voters and fans and it also helps him grow his strength in the area,” said Singh. “Not only the common man but MLAs, chairpersons, panchayat chiefs of the neighbouring districts made sure of their presence.”
It is this mix of crime and politics that helped him maintain control over Gonda, and possibly drove his defiant stance after the wrestlers first went public with their allegations in January. Singh liked people to know he wasn’t afraid of anyone. In an interview to a web portal in 2022, he even admitted to killing a man. His affidavit in 2019 listed four pending cases, including attempt to murder and harming a public servant. But with Delhi Police registering an FIR, the Supreme Court monitoring the developments in the case, and the nation’s eyes trained on his next move, he may be facing his biggest challenge yet.