The Bharatiya Janata Party, and its charismatic leader, Narendra Modi, no longer appear infallible.
In the 2019 elections, the BJP had garnered 37.4 per cent of the votes and it was the highest-ever national vote share for the party. And, it went on to win 303 seats in the Lok Sabha, bettering its 282-seat win in 2014.
Two years down the line, the saffron party, however, seems to have sailed into choppy weather. Not only does it have to contend with a bitter and stinging defeat in West Bengal, and a sobering loss in South India, it’s scrambling to hold on to power in the states they currently rule as well. In some states like West Bengal where it did increase their vote share, the party is finding it tough to keep their flock of “turncoats” together.
To start with, the BJP is worried about retaining power in the politically crucial state of Uttar Pradesh. With state Assembly elections looming on the horizon early next year, the BJP is treading on hot coals as the image of the Yogi Adityanath’s government has taken a battering of late for its inept handling of the COVID pandemic. At the same time, the BJP is also fending off simmering discontentment among state party leaders against Yogi.
For the BJP, the party’s performance in Uttar Pradesh may well turn out to be a harbinger of how the party will fare in the 2024 Lok Sabha polls and it’s crucial they do not lose the state. In sporting parlance, it’s the semi-final, which the BJP can’t afford to lose. What’s causing a lot of anxiety among the BJP top brass in Delhi, still recovering from the blistering Bengal defeat, is the widespread anti-incumbency wave in the state. Nothing has gone right in the state of UP ruled by the brash, 49-year-old ‘Hindutva-icon’, Yogi Adityanath.
The UP government has been caught in a caste-based matrix and has not delivered jobs, economic growth, and efficient governance to people. His government has been accused of completely mismanaging the COVID pandemic and Adityanath made it worse by going on a denial mode. But the pictures of mass cremations in villages and the “horrendous visuals of corpses floating in the holy Ganges” acted as a “metaphor” of the quality of governance of the state.
Media reports are full of how Adityanath has misused the police force, how he notched up a high number of ‘encounter’ deaths, seized property and fined people for protesting, causing rising public anger against him. Moreover, his centralised, authoritative style of governance all these years has not gone down well with many senior party men. They have been unhappy with him for favouring the Thakurs or upper castes for key roles and appointments and he was also seen as inaccessible to everyone except his key aides. And, he was plainly indifferent to involving senior ministers in governance issues.
But, his inability to handle the COVID crisis and the BJP’s rout in the recent panchayat elections gave his opponents the leverage they were waiting for. The BJP leadership, which included the PM, Home Minister Amit Shah, BJP chief JP Nadda and several RSS officials, got into a huddle to discuss how to straighten out the problems emerging from UP.
According to NDTV, the BJP decided that the UP leadership needed an Uttarakhand-like overhaul – “only more dramatic and drastic”. BL Santosh, general secretary of the BJP, was dispatched to the state to hold “feedback meetings” with senior party leaders, ministers, and MLAs.
Adityanath’s recent visit to New Delhi to meet Modi, Amit Shah and JP Nadda too triggered speculation about a change in leadership in UP. However, the BJP stopped short of removing Adityanath from the CM’s post for now and a cabinet expansion is on the cards. The CM has been told to rein in the dissenters and placate them by accommodating them in government posts.
But, PM Modi has sent a former senior bureaucrat, AK Sharma, as a member of the Legislative Council in the state, entrusting him with fixing the COVID situation in Varanasi, the PM’s constituency. A close aide of Modi, Sharma may be given an important role in the government as well. This move is reportedly being seen as an attempt to keep a check on Adityanath.
Former Congress leader, Jitin Prasad too has been welcomed with open arms to pacify the Brahmin community, which make up about 13 per cent of UP voters, and who have felt neglected under Adityanath’s rule. Reports claimed that for now, Adityanath has engineered a stalemate and the BJP will go to polls with him as the CM.
The task of keeping the BJP flock together in Tripura and West Bengal
After the “prodigal son” BJP national vice-president Mukul Roy returned to the Trinamool Congress (TMC) fold, one of the first moves he made was to call Sudip Roy Barman, the leader of the BJP’s disgruntled MLA group in Tripura. Roy Barman, son of former Tripura Chief Minister Samir Ranjan Barman, who was the health and family welfare minister was dropped from the Deb ministry in 2019.
Roy’s call has set off alarm bells ringing within the BJP. On Wednesday (June 16), the party rushed a three-member central leadership team comprising its national organisation general secretary B L Santhosh and senior leaders Ajay Jamwal and Phanindra Nath Sharma to Tripura to try and “patch up” with the rebels.
The team held several rounds of meeting with party legislators in Tripura on Wednesday (June 16), even as TMC was trying to reach out to the rebel MLAs. The trio held closed-door one-to-one meeting with legislators at the party’s state headquarters in Agartala and listened to their grievances. They had to somehow douse the fire of rebellion simmering against the Biplab Kumar Deb-led BJP government for over a year now.
For the first time, dissident MLAs such as Sudip Roy Barman, Ashish Kumar Saha, Ram Prasad Paul, Ashish Das, Sushanta Choudhury and others were given a patient hearing by the party’s central leadership. The dissident group christened as “reformist” has been demanding Deb’s ouster as CM, accusing him of being “dictatorial” and failing to provide “good governance.”
The group had met BJP national president J P Nadda in October last year to air their grievances against the CM. “The central leadership did not give much importance to our opinion then. But yesterday the central team gave us a patient hearing and assured us of some corrective measures,” said a BJP dissident MLA over phone from Agartala to The Federal.
The three-member team also held separate meetings with Chief Minister Deb, Deputy Chief Minister Jishnu Dev Varma, two MPs, four Ministers and other MLAs who were called in six separate groups. The high command was clear: Deb was reportedly told to make up with the rebels.
Meanwhile, in West Bengal, the spectre of TMC poaching its legislators and leaders forced the BJP to rush its national joint general secretary (organisation) Shiv Prakash to the state on Thursday (June 17). BJP sources said Shiv Prakash is slated to meet party state president Dilip Ghosh and five general secretaries of the state unit to set the saffron house in order.
Many BJP leaders, particularly the nascent recruits from the TMC, have publicly expressed their eagerness to return to their former party, after the BJP’s setback in the Assembly elections. The return of the BJP national vice-president Mukul Roy to the TMC is expected to open the floodgates. And, many BJP legislators and leaders, including an MP have sent out feelers to the TMC through Roy.
As many as 24 of the BJP’s 74 MLAs were conspicuous by their absence when BJP legislature party leader Suvendu Adhikari recently led a delegation of party MLAs to Raj Bhavan. Kashem Ali, a close associate of Roy, told the media, “At least 20 BJP MLAs and many party workers are likely to join TMC in the coming days. BJP will break like a pack of cards. Just wait and watch.”
The call for Yediyurappa’s removal never lets up
In the southern state of Karnataka too, the BJP is feeling the heat. For over a year now, a section of Karnataka legislators has been attempting to oust Chief Minister B S Yediyurappa. Amid the raging pandemic, the rumbling within the party has come out in the open with several BJP MLAs and ministers expressing displeasure with the CM’s style of functioning.
The corruption allegations against him and his family members over the past year have only strengthened the chorus for Yediyurappa’s removal. Also, considering he’s 78, many want the party to make him part of the margdarshak mandal and take away ministerial positions from him.
However, following the BJP’s debacle in West Bengal, the central leadership is weighing in carefully on the leadership change in Karnataka. BJP’s central leadership sent Arun Singh, Rajya Sabha MP from Uttar Pradesh and also the party’s national general secretary (in-charge for Karnataka and Rajasthan)on a three-day mission to Karnataka to assess the crisis within the BJP and try to resolve it.
Singh has been holding a series of meetings with various BJP legislators since June 16. He has, however, ruled out replacing CM BS Yediyurappa. “Our leaders are together and there’s no difference. If anyone has any issue, let them come and talk to me and not to the media,” he had said.
Ahead of his visit, two senior ministers in the past month had confirmed that there were calls to replace the CM. While Minister R Ashok spoke first and confirmed the news on May 27, senior leader and BJP K S Eshwarappa, ahead of Singh’s visit reiterated the same and said the “high command” will take a final call on it.
Sensing revolt, Yediyurappa and his son B Y Vijayendra met Lingayat community seers in the state and sought their support. Last week, Yediyurappa categorically stated that he would continue as CM as long as the BJP central leadership had confidence in him. “The day they will say they don’t want me, I will resign and work for the development of the state. I am not in any doubt,” Yediyurappa said.
Last week, after Arun Singh said he was “doing a good job”, Yediyurappa said he would remain CM of Karnataka for two more years – till the end of the tenure of the BJP government. Supporters of Yediyurappa in the BJP claim that there are only a handful of dissidents opposing the CM and that this group comprising of leaders like Arvind Bellad, V Sunil Kumar, K S Eshwarappa, C P Yogeshwar and Basavaraj Patil Yatnal are isolated in the party.
According to BJP insiders the party leadership does to want to rock the boat in Karnataka by forcing Yediyurappa – a mass leader – to quit but would rather like Yediyurappa to make way for a new leader on his own.
With many state units in turmoil, 2024 is not going to be easy for the BJP – be it the semi-final or final.