The old Hindi saying, Tu ser, toh main sawa ser (I am one-up on you, or If you are base, I am ace) is apt to sum up the weeks-long uncharacteristic political tussle between the joint forces of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s central leadership and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh brass on the one hand, and Uttar Pradesh chief minister, Yogi Adityanath on the other.
At the conclusion of the present round, likely to be last one prior to the assembly polls in the state in the first quarter of 2021, the score line reads in favour of the underdog, Adityanath. He has single-handedly resisted the diktat of the commanding units ranged against him although they comprise the mightiest of the land.
A new star on the horizon
This unforeseen result became absolutely clear in the afternoon of June 19 when the president of the BJP state president, Swatantra Dev Singh issued a statement without much fuss. It announced the appointment of several party leaders to organisational positions, including chiefs to several party morchas, comprising those for the youth, backward castes, scheduled castes and for tokenism, religious minorities.
Heading the list was AK Sharma as the state unit’s 17th vice president, an ornamental position devoid of executive powers. Recently-elected member of the state legislative council, Sharma sought voluntary retirement in January from the Indian Administrative Service after 33 years of service.
In his entire tenure, Sharma spent close to two decades working with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, first in the chief minister’s office and subsequently at the PMO as part of his close circle of trusted bureaucrats. He formed Modi’s core team of trusted officers, often used as sounding boards, as well as ensuring implementation of decisions taken.
Sharma’s sudden exit from the bureaucracy in January (he last served as Secretary, Ministry of Micro, Small & Medium Enterprises [MSME], after spending six years in the PMO in various positions, most recently as Additional Secretary), triggered speculations over his future role.
These heightened after Sharma’s election as MLC and his induction in the state ministry was widely expected. It was conjectured he would be appointed as deputy chief minister and additionally given charge of the Home portfolio, currently held by Adityanath. The buzz around Sharma’s imminent rise grew loud when he emerged as an éminence grise at the height of the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic; he was personally tasked by the prime minister to supervise the deteriorating situation in Varanasi, his parliamentary constituency.
Souring of relations
Relations between Modi and Yogi were at best formally cordial since the former became prime minister. The ties further headed south after the latter hopped over Modi’s chief ministerial choice, Manoj Sinha, with more than tacit support of the RSS which despite backing demonetisation, was of the view that a counter-balancing force to Modi would curb his administrative adventurism.
Between 2017 and 2021, the relationship fared no better; Adityanath’s position to be more autonomous than other BJP satraps was the principal reason. His unrestrained efforts are expanding his personal hard Hindutva support base by constantly making provocative statements and administrative decisions besides the buzz around him being a potential challenger to Modi from the right, ensured the onset of an unspoken cold-war between the two.
Somewhere along the line, the RSS realised that the chief minister had not completely ceased activities of Hindu Yuva Vahini, which he floated in 2002 when he was a member of Lok Sabha. This was at odds with the presumption that after the Nagpur-based ideological fountainhead backed Yogi in 2017, he would direct his loyal cadres to work through the shakha network and adhere to the RSS discipline. The sangh parivar pullback from Adityanath in recent weeks was considerably triggered by this act of defiance.
Battle lines drawn
Through all these years, paradoxically, there were times when the central leadership utilised the hawkish services of the Yogi in election campaigns outside Uttar Pradesh, for state assembly polls as well as the 2019 Lok Sabha campaign. But since late April, the battle came out in the open as the directive to appoint as the chief minister refused to heed to the directive of the central leaders to reshuffle the council of minister, induct Sharma, and yield charge of the crucial Home department. The chief minister did not even meet RSS general secretary, Dattatreya Hosabale, when he visited the state capital, claiming that he had to tour COVID-affected districts.
Battle lines were firmly drawn as Modi did not publicly greet Adityanath on his birthday, while the latter retaliated by removing the prime minister’s photographs from some state government posters publicising welfare schemes. Since 2014, no state leader defied the central leadership and declined to follow instructions given by invoking Modi’s name. This episode unfolded just after Himanta Biswa Sarma had his way to become Assam’s chief minister over the party’s candidate, Sarbananda Sonowal who had been occupying the position since 2016.
Yogi’s defiance however, has deeper implications. Most importantly, Uttar Pradesh is the country’s most populous state, elects the largest number of Lok Sabha members, and is the prime minister political ‘home’ now. The state is the epicentre of Hindutva politics because of Ayodhya being located there. The state also looks at Assembly elections next year.
By accepting Sharma’s appointment as the 17th vice president of the state BJP unit, Modi appears to be decided against rocking Adityanath’s boat. Going beyond this, at this time, could damage prospects of the party in the state, where it already faces a huge performance deficit due to mismanagement of the COVID-19 situation, large number of deaths, and inability of the government to enable families afford dignified cremation for the deceased.
Will Yogi toe the line?
The question is will the truce, or tactical holding of forces by the high command work? This would depend on the extent to which Adityanath interferes in candidate selection, a process where the final choices has traditionally rested with the central team. Adityanath is aware that the mandate in 2017 was ‘not his’ as it was Modi’s who was the campaign’s spearhead and earned votes for the BJP; he assured that a proxy would eventually be nominated. But the chief minister’s actions suggests that he wishes to be the central figure of the campaign. The BJP leadership has also pledged to enter the fray with Yogi as the chief ministerial candidate.
Adityanath does not have time in abundance to improve the image of his government vis-a-vis COVID-19 and economic hardships being faced by people. These issues could emerge as the most significant factors in moulding people’s electoral choice. As a result, it is likely that the chief minister will fall back on sharpening communal polarisation.
The UP Law Commission has pushed for certain key welfare schemes to families who have two or fewer children. Adityanath on June 20 lent his weight to the two-child norm policy that Sarma has proposed to roll out in Assam. He said that population growth is “the primary cause of poverty, illiteracy and leads to lack of proper family planning.”
For years, the Jansankhya Niyantran Adhiniyam (Popular Control Act) has been on the wish list of the Hindutva votaries because it enables propagation of the theory of the existence of an Islamist conspiracy to outnumber Hindus in “their own country.” Opposition to this proposal, by Muslims, opposition parties, and civil society will likely provide an opening to leaders like Adityanath, also Modi on most occasions, to ferment communal passions.
Ironically, this move may not be to the liking of Modi at this juncture when he has initiated a political process in Jammu and Kashmir, seemingly a result of expressions of global concerns. The prime minister has to factor international pressure due to the impending withdrawal of the United States from Afghanistan in September. He also cannot go overboard in attempts to curb freedom of expression and choke democratic principles.
In contrast, Adityanath has a narrower perspective and will not desist from moves that provide him with an opening to bring communal schism to the fore while simultaneously going against Modi. The Modi versus Yogi battle provides the opposition, principally the Samajwadi Party, fresh from victory in the first round of three-tiered panchayat polls, with an opportunity to defeat the upset Adityanath’s apple-cart.
But for this the party’s leader, Akhilesh Yadav, and his likely allies, have to provide an alternative vision for development and improving people’s lives from that of the BJP’s plank. The verdict of the joust year next, will also depend on the extent to which Modi decides to ‘own’ a campaign that will likely be contested with Adityanath as the electoral mascot.
(The writer is a NCR-based author and journalist. His books include The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right and Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times. He tweets at @NilanjanUdwin)
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