Brij Bhushan Singh, strongman from UP badlands even Modi dares not upset
The Balasore train tragedy has given the Narendra Modi government some respite from the daily embarrassment it was struggling to brazen out over the wrestlers’ protest. However, once normalcy begins to return at the site of the triple train crash in Odisha, the protest by the women wrestling champions, led by Sakshi Malik and Vinesh Phogat, is certain to recapture national imagination.
When the wrestlers resume their protest, questions are bound to be asked afresh about India’s proudly eloquent and image-conscious Prime Minister’s appalling silence, as these victims of alleged sexual harassment continue to brave an oppressive crackdown for demanding penal and administrative action against Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) chief Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh.
Centre’s baffling silence
Brij Bhushan, a mafia don-turned-politician and BJP MP from Uttar Pradesh’s Kaiserganj, has been accused of sexual misdemeanour by seven women wrestlers, one of them a minor. However, despite widespread calls for urgent action against Singh — primarily, his sacking as the WFI chief and arrest under relevant provisions of the IPC and the POCSO (Protection of Children Against Sexual Offences) Act — the PM and his government, through their inaction, have chosen to defend the tainted six-term MP even after the Supreme Court nudged the Delhi Police into filing an FIR against him.
The Centre’s inaction raises a plethora of questions. Are Modi and his second-in-command, Union Home Minister Amit Shah, oblivious to the damage this raging controversy is causing to the BJP’s popular image a year before the 2024 Lok Sabha polls? Or does the Modi-Shah duo consider the charges against Singh too trivial to warrant action and attention? Are vote-bank considerations trumping “women’s honour” under a regime that prides itself as the prime sentinel of “Beti Bachao”? If Hinduism, in the BJP’s worldview, is simply Hindutva by another name, doesn’t this support for an alleged molester stand in sharp contrast to the fundamentals of a faith the ruling party blatantly exploits to win elections?
With questions piling up and no answers forthcoming, speculations over why Singh continues to enjoy such immunity have tended to rely on the political and financial muscle he has accumulated in his public life. That these rumours are easily believable is, perhaps, on account of the chequered but immensely successful and equally controversial life the 66-year-old Thakur, born in eastern UP’s Gonda and educated in Ayodhya, has led.
Starting with student politics
The unparalleled political clout Brij Bhushan wields in and around eastern UP’s Gonda district comes, in large measure, from the muscle power he has increasingly accumulated since entering public life in the 1980s.
Like many UP politicians, Brij Bhushan began his career as a student union leader at the KS Saket PG College in Ayodhya. He won his first election as the general secretary of the students’ union in 1981. Though his abiding ambition of building Ayodhya as his electoral constituency never materialized, he has continued to build his base there, including among the district’s countless priests and mahants.
In the badlands of poverty-ridden Purvanchal, Singh built a life in which crime and politics were inseparably intertwined. As the geographical limits of his political outreach expanded across Gonda, Bahraich, Shravasti, Balrampur, and Ayodhya, so did his financial muscle. Irrespective of which political party ruled the state, lucrative irrigation department contracts continued to come to Singh easily, bloating his coffers. Supply of boulders to combat floods has been a goldmine for irrigation contractors in UP, and so was it for Singh.
From transport to education
Over the years, Brij Bhushan diversified his business interests, quickly and successfully. He tapped into UP’s lucrative passenger transport business and, in no time, came to dominate it. As the story goes, UP Road Transport Corporation would pull out its buses from routes on which Singh’s buses plied.
Next up was the education sector. “Singh may have begun from a school in Nandini Nagar, but today, he owns some 55 educational institutions, including schools, colleges, and technical education colleges,” said Suman Gupta, the editor of Faizabad’s 65-year-old Hindi daily, Jan Morcha.
According to a former IAS officer, who once headed the state’s basic and secondary education department, Singh enjoyed the special privilege of having his schools and colleges listed as examination centres for high school and intermediate examinations. “Some of these were notorious for running organised rackets to facilitate the use of unfair means in board examinations — a massive source of underhand money for such institutions,” the officer added.
A Ram Janmabhoomi “hero”
However, Singh’s initial success in student politics did not immediately translate into wider electoral acclaim. Singh unsuccessfully contested a local election to enter a sugarcane cooperative in 1989 and, soon after, made another failed bid to enter the Upper House of UP’s legislature by contesting the MLC election on a BJP ticket.
This was the time the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid controversy was gathering steam. Singh, with no dearth of political ambitions, saw a convenient plank to give momentum to his aspirations. He ensured a slot for himself in the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, thanks to his arrest during the Mulayam Singh Yadav regime in 1990. His political machinations yielded dividends and the BJP decided to field him in the 1991 Lok Sabha election from Gonda. Singh won with a huge margin, defeating long-time Congress winner Anand Singh, ruler of the erstwhile princely state of Mankapur.
Though Singh’s maiden Lok Sabha victory may not be attributable entirely to his personal clout, given that the Congress’s electoral decline in UP had already begun in 1989 and Mulayam Singh Yadav’s decision to order firing on Hindu ‘karsevaks’, who had stormed the Babri Masjid twice in October-November 1990, had whipped up public sentiment in the BJP’s favour. Yet, Singh’s political savvy enabled him to own the victory, delineating it from the Congress’s decline and the popular voter sentiment that had already turned towards the BJP.
A year later, the first-time MP joined the league of “heroes” of the Ayodhya temple movement as he could boast about being arrested twice for the “cause of the Ram Mandir” — first in 1990 when the Babri Masjid was stormed and then, more importantly, in 1992 after the mosque’s demolition by BJP-backed Hindutva goons. Brij Bhushan’s name figured in the list of accused, alongside the leading lights of the calamitous Ram Mandir movement, such as LK Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi, and Uma Bharti.
A life of luxury
As his wealth and political clout continued to grow in tandem, Singh also acquired a taste for a life of luxury. He owns two private helicopters, a dozen pedigreed stallions, and as many high-end luxury vehicles, while his empire consists of massive houses, large landholdings, and diverse businesses.
What also speaks volumes about Singh’s political muscle in UP is the ease with which he subverts the state administration into serving his personal whims and fancies. Singh’s notorious life in crime got him embroiled as an accused in at least 38 cases of heinous crimes —he is even known to have obliquely admitted to committing a murder during a TV interview. While he was acquitted in some cases on predictable grounds of lack of evidence, the remaining cases were gradually closed.
Another prime example of Singh’s towering influence over the UP administration was how he managed to get a giant-sized bungalow allotted to the Superintendent of Police of Bahraich vacated so that he could buy the property at a throwaway price.
TADA case and beyond
For a man who came to be so closely identified with the Ram Mandir movement and the BJP in UP, it is ironic that the first major setback in his public life came when allegations of his involvement with Dawood Ibrahim came to light in 1993. Singh was booked under the now repealed Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA) and was incarcerated in Delhi’s Tihar Jail for nearly seven months.
Though he eventually got absolved of the charges due to insufficient evidence, the TADA case cost Singh a BJP ticket from Gonda in 1996, which he easily wangled for his wife, Ketki Singh, who emerged victorious. Singh returned to electoral politics in 1998 but lost the Gonda seat — his only Lok Sabha loss to date — to Kirti Vardhan Singh, son of the same Anand Singh who Brij Bhushan had defeated in his electoral debut back in 1991. A year later, in the 1999 Lok Sabha polls, Brij Bhushan wrested Gonda from Kirti Vardhan.
In the 2004 Lok Sabha polls, the BJP shifted Singh to Balrampur — a seat twice won in the past by none other than Atal Behari Vajpayee — and he won yet again, establishing firmly that his political writ wasn’t limited to Gonda. Singh’s first and, so far only, break from the BJP came in 2009 when, perhaps, anticipating voter sentiments against the saffron party, he switched to the Samajwadi Party and successfully contested the Lok Sabha polls from yet another seat — Kaiserganj. He returned to his parent political outfit in 2014 and has, since then, comfortably won the Kaiserganj seat twice.
Rivalry with Yogi Adityanath
Ayodhya-based journalist Om Prakash Singh, who has observed Singh from his student days at Saket College, says of the controversial Lok Sabha MP’s continuing winning streak: “A combination of muscle power and money power makes all the difference in the economically backward political badlands of Eastern UP… What always gives a huge electoral edge to people like Brij Bhushan is the logistics that come with contesting elections since political parties do not have to worry about finances or manpower.”
The formidable political clout and immense wealth that Singh has built over the years, perhaps, explain why Modi continues to turn a blind eye to the grave transgressions that the WFI chief stands accused of and the crisis of perception this inaction is causing for the BJP.
What has, however, been fascinatingly baffling is the safe distance that Singh’s fellow Thakur and UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath has kept from the raging wrestlers’ protests. Ordinarily, Yogi knows no restraint when his party, and particularly members of the Thakur community, come under attack from any quarter. Yogi’s silence has, thus, been construed not as tacit support for Singh but the opposite. Singh is known to have once famously undermined Yogi by asserting during an interview, “I do not need advice from Yogi ji; he takes advice from me.”
Is it now time for Yogi to respond to that slight? In UP’s power corridors, some believe the CM may even be looking at the entire controversy with a sense of quiet satisfaction. Both Singh and Yogi have long nursed a desire to move their electoral base to Ayodhya. The political import of winning a mandate from Lord Ram’s birthplace is obvious. Thus, a discredited Singh would be an advantage for Yogi, if and when the latter decides to contest an election from Ayodhya instead of his fief of Gorakhpur.
It is difficult to predict for how long Modi is willing to allow the wrestlers’ protest to pummel the image of his government. What is clear though is that even if Modi is compelled to act against Singh, even at this late hour to salvage his own reputation if not that of his government and the BJP’s, Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh is unlikely to just fall on the mat and accept whatever the police and courts have in store for him. With key democratic institutions right up to the grassroots level in his pocket, Singh remains confident of maintaining his political clout in perpetuity.
Wrestling has been Singh’s passion from his student days and he has considered the WFI chief’s post, which came his way a decade ago, his birth right. This, along with the strength of his political and financial muscle that seem to have even held Modi hostage, explains why Singh remains unfazed about the dangal to which he has now been challenged by Olympic medallist Sakshi Malik and the other women wrestlers allegedly wronged by him.
(The writer is a veteran journalist and political commentator based in Lucknow. He tweets at @sharatpradhan21)