Rita Bahuguna Joshi, the former Uttar Pradesh Congress chief who after unsuccessfully contesting parliamentary elections twice managed to win only a MLA seat from Lucknow cantonment in the last assembly, sent shock waves in the Congress by joining the Bharatiya Janata Party as the state is gearing up for polls early next year. Rumours of her talks with the BJP leadership has been doing the rounds but her timing to finally leave the Congress comes close on the heels of Congress scion Rahul Gandhi’s plans to do a state-wide padyatra, his longest-ever political campaign in the state.
Although Congress leaders have said that her exit at this critical juncture will not harm the party’s prospects in the upcoming state polls, it certainly disadvantages the party against its national rival BJP psychologically, if not electorally. The party is at an all-time low standing in the state. Observers who follow state politics feel that Bahuguna’s defection at this juncture will be a cause of temporary embarrassment for the grand old party but nothing more as the party is struggling to retain even its select pockets of support in the state.
“She (Bahuguna) was the only active leader in UP Congress. But she had no impact on ground, just like her former party. Unless there is a significant change in party’s top leadership, defections like Bahuguna’s will keep happening but will not be able to further damage the already abysmal situation the party is in currently,” said Lucknow-based political commentator Sudhir Panwar.
The more important question, however, is whether her defection will benefit the BJP, which seems to be on the rise especially after it has been piggybacking on the army’s recent surgical strikes on ‘terror launch pads’ along the LoC and working military imagery to its political advantage. Political observers believe that in the run-up to polls across the country, BJP, apart from running a Hindutva campaign, has come to rely on swinging public opinion by poaching important leaders from its opposition and time it well too.
“Soon after Mayawati announced her party’s plan to do a series of public meeting across the state, it (BJP) inducted Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) heavyweight Swami Prasad Maurya into the party. And now Bahuguna, too, has defected at a time when the Congress plans to launch its campaign. This helps the BJP to shift the political discourse and take the attention away from its opposition,” said Panwar.
However, the difference between Maurya and Bahuguna is that the latter does not carry any political weight in state politics. Although Bahuguna has served in party’s top posts, she has hardly any mass support.
“Apart from adding to BJP’s publicity campaign, Bahuguna’s exit may not make any substantive political gain. Barring a few areas in the Awadh region and pockets in Allahabad, she has no personal following. She is not even seen as a significant Brahmin leader,” said Venkitesh Ramakrishnan, senior associate editor of Frontline who has been covering UP for the last three decades.
However, with defection of Bahuguna, a Brahmin political face, the BJP has clearly signalled to the Congress that it is not going to take the latter’s electoral plank of a Brahmin-Muslim alliance lying down. In a surprise move, the Congress had stormed into the UP electoral scenario by declaring Sheila Dikshit, former Delhi chief minister and a Brahmin, as the chief ministerial candidate. Its strategy was clearly to draw Brahmins, a significant 12 per cent of UP’s population, into its fold and tactically appeal to Muslims, who form 19 per cent of the state’s population. Although Bahuguna is not a significant Brahmin leader, the BJP is clearly looking to break the Congress’ plank and send out a confrontational political message in the process.
Although the message is only driven by the party’s aggressive PR-driven canvassing and works only at a cosmetic level, tactics such as these often have the potential to energise party workers ahead of the elections. This may impact its campaign significantly. “If the ground-level activists of a party hear that top leaders of opposition are joining the BJP, they feel excited. The BJP activists in the state are tremendously enthusiastic about Bahuguna and Maurya joining their ranks,” said a Lucknow-based political observer, who declined to be named.
At a time, when the BJP is shifting gears towards a Hindutva campaign by leaving aside its efforts to forge a non-Yadav, non Jatav OBC-Dalit alliance, which has largely been unsuccessful because of the negative projection it has had especially among Dalits after Rohith Vemula’s suicide in Central University of Hyderabad, Una’s Dalit movement and BJP leader Dayashankar Singh’s derogatory remarks against BSP supremo Mayawati, such minor tactical interventions in state politics may only be advantageous for the saffron party.
The biggest victim
For the Congress, however, it is definitely a psychological blow, if not more than that. However, the biggest loser in this game of political soccer could be Bahuguna herself.
Despite her electoral non-performance in previous elections, she remained one of the top UP Congress leaders, more so because of the lack of any other credible leader in the party.
Her only achievement in her long political career, apart from winning her seat in the assembly election by a slender margin, is her stint as a mayor of Allahabad from 1995-2000. Congress allowed her to occupy important posts within the party and be its face in front of the media. Daughter of former chief minister of the undivided UP and one of the Congress top leaders in the seventies Hemvati Nandan Bahuguna, she exploited her political legacy within the party and outside of it.
As a result, she had gained a little credibility in UP, mostly because of her aggression against the Sangh parivar and secular standpoints on a variety of issues. The critics of Sangh parivar saw her as one of the important leaders in UP. However, her decision to join the BJP when the union culture ministry has just announced the decision to construct a Rs 225 crore Ram museum in an alleged attempt to polarise the election on religious lines, she stands the risk of losing that limited voice in state politics.
While joining the saffron party, she attributed Congress party’s failure to Rahul Gandhi and his remarks against prime minister Narendra Modi on the issue of ‘surgical strikes’. However, she conveniently excused herself from making innumerable scathing remarks against BJP previously. Therefore, political observers speculated that she must have been upset with the party for choosing Sheila Dikshit instead of her to steer the ‘Brahmin-Muslim’ campaign in the state. As BJP is gaining ground in UP, joining the party made tactical sense.
Although the BJP might give her an election ticket in the next polls, it seems unlikely she will be of any further importance to the party, given her paltry political strength in UP. The party already has a lot of contenders for important posts and can object to any substantial elevation of Bahuguna, who has been their fierce rival until recently.
Her political future could have been in Uttarakhand from where she actually belongs. Her father’s legacy, too has greater political traction in the neighbouring state than in UP. However, Bahuguna’s brother Vijay Bahuguna is already a top contender for BJP leadership in the state and has served as the chief minister there. The Congress had forced him to resign after his government faced flak for poor handling of Uttarakhand floods in 2013, following which he joined the BJP along with 8 rebel legislators earlier this year. The BJP will only be self-destructive if it chooses the brother, a mass leader, over the sister.
Rita Bahuguna Joshi untimely decision to quit the party may sound the death knell for her own political career. Not only has it damaged her limited credibility that she had achieved over the last few years, it has also exposed her ‘opportunism’, as many political commentators pointed out. It remains to be seen how far she can go with her new political avatar.