Ajay Mishra, His Son and the First Signs of BJP's Pre-Poll Cabinet Reshuffle Gamble Failing

With the Union minister's son allegedly involved in the mowing down of protesting farmers, resulting in a situation that killed a total of eight people, the local strongman is in the eye of the storm.

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New Delhi: Union minister Ajay Mishra was inducted into Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s cabinet as the only Brahmin face from the poll-bound Uttar Pradesh in July’s cabinet reshuffle.

In total, seven from UP – six of them belonging to OBC and Dalit communities – were included into the Union cabinet as part of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s representational exercise. Most new faces did not have any extraordinary record in the parliament and were barely known outside their constituencies. Mishra’s inclusion, however, drew greater attention because he was appointed as none other than Union home minister Amit Shah’s deputy. 

His appointment gave Bharatiya Janata Party’s foot soldiers in Uttar Pradesh the confidence to tackle allegations of the party’s ‘anti-Brahmin’ bias. Over the last few years, chief minister Adityanath, who belongs to the Thakur community, has been at the receiving end of criticism from the influential Brahmins for allegedly denying them the privileges they enjoyed earlier. The inclusion of seven new ministers from Uttar Pradesh has signalled that the saffron party is attempting to consolidate the so-called ‘upper’ castes, non-Yadav OBCs and non-Jatav Dalit groups under its umbrella ahead of the 2022 assembly polls. 

Few months down the line, Mishra may prove to be the biggest thorn in the path of the BJP and chief minister Adityanath. He has come under the spotlight again after four protesting farmers were among eight persons killed after they were run over by a car which was allegedly part of his son Ashish’s convoy, leading to clashes. The incident took place in Lakhimpur Kheri, which Mishra represents. 

The Uttar Pradesh government has plunged into action, immediately announcing a compensation of Rs 45 lakh for the victims, even as it is at the centre of criticism from civil society and opposition forces alike. The UP police, too, has now registered cases against Ashish and several others in connection with the violence. 

Political observers believe that Mishra’s alleged connection to the killings may impact BJP’s poll prospects, and may prove to be the party’s undoing.

The situation in Tikunia in Uttar Pradesh Lakhimpur Kheri has turned tense after farmers were run over by a car. Photo: By arrangement.

Mishra’s appointment at the important Union home ministry was received with much scepticism as the Lakhimpur Kheri MP was primarily known as a strongman whose writ runs large in regions under his influence. Regional journalists say that he is involved with many agrarian businesses in Lakhimpur Kheri, most of which have been managed by his son since he became MP.

Fondly called ‘Teni’ by his supporters, he has also acquired the title of ‘Maharaj’ or ‘king’, over a period of time.

Mishra’s swift rise in BJP

Born to a farmers’ family, Mishra has had a relatively short but frenetic political career. Having practiced law before he plunged into politics, the 60-year-old started out as a district council member. According to the Hindi daily Navbharat Times, Mishra was accused in a murder case in 2000 but was absolved of all charges in 2004. He rose up the party ladder soon and got elected as an MLA from Nighasan in 2012. Within a span of four years, he landed the Lok Sabha ticket from Lakhimpur Kheri in 2014 for the first time. He won both the 2014 and 2019 parliamentary polls with huge margins, gaining the trust of BJP leadership that was looking for a presentable Brahmin face in UP. 

Over the last decade, he has increased his influence as a Brahmin leader. An amateur wrestler in his youth, Mishra used the skill to evolve into a strongman leader. In line with this image, he sponsors a wrestling competition annually in Lakhimpur Kheri.

In fact, on Sunday, October 3, farmers had gathered to protest against the deputy chief minister Keshav Prasad Maurya’s arrival at Lakhimpur Kheri. Maurya was supposed to attend Mishra’s wrestling tournament at his native village, Banbirpur. Sensing tension in the area, Maurya eventually did not arrive and that dampened the spirit of BJP workers.

In the chaos that followed, eight people were killed.  

Congress workers protest outside the 2nd Battalion PAC in Sitapur where Priyanka Gandhi Vadra is allegedly detained on her way to Lakhimpur Kheri. Photo: Ismat Ara/The Wire

Controversial comments

While the Sunday violence caught nationwide attention, several farmers believe that it was Mishra’s comments on the ongoing farmers’ movement that actually enraged the protesters. 

A few days before the incident, one of  Mishra’s speeches at a function went viral on social media. In the video, Mishra is seen threatening the protesting farmers. 

“All of you are also farmers, why don’t you participate in the movement? If I go there, they will not find a street to even flee through. Only 10-15 backstabbers are making noise here, which shows why the movement is not spreading across the country. Why did the movement not spread in the last 10-11 months? I only want to tell those people that it is time you better mend your ways…or else face me. I will mend your ways in only two minutes…I am not just a minister or an MP or an MLA. Those of you here will know that even before I became an MLA or minister, I never ran away from any challenge,” Mishra is heard saying at a function. 

Journalists who are on the ground say that Mishra’s speech instigated farmers to protest in front of Maurya. “It was only after his video went viral that the situation became tense in Lakhimpur Kheri. Since he is seen as a bahubali (strongman), the farmers perceived his comments as a threat. This is what led to widespread protests in the area,” said an Uttar Pradesh-based journalist, who requested not to be named.

Journalists working on the ground in Uttar Pradesh also say that with the growing influence of Mishra, his son Ashish has also emerged as a power centre in the region. Ashish has also been trying hard to secure a nomination to contest the upcoming assembly elections.

The Union minister’s speech and the fatal violence in its aftermath has drawn renewed focus to the farmers’ protest. Opposition parties’ claim that the Adityanath government has functioned in an authoritarian and high-handed way ever since it came to power has gained credence as well.

Since Monday morning, opposition parties have begun protests against the Lakhimpur Kheri killings across the state. The state government has reacted by imposing a curfew-like situation in many parts. In most sites of protest, internet has been shut down, as the Adityanath government scampered to control public anger against Mishra and his acolytes.