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Ahead of Polls, BJP Top Brass in Political Flux as Adityanath Loses Grip on UP

Despite the UP chief minister's mismanagement of the second wave of COVID-19, BJP's top leadership does not want to risk changing horses this close to elections.

With the state assembly elections barely nine months away and the tide of anger rising against the Uttar Pradesh government over its mishandling of the devastating second wave of COVID-19, yet another political crisis is brewing within the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) in UP centered around chief minister Yogi Adityanath, whose leadership and administrative abilities are being questioned.

Many believe that he is not the ideal choice to lead the BJP to victory in the upcoming state assembly polls and the demand for a change in the state leadership has heightened. Recently, the top brass of the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) held meetings in Lucknow and Delhi, following which Adityanath arrived in Delhi on a two-day visit to meet the Prime Minister, the home minister and the national president of the BJP for a ‘courtesy call’ and ‘to receive guidance’.

A day before Yogi Adityanath left for Delhi, senior Congress leader and former Union minister Jitin Prasada joined the BJP and was soon being projected as a prominent Brahmin face.

From a series of high-profile meetings, it can be concluded that the top leadership of the BJP and the RSS is concerned about Yogi Adityanath losing popularity among legislators and party workers and giving a cold shoulder to the party’s allies in the state. A.K. Sharma, a former bureaucrat from Gujarat who is understood to be the PM’s protégé and was inducted as Member of the Legislative Council (MLC) in UP hastily after his early resignation from service, was denied a ministerial berth in Yogi’s cabinet and, in fact, the chief minister even refused to meet him. It is alleged that the state is in the clutches of bureaucracy while public representatives have been pushed to the margins.

Meanwhile, as the world witnessed horrific images of dead bodies floating down the Ganga, pyres burning in crematoriums and countless shallow graves along the banks of the river exposed by rain, it became apparent that the UP CM had failed miserably in managing the second wave of COVID-19. As the shortage of oxygen, hospital beds and medicines was reported, and the death toll mounted, the MLAs, MPs and ministers kept urging the chief minister to take swift action.

A man walks past burning pyres with people who died from the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), on the banks of the river Ganges at Garhmukteshwar in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, India, May 6, 2021. Photo: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui

The panchayat elections held amid the second wave of the coronavirus proved equally disastrous for the BJP as it suffered a crushing defeat while the Samajwadi Party unexpectedly turned victorious despite its half-hearted poll preparation. The BJP faced a heavy drubbing in the district panchayat polls, more tellingly in its strongholds like Lucknow, Ayodhya and Varanasi.

Also read: As Defiance Erupts Across States, BJP’s CEO-Style Party Command Is Floundering

However, Yogi Adityanath has remained indifferent to criticism whether in the media or within the party. He began a tour of the state and soon the state government’s PR machinery swung into action. It was claimed that the second wave was brought under control with the chief minister’s policies and active measures. Advertisements, interviews and ‘sponsored news’ in the media proclaimed that all was well in UP and the BJP government, under the leadership of Yogi, had achieved extraordinary feats. But despite such propaganda, there are widespread speculations around major rejigs impending within the BJP as well as the state government.

With such a political churning within the BJP and the RSS, one may wonder what made the right-wing brigade discover that winning the battle of UP is not as safe a bet as assumed. Until the results of elections in West Bengal were announced, Yogi Adityanath was one of the most popular star campaigners of the BJP. He addressed meetings in non-Hindi states like Tripura, Kerala and Telangana, where he would deliver speeches in Hindi. He was portrayed as an extremely popular figure even outside UP and as someone whose public addresses were influential.

Adityanath also addressed a number of rallies during the Bengal assembly elections. But the disappointing performance of the BJP in the polls in addition to the widespread destruction caused by the second wave of COVID-19 has changed everything. Speculations are now rife whether Yogi Adityanath, who has so far been counted as a likely future contender for the prime ministerial post, will be able to defend his stronghold in the elections slated for March 2022.

The drubbing in Bengal has dealt a chastening blow to the BJP, shaking its confidence. And so, the BJP is treading carefully before UP goes to polls. As a result, its election preparations are in full swing even though the state is still reeling under the destruction caused by the second wave of COVID-19. The BJP is well aware of the fierce competition before it in the state assembly polls. The party lost Jharkhand and even though it managed to forge an alliance with the Janata Dal (United) in Bihar after a close contest, the rift between the BJP and the JD(U) is growing. In Haryana as well, the BJP had to form a coalition government though it did manage to make a comeback in Assam.

Failure to tackle the second COVID-19 wave

The UP government has miserably failed to contain the second wave of COVID-19 even though it is touting its success in handling the crisis. The Yogi government neither had the foresight nor was it prepared to deal with the second wave. Even the COVID-19 hospitals built during the first wave had been shut down. There was no arrangement for hospital beds, oxygen supply, medicines, ventilators, doctors and paramedical staff. Thus, when the second wave struck, the whole system collapsed. From villages to cities, no place remained untouched by the devastating impact of COVID-19. Private hospitals were charged with treating COVID-19 patients where not only did people not get proper treatment but were even exploited.

Family members and relatives are seen around the burning pyres of victims who lost their lives due to the Covid-19 coronavirus at Daraganj Ghat near Sangam, the confluence of rivers Ganges, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati, in Prayagraj, Wednesday, April 28, 2021. Photo: PTI

Meanwhile, instead of taking effective measures, the state government was busy conducting panchayat polls in April which in fact turned out to be a super spreader event. More than three thousand government employees on poll duty died of COVID-19 infection. But the government spent all its energy in hiding those deaths. Clicking photographs of burning pyres in crematoriums was declared a punishable offence, while the riverbank burial of thousands of bodies was portrayed as a ‘long-standing tradition’.

Also read: Why Is BJP Making it Seem Like Jitin Prasada’s Entry Is Such a Big Deal?

The drubbing in Panchayat elections

It seems that the BJP is yet to come to terms with its defeat in UP’s panchayat elections. The party had inducted former agriculture minister Radha Mohan Singh as UP in-charge as soon as the Bihar assembly polls were over. Under his leadership, a strategy was devised for every district in the Panchayat elections – that the BJP would not give tickets to family members of ministers but would instead field its hardworking workers.

Though the idea might seem feasible from the organizational point of view, it left several legislators and influential leaders of the party’s state unit miffed, who, in turn, took no interest in poll preparation and left the candidates on their own. For this reason, perhaps, the BJP failed to bag even a single seat in many districts thereby stifling any hope of capturing the district panchayats.

Losing the grip on OBCs and SCs

According to reports from internal sources, the BJP and the RSS have realised that UP cannot be won solely by driving the Hindutva agenda. The support of Other Backward Castes (OBCs) and Scheduled Castes (SCs) is still as indispensable as it was in the run-up to the 2017 assembly and 2019 Lok Sabha polls. With the appointment of Yogi as the chief minister, the backward castes and Dalit community have been feeling neglected as they believe that they helped the BJP rise to power and yet were not granted proper representation in the government or the party.

Om Prakash Rajbhar’s Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party parted ways from the government. Apna Dal’s Anupriya Patel expected a cabinet berth at the Centre but her party was ignored in the state as well. The Nishad Party, which had joined hands with the BJP for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, also complained that it had no share in representation in the government and that the BJP was not fulfilling its promise to the Nishad community. The increasing proximity of many of these parties to the Samajwadi Party has fueled speculations in the political corridors of UP.

Yogi Adityanath leaves after meeting with Home Minister Amit Shah, in New Delhi, Thursday, June 10, 2021. Photo: PTI/Ravi Choudhary

The BJP’s leadership, meanwhile, has taken upon itself to mend ties with regional parties once again. Before Yogi Adityanath landed in Delhi, home minister Amit Shah held a meeting with Nishad Party President Dr Sanjay Nishad and his son, also an MP. Shah also met Apna Dal President, Anupriya Patel.

It is believed that chief minister Yogi has snubbed regional political forces as he is confident that his persona of a fanatical Hindutva leader will suffice for the BJP to come to power in UP again. Thus, he has paid little heed to Dalit organisations and other backward caste leaders.

Also read: Will RSS Be Able to Defuse Brewing Modi vs Yogi Tensions in Uttar Pradesh?

It was, after all, Yogi Adityanath who had vehemently opposed the induction of Babu Singh Kushwaha in the BJP, after he defected from the BSP. Yogi was also at loggerheads with the Nishad Party, which was fast emerging as a regional political force in his own stronghold. The discord finally brought about the BJP’s defeat in the 2018 by-election to the Lok Sabha seat of Gorakhpur. A year later, the BJP leadership accepted the Nishad Party’s clout and tried to woo it.

Discontent within the party over bureaucratic interference

Yogi Adityanath’s government is often accused of being dictated by bureaucracy bringing about a schism between the government and the organisation. As a result, discontent within the party ranks is on the rise which spilled out in the state assembly in November 2019 when more than 200 MLAs sat on a dharna against their own government.

In a state working committee meeting in Lucknow attended by the Union defense minister Rajnath Singh and chief minister Yogi Adityanath in March this year, Ram Iqbal Singh, former MLA of Ballia district raised the issue of farmers and directed serious questions towards the government. In his address, he went on to allege that police stations and district offices have become hotbeds of corruption. Though he was signaled to refrain from making such remarks, he went on with his speech which was welcomed by the MLAs and party workers with cheers and applause.

The level of bureaucratic superciliousness is such that the officers do not even attend the calls of MPs and MLAs, let alone heed them. Recently, Sitapur BJP MLA Rakesh Rathore was heard in leaked phone conversations lamenting how power has been concentrated in the hands of a few – a pain shared by several of his counterparts.

Farmers’ movement poses a threat

The high command of the BJP and the RSS is also perturbed about the impact of the farmers’ movement on the upcoming assembly polls in UP. The state government’s attempt to arrest Rakesh Tikait in fact breathed new life into the farmers’ movement and bolstered it. While the incident created a stir in western Uttar Pradesh, Tikait emerged as the national leader of the movement.

The rift between the Jat and the Muslim communities of Muzaffarnagar after the 2013 communal violence has also died down as they have united on a single platform. Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) also renewed strength from the farmer movement and started making efforts to regain its foothold. Large-scale panchayat rallies, massive protests by BJP leaders and the outcome of district panchayat elections in western Uttar Pradesh – all point to the fact that repeating the 2014, 2017 and 2019 assembly and Lok Sabha poll victory will be a herculean task for the BJP.

Also read: Party Strengths, Possible Alliances: What’s in Store for the 2022 UP Elections?

By the time the second wave of COVID-19 hit, the farmers’ movement had spread well into eastern Uttar Pradesh. A large number of farmers gathered in the meetings addressed by Naresh Tikait and Rakesh Tikait in Barabanki, Munderwa in Basti and Maniyar in Ballia. Following these meetings, various farmer organisations in eastern Uttar Pradesh became active and began coordinating with each other. The second wave of COVID-19 may have stalled their efforts for now but the farmers’ movement is likely to intensify once the situation returns to normal.

Growing discontent among teachers, government employees and the youth

Besides farmers, teachers and other government employees are also miffed with the state government over various demands. The youth, on the other hand, are upset over the rising unemployment in the state. This anger among the public has been manifested in various protests and agitations time and again. For instance, protesters took to the streets in Allahabad against irregularities in recruitment examinations, stalled exam results, and reservation scams.

Allahabad has been at the heart of the movement against unemployment and the youth successfully managed to bring the issue to the fore in the political rhetoric in UP. In recent times, many organizations have taken to social media to raise the issue of unemployment among the youth and have received significant support. The call to celebrate the chief minister’s birthday as ‘Berozgar Diwas‘ (Unemployment Day) was one of social media’s top trends recently.

Bodies of the deceased buried in the sand near the banks of Ganga river, allegedly due to shortage of wood for cremation, during the second wave of coronavirus, at Shringverpur Ghat in Prayagraj, Saturday, May 15, 2021. Photo: PTI

There is also resentment among teachers and other government staff after a large number of such employees who were pressed into poll duty during the Panchayat elections fell victim to COVID-19. Teachers and employee unions had already been agitating against the new pension system. The recent Uttar Pradesh Education Service Tribunal Bill and its implementation has further fueled their anger.

Teachers’ unions have threatened to launch a movement on the lines of the ongoing farmer’s movement. Teaching as well as non-teaching staff have accused the Yogi government of ignoring their demands made over the last four years. To suppress the voice of teachers and non-teaching staff, the state government has imposed Essential Services Management Act (ESMA) consecutively on the past three protests. Hence, the unions are gearing for a decisive fight.

Contractual staff – Shiksha Mitras, Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHA), Auxiliary Nurse Midwife (ANM), Anganwadi Instructors, and Madrasa teachers – are also pressing the government to meet their demands. With the assembly elections in the offing, it seems difficult for the government to fulfill each of their demands, which in turn may negatively impact the poll outcome.

Also read: As COVID-19 Spreads to Rural Areas of UP, Is Yogi in Denial Mode Again?

Yogi may remain in charge but the Centre is in control

The BJP and the RSS must have weighed all the options and are looking to chart out the next course of action which resulted in the recent political turmoil. The top leadership of BJP and the RSS currently does not want to take the risk of changing horses in UP, firstly because it does not have a replacement for Yogi and, secondly because it is too late now. Additionally, Yogi Adityanath is not a Trivendra Singh Rawat or a Sarvadanand Sonowal. Even if he does not rebel the way he has done in the past, removing Adityanath eight months before elections can severely harm the BJP.

Therefore, at present, the only likely solution is the appeasement of disgruntled BJP leaders and allies by handing them portfolios at the Centre and in the state. After roping in leaders like Jitin Prasada into the BJP, ministerial berths will likely be handed to them to underline the affinity of the BJP towards the Brahmins. Moreover, it has likely been decided that Yogi Adityanath may continue being the chief ministerial face in the UP elections but he will not have a free rein. Amit Shah will be in control of the electoral process.

The neutralisation of the Hindu Yuva Vahini and Yogi’s reliance on the BJP

Yogi Adityanath has a political career spanning over 23 years. He has been the MP from the Gorakhpur Lok Sabha constituency five times since 1998. Interestingly, however, the firebrand Hindutva leader found no place in the cabinet nor a position in the party despite a BJP government at the Centre as well as in UP. In 2000, Yogi floated the Hindu Yuva Vahini (HYV) and used it as a ladder to climb to the top. When the BJP did not listen to his demands, he fielded a candidate on the HYV ticket.

After nearly ten years of friction, the BJP finally caved in and candidates picked by Yogi Adityanath were fielded in Gorakhpur and its adjoining districts. After he gained popularity in the BJP, he sacrificed the HYV in exchange for his ambitions and the chief minister’s post was handed to him in the 2017 elections. As a result, his HYV aides rebelled and parted ways. After Yogi’s appointment as the chief minister, all the HYV leaders have either conformed to the BJP or have changed paths but most of its members have been rendered inactive.

Also read: UP Panchayat Polls Give BJP Yet Another Jolt, But Party Proclaims Victory Anyway

Yogi’s tenure as chief minister has been the longest for any BJP chief minister in UP. It was an opportunity for him to gain popularity and strengthen his hold within the BJP. He had the chance to grow his clout across Bundelkhand and western Uttar Pradesh, besides the eastern parts of the state but apparently, he missed it. The top leadership of the BJP intentionally kept him away from organisational responsibilities and Yogi too did not take much interest in cementing his position. All his attention remained focused on eastern Uttar Pradesh, particularly Gorakhpur, where he would land almost every fortnight.

Throughout his tenure as chief minister, Yogi has remained completely dependent on a handful of bureaucrats who have also managed the media for him. They may have earned him headlines in the media but left his colleagues, party workers, and voters disillusioned. Eyeing their own prospects, the bureaucrats kept the ground reality hidden away and Yogi Adityanath repressed criticism from all quarters. For this reason, not only did he lose credibility in the eyes of the public but has also lost support in the party and the government. The ‘undoing’ of the HYV has made him ‘dependent’ on the BJP.

Whether the poll results are in favor of the BJP or against it, Yogi’s political life is bound to change course. Modi and Shah are well aware of Yogi’s political ambitions, and this is why, rumours of an impending change in leadership in UP were fueled on the pretext of preparations for the upcoming assembly elections. This episode has delivered a tremendous blow to Yogi’s ‘rebellious and hard-line’ persona, and perhaps made him realise that Delhi is still a distant dream.

Translated from Hindi by Naushin Rehman