BJP under pressure with Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections on the horizon

Print edition : December 03, 2021

Union Home Minister Amit Shah receiving a memento from Chief Minister Adityanath at a BJP meeting in Varanasi on November 12. He exhorted party workers to leave no stone unturned to win the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections in 2022. Photo: PTI

Farmers burn an effigy with pictures of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Adityanath, some Ministers and businessmen during a protest against the farm laws, in Amritsar on October 16. The overall message from the results of the recent byelections is that an anti-BJP churning is taking place in northern and western India, where the farmers’ struggle has considerable impact. Photo: NARINDER NANU/AFP

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi. The opposition has been unable to present a concrete, coordinated and forceful thrust against the BJP governments. . Photo: PTI

Mayawati, Bahujan Samaj Party supremo. Photo: PTI

Akhilesh Yadav, Samajwadi Party president. Photo: PTI

Challenges posed by the farmers’ year-long agitation against the controversial farm laws, the impact of the Lakhimpur Kheri incident, the judiciary’s tough talk on this and other issues, spiralling prices and the latest Rafale revelations have forced the BJP to be on the defensive ahead of the Uttar Pradesh elections.

On November 12, Union Home Minister Amit Shah launched what could be termed as Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) concentrated campaign for the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections, which are due in early 2022. Shah held a series of election-related meetings late into the night in Varanasi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Lok Sabha constituency, before moving on to other eastern Uttar Pradesh districts of Azamgarh and Basti the next day. Azamgarh is the Lok Sabha constituency of Akhilesh Yadav, former Chief Minister and president of the Samajwadi Party (S.P.), the principal opposition to the BJP in Uttar Pradesh.

Amit Shah is often described, within the BJP and the larger Sangh Parivar led by the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), as the “ultimate Chanakya” of electoral strategies. Even as the visit was under way, an interpretation based on this “Chanakya” narrative surfaced within Sangh Parivar circles. According to it, Shah had prepared for the crucial Uttar Pradesh elections relatively early and was hitting the ground running, especially in the context of the BJP’s stunning defeats in the West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Kerala Assembly elections held in March and April 2021. These defeats were particularly embarrassing for the “neo-Chanakya” as it had been predicted that the BJP would make significant gains in all three States and even storm to power in West Bengal.

A number of BJP and Sangh Parivar insiders told Frontline that Shah and his team of election strategists had learned from their mistakes and overconfidence they displayed during the March-April 2021 elections and that the Uttar Pradesh electoral battle would hence be fought with meticulous planning. “As part of this, the top leadership would directly interact with the grass-roots cadre on a regular basis and enthuse them,” they said in unison.

The nature of Shah’s November 12-13 meetings in Varanasi underscored their observation. Apart from all the top State leaders, including Chief Minister Adityanath, Deputy Chief Ministers Keshav Prasad Maurya and Dinesh Sharma, BJP national vice president Radha Mohan Singh, Union Minister Dharmendra Pradhan, who is also the State election in-charge, 98 district-level leaders, regional unit presidents and ground-level leaders in charge of all the 403 Assembly constituencies in the State attended the meetings.

The publicity blitzkrieg surrounding the two-day visit emphasised the significance of the “Shah expedition”. The BJP’s hoardings and other campaign material virtually submerged Varanasi, Azamgarh and Basti. According to informal estimates, there were at least 10,000 hoardings of Shah across the three districts.

Foundation for Parliament elections

Reportedly, Shah’s exhortations to party workers in Varanasi were on predictable lines, with one point of emphasis. As recounted by one of the participants at the closed-door meetings, the broad thrust of his speech was as follows: “We have to win the 2024 Lok Sabha elections under Modiji’s leadership, and the foundation for it will have to be laid by scoring a thumping win in the 2022 Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections. As we all know, the country can progress only with Modi as Prime Minister and Adityanathji as Chief Minister. We will leave no stone unturned to achieve this. We will do whatever it takes to return in triumph with a higher number of seats.”

He went on to say that even if the opposition, the S.P., the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Congress, formed a grand alliance, it would be unable to defeat the BJP. Shah apparently praised the Adityanath government’s record on the law and order front, actions against the mafia, and management of health services during the pandemic. However, cautioning against complacency, he said: “Our organisational and political machinery have to function like clockwork. Above all, party workers must serve as a bridge of faith for the common man, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi stressed at the party’s National Executive meeting held recently in Delhi. Service, resolve and dedication should be our motto.”

Many senior BJP-Sangh Parivar activists present at the meeting told Frontline that the “pep talk had all the ingredients of a normal Shah exhortation”, but they were still not sure how far this would get translated into popular support on the ground and how effectively the “people-connect” plans would be implemented. Almost all of them stated that there were both external and internal issues that would make it difficult for them to respond positively to Shah’s call.

External and internal issues

Said a senior Lucknow-based RSS activist: “The external problems are manifold. They range from the challenges thrown up by the farmers’ year-long agitation against the controversial farm laws, the impact of the related Lakhimpur Kheri incident in which a Union Minister’s son allegedly mowed down a few agitating farmers, the judiciary’s tough talk on this incident, to the latest Rafale deal revelations.”

According to this leader, the judiciary’s recent pronouncements are significant. A Supreme Court bench had taken to task both the State government and its police on the Lakhimpur Kheri issue. Before that, in late October, it made scathing comments against the Union government in the Pegasus spyware matter, questioning the very manner in which it had dealt with the revelations.

He said: “It is as though there is something constantly, almost on a day-to-day basis, erupting in institutions at the national and international level, against Modi, putting both the party and its governments at the Centre and in Uttar Pradesh on the back foot. The negative impact of these developments has got exacerbated on account of the crushing price rise of essential commodities as a result of the steady spiralling of the prices of diesel and petrol. The internal issues are seemingly less serious, as they involve the personality and organisational tussles between Modi and Adityanath, and a truce of sorts has been called between them by the RSS top brass. Still, references to the ‘cold war’ between the ‘Big Two’ come up in organisational gatherings from time to time, and this, too, affects the cadre’s morale.”

The RSS leader’s remarks were straightforward. He said: “Among the five States that will go to polls in early 2022, the farmers’ agitation, and the subsequent split of the Shiromani Akali Dal [SAD] from the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance [NDA] has practically sounded the death knell for the party in Punjab. And the going is not all that smooth in Uttarakhand and Goa. Under normal circumstances, Uttar Pradesh should have been a cakewalk, but a series of developments is steadily casting doubts on that certainty.”

The senior leader cited some recent developments that have been embarrassing the BJP and its governments at the Centre and in the States. “Indeed, the time-tested Hindutva communal polarisation card can be still played, but the modus operandi would have to be planned carefully this time, because people in general are desperate and incensed on account of the spiralling prices, and this works against the promotion of communal polarisation,” he said.

Opposition in disarray

However, he and his Sangh Parivar colleagues are of the opinion that one of the greatest plus points the BJP has, even in what could be objectively termed as its worst phase in the last seven years, is the inability of the opposition parties to capitalise on this situation. They are of the view that neither the principal opposition, the Congress, nor others, including the Trinamool Congress, which handsomely retained West Bengal in the March-April 2021 elections, have been able to present a concrete, coordinated and forceful thrust against the government. “Indeed, the opposition parties are making some gains in a handful of regional elections, including the byelections to State Assemblies and the Lok Sabha, and in local bodies in different States. But cumulatively, they do not add up to an effective national-level alternative. And indeed, at the personality level, there is no one on the other side that can match Prime Minister Modi’s stature and manoeuvring capabilities.”

Despite this obvious advantage, this group of Sangh Parivar activists believe that the recent setbacks to the BJP are too significant to be brushed aside.

Fallout of the Lakhimpur Kheri violence

One of the developments cited by the Sangh Parivar activists was the forensic lab’s report on the October 3 violence at Lakhimpur Kheri, which resulted in the death of eight people, including four farmers agitating against the controversial farm laws. Ashish Mishra, Union Minister Ajay Mishra’s son, and his associates were accused of running over four farmers with his SUV. Others killed in the violence were BJP workers Shubham Mishra and Shyam Sunder Nishad, Hari Om Mishra, the driver of a car in Ajay Mishra’s convoy, and journalist Raman Kashyap.

The forensic report, which came out barely three days before Shah’s election campaign entry in Varanasi, revealed, in unmistakable terms, that shots were fired from the guns of Union Minister Ajay Mishra’s son Ashish and his friend Ankit Das.

Both Ashish and Ankit Das, who had been arrested in connection with the violence, had denied having fired from their licenced firearms. However, according to the forensic report, shots were fired from Ashish’s rifle and Ankit’s pistol. Said the Lucknow-based leader: “This has become such a big embarrassment for the BJP and the Adityanath government, and the revelation is inviting widespread condemnation of the Union Minister and the BJP. Not only are opposition parties and social activists criticising us, but even BJP Lok Sabha members such as Varun Gandhi have joined them. The manner in which Varun Gandhi has openly stated that the Prime Minister is protecting the accused in the Lakhimpur Kheri case is drawing support from large sections of society. In turn, this too is impeding our public outreach initiatives.”

At a different level, the forensic report led to the transfer of Vijay Dhull, the Superintendent of Police of Lakhimpur Kheri, some 40 days after the incident. Dhull was attached with the Uttar Pradesh State police headquarters in Lucknow and was kept on waiting list, indicating that there was an element of punishment in the process. This action at the bureaucratic level has only added to the political leadership’s embarrassment. The Adityanath government, on its part, has been trying to send reassuring messages to farmers protesting against the farm laws, especially in and around Lakhimpur Kheri.

In the immediate aftermath of the October 3 violence, the police, under Dhull’s leadership, registered two first information reports (FIRs). One of the FIRs was lodged by the farmers against Ashish, Ankit and some others, while another was lodged by a BJP worker against unidentified persons. Ashish and his father, Ajay Mishra, had claimed that the former was not present in any of the vehicles, one of which ran over the crowd of farmers, killing four of them. The farmers, on the other hand, claimed that the Minister's son was in one of the SUVs with a friend of his.

The killings triggered nationwide outrage, with farmer leaders and opposition parties demanding Ajay Mishra’s dismissal. But these demands have not had any effect on the Union government, and Ajay Mishra was seen sharing a stage with Amit Shah during a public meeting in the last week of October.

Supreme Court’s observations

Before the publication of the forensic lab report, the Supreme Court too tore into the Uttar Pradesh government’s handling of the case. The apex court stated on November 8 that the State government had not provided sufficient details in its status report on the police investigation into the Lakhimpur Kheri violence case. The court has repeatedly pulled up the police and the Adityanath government in relation to the case.

Justice Surya Kant, a member of the bench hearing the case, stated unequivocally that it was not confident of the State judicial committee’s overseeing of the case. He added that the court was inclined to appoint a former judge of a different High Court to monitor the case and that the judge could independently monitor the investigation until the charge sheets were filed. Chief Justice of India N.V. Ramana, too, remarked that there was nothing in the status report on the investigation except a statement that some more witnesses had been examined.

In a previous hearing, the court had asked the State government to identify more eyewitnesses and to provide them with protection. The court expressed surprise when Harish Salve, representing the Uttar Pradesh government, said that only 23 witnesses had been identified until then. Justice Hima Kohli questioned why the mobile phone of only one accused person, Ashish Mishra, had been seized. Justice Kant went on to add that “prima facie, it appears that one particular accused is seeking to be given benefit by overlapping two FIRs, you can appreciate very well the fate of the case”.

The November 8 hearing also witnessed a unique instance when the lawyer for Ruby Devi, the widow of BJP worker Shyam Sunder Nishad, who was killed in the violence, expressed a lack of confidence in the inquiry by the Uttar Pradesh government’s Special Investigation Team. There were claims at the hearing that the BJP worker was killed in police custody. Clearly, all new revelations in relation to the Lakhimpur Kheri violence are going against the BJP and its governments.

Rafale revelations

New revelations on others fronts, such as the Rafale fighter jet deal, are adding to the BJP leadership’s discomfiture. Central to these revelations is the French news portal Mediapart, which pointed out with documents that the Indian deal with the aircraft manufacturer Dassault Aviation involved “offshore companies, dubious contracts and false invoices”. It also pointed out that Dassault had paid 7.5 million euros in secret commissions to Sushen Gupta, a middleman and defence contractor, between 2007 and 2012 during the bidding process.

Interestingly, Gupta’s services continued even after the Modi government came to power in 2014. Mediapart asserted that Gupta had received kickbacks during the finalisation of the deal in 2015-16. More shockingly, Mediapart reporter Yann Philippin said that both the Central Bureau of Investigation and the Enforcement Directorate had proof of the secret payments to Gupta as early as October 2018, but they had not even taken cognisance of the matter (story on page 9).

Talking to Frontline, the political observer Ravinder Kumar pointed out that in any other country, revelations such as the ones on the Lakhimpur Kheri case and the Rafale deal would have resulted in a huge political upheaval, forcing the government or at least the Ministers concerned to resign. “But the level of hubris in the BJP leadership is such that they have decided to brazen these out, thumbing their nose at people at large. However, people are responding, albeit in fits and starts, as can be seen from the broad trends of the recent results of byelections held in different States.”

Drubbing in byelections

Kumar was obviously referring to the results of byelections to three Lok Sabha seats and 30 Assembly constituencies held on October 30. The results were a mixed bag, but they reflected the anti-BJP, anti-Central government sentiment that is building up in northern and western India. Of the three parliamentary constituencies, the BJP lost Mandi in Himachal Pradesh and the Dadra and Nagar Haveli seat in the west, while retaining Khandwa in Madhya Pradesh.

In the Assembly byelections, the Congress wrested seats from the BJP in Himachal Pradesh while retaining its seats in Rajasthan. However, the BJP retained its newfound sway in Assam, winning all the five seats there in contest along with its allies. The Trinamool Congress swept the elections in West Bengal with huge margins, while the BJP and its allies held on to the north-eastern States. The overall message from these byelections was clear about an anti-BJP churning in northern and western India, where the farmers’ struggle has considerable impact.

Searching for solutions

However, BJP leaders are by and large optimistic that some sort of solution can be found for the farmers’ agitation by the time the Assembly elections are held. They expect a solution once Amarinder Singh, former Congress Chief Minister of Punjab who resigned from the party recently, forms his own party. The plan apparently is to initiate negotiations with him, leading to a firm commitment from the Union government on incorporating minimum support price (MSP) as a requisite in farm laws. An assurance to put the controversial farm laws in abeyance until 2024 is also discussed as part of this package.

However, many BJP leaders across north India are sceptical about this so-called “package” coming to fruition. They believe that the leadership of the government and the party cannot do it since “collections” have already been received from crony capitalists who would benefit in a big way once the farm laws are implemented. Some others, however, argue that the “friendly” capitalists can be shown other ways to make up for the loss since winning the next round of Assembly elections are of paramount importance to the party.

Which direction will Modi and Shah take? There are no clear answers at the moment. But what is clear is that this government and its leadership, which has been facing corruption charges relating to some deals, including the Rafale deal, could go to any cynical length to overcome the big challenges before them.

BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra’s blatant communal targeting of the Congress leadership, particularly the Gandhi-Nehru family, branding them anti-Hindu, could well be an indicator of the cynical games to come in the near future. Patra chose to spew communal venom when Amit Shah was making forays into Varanasi.

Even as the sectarian plans of the BJP and its Sangh Parivar associates seem to be taking shape, the farmers’ agitation spearheaded by the Samyukt Kisan Morcha has called for massive mahapanchayats in all State capitals on November 26 to mark a year of the movement. The umbrella organisation of farmers is also in intense preparations for the “Lucknow Mahapanchayat” on November 22. This mahapanchayat in the capital of Uttar Pradesh is expected to witness a massive gathering of farmers, which would forcefully take forward the movements against the Union government and its political leadership.

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