The BJP’s leadership tussle centring around Uttar Pradesh intensified ahead of the 2022 Assembly election

Print edition : July 02, 2021

Chief Minister Adityanath watching Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s address to the nation, in Lucknow on June 7. Photo: PTI

At a busy market in Lucknow on June 9. By easing lockdown restrictions in all the districts, observers say, Adityanath is stating that the pandemic has been controlled not just in Varanasi, where Modi had deputed his confidant Arvind Kumar Sharma for emergency operations, but across the State. Photo: Bloomberg

The not-so-secret conflict between Narendra Modi and Adityanath in Uttar Pradesh intensifes ahead of the State Assembly election in 2022.

Radha Mohan Singh, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) Uttar Pradesh in-charge, expended considerable time and energy on two points in his interaction with the media in Lucknow on June 6—emphasising that there was no rift between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chief Minister Adityanath and asserting that there was no need for a Cabinet reshuffle in the State. In fact, his meeting with Governor Anandiben Patel earlier in the day at the Raj Bhavan in Lucknow had spurred animated discussions in the State’s political circles on both the points he made in the media interaction.

Central to these discussions was the plan to elevate Arvind Kumar Sharma, Member of the Legislative Council (MLC), as Deputy Chief Minister. A former Gujarat-cadre Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer, Arvind Kumar Sharma is considered to be a close confidant of Modi right from the time he became Chief Minister of Gujarat in 2001. The bureaucrat took voluntary retirement in January this year to join the BJP and was made an MLC in the same month.

It is no secret that Modi wanted Arvind Kumar Sharma to have a larger say in the Uttar Pradesh administration and that Adityanath was opposed to this plan. Sangh Parivar insiders admitted, rather openly, that Adityanath was furious about this. He did not even grant time for a meeting with this MLC who was being projected as a VIP by other Ministers, including the two Deputy Chief Ministers, Keshavprasad Maurya and Dinesh Sharma.

Also read: Nightmare of a second wave in Uttar Pradesh

Discussions on the Modi-Adityanath rift and a Cabinet reshuffle have been rife since the last week of May when top leaders of the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), including Modi, Home Minister Amit Shah, party president J.P. Nadda, Sunil Bansal, the party’s organisation secretary for Uttar Pradesh, and Dattatreya Hosabale, RSS’ sah-sarkaryavah (general secretary), met in Delhi against the background of widespread reports about the rampant mismanagement of the second wave of COVID by the Uttar Pradesh administration and its political leadership. There were even pointed references to the COVID mismanagement in Varanasi, the Prime Minister’s Lok Sabha constituency. This was followed by a series of confabulations, some of them initiated by Radha Mohan Singh himself, with Ministers, legislators and leaders in diverse organisational positions in the party and other Sangh Parivar outfits.

Modi’s man in Varanasi

Meanwhile, Modi deputed Arvind Kumar Sharma to Varanasi to oversee the COVID relief operations in his constituency. Spin doctors in the central BJP soon began floating stories about the former bureaucrat’s “miraculous management skills” in controlling the pandemic in a short time. So, the big question in Radha Mohan Singh’s media interaction was whether he had been able to overcome the Chief Minister’s opposition to Arvind Kumar Sharma’s entry into the Cabinet.

Also read: Fudging the death count in Varanasi

As it turned out, Radha Mohan Singh stated in clear terms that there was no Cabinet reshuffle on the cards. In effect, Adityanath’s adamance had prevailed over Modi’s preference.

Adityanath’s rebuff

Does negating the proposal for a Cabinet reshuffle mark the end of the perceived Modi-Adityanath tussle? Even as top RSS and BJP leaders kept repeating that all was well with the Uttar Pradesh government, there were signals to the contrary. Barely hours after Radha Mohan Singh’s media interaction on June 6, the Uttar Pradesh government released a poster on 46 projects associated with the “Namami Gange’ programme (to clean up and rejuvenate the Ganga). In a marked departure from the past, the pictures of Modi and Amit Shah were left out of the poster. In the past four years, there have been times when Amit Shah’s image has not figured in similar posters, but the omission of Modi’s picture was conspicuous because many projects in the ‘Namami Gange’ programme revolve around Varanasi.

The Chief Minister followed this up with an announcement easing lockdown restrictions in all the districts, asserting that the second wave of COVID had been controlled across the State. Only night curfews were now required, he said.

Also read: Setback for BJP in UP local body polls 2021

BJP and Sangh Parivar insiders see these moves as a clear sign of Adityanath trying to show that he has gained the upper hand in the political manoeuvres in the State BJP since the last week of May. Speaking to Frontline, a Lucknow-based senior RSS functionary said: “The signal from the ‘Namami Gange’ poster is that as a leader belonging to Uttar Pradesh, and that too as the head of a prominent religious math in eastern Uttar Pradesh, Adityanath has asserted that he has a bigger lien on the Ganga than Modi, who moved into Varanasi from Gujarat. And by easing COVID restrictions across the State, Adityanath is stating that the pandemic has been controlled not just in Varanasi, where Arvind Kumar Sharma was deputed for emergency operations, but across the State as a whole.”

Casteist tinge

In the State’s political circles, including the capital Lucknow, Adityanath’s home turf Gorakhpur, Prayagraj (Allahabad) in eastern Uttar Pradesh and Meerut in western Uttar Pradesh, discussions on the tussle are also marked by a casteist tinge. The gist of the discussions is that when all is said and done, Adityanath belongs to the upper caste Thakur community, which has traditionally asserted its authority over castes such as Teli-Ghanchi, oil pressers and retail traders, to which Modi reportedly belongs.

A political observer from western Uttar Pradesh who did not want to be named said: “As Leader of Opposition in Haryana, the legendary Jat leader Chaudhary Devi Lal once said that as someone belonging to a community of born leaders he could only order someone and could not take orders from anyone. His words implied that ‘when in government we order bureaucrats, fellow politicians and people at large and, while out of power and in opposition, we order the servants at home’. By all indications, Adityanath, as the Thakur head of a prominent Hindu math, belongs to the same category. He is not used to taking orders.”

RSS unhappy with Modi and Adityanath

A series of RSS-led deliberations in May had pointed out that the Sangh Parivar’s ideological and organisational fountainhead was not happy with both Adityanath’s and Modi’s track record in combating COVID. Right from the beginning of the discussions, the RSS top brass had not shown any special preference for Modi’s track record as the leader of the Union government or accorded any special status to the Prime Minister’s views. The tone and tenor of Radha Mohan Singh’s media interaction clearly pointed to this.

Sangh Parivar insiders close to the RSS leadership indicate that their top brass is clear that neither Adityanath nor Modi can face the electorate in 2022 (in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly election) and in 2024 (in the general election) on the strength of their governance records. They are evidently of the view, assert the insiders, that an intense wave of Hindutva-oriented communal polarisation will have to be generated at the time of the next round of elections. The construction of the Ram mandir or the various stages of its completion could well be the spearhead of this communal campaign. And that the saffron-clad Adityanath would be useful in this.

Also read: RSS top brass unhappy with Modi Yogi handling of second wave

In Frontline’s interaction with a cross-section of over a dozen Sangh Parivar insiders across the north Indian States of Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Bihar and Jharkhand, a majority of them said that the Parivar according a higher utility value for Adityanath in this respect seems to have instilled a sort of insecurity in Modi, especially in relation to the leadership question in the 2024 general election. They were also of the view that Modi’s operations using people such as Arvind Kumar Sharma are essentially aimed at cutting Adityanath down to size well before the Assembly election, which is due in about eight months.

Sudhir Kumar Panwar, academic and Samajwadi Party leader, views the power games that are being played out in the BJP, the Sangh Parivar and the Uttar Pradesh government as downright cynical exercises that seek to paint a picture of success in all areas of governance but which in reality do not bring any tangible result for the people. He said: “This is a recurring tragedy relating to democracy and governance in a large number of developing countries. It is marked by pathetic attempts by ruling parties and their leaders, such as Modi and Adityanath, to impose their own version of governance and justify the same at any cost. The government’s failures are brushed aside as opposition propaganda, and a falsified narrative of success is propagated along with rabble-rousing rhetoric along sectarian lines. The BJP government in Uttar Pradesh best symbolises this. Choose any area of governance, and the government’s leadership claims success, but ground realities and facts speak otherwise.”

Panwar observes that the cynical ploys employed by the warring sides in the Sangh Parivar to get an upper hand in projecting a false narrative around individual leaders is getting increasingly exposed among thepeople. “This uncovering among the people may easily lead to a competitive pursuit of sectarian, communal politics among the leaders and the forces led by them, the consequences of which could indeed be even more catastrophic,” he said.

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