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Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh: How a Usually Clever BJP Mishandled the Wrestling Row

There is a clear difference between the wrestlers' protest in January and the one that began in April.

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The BJP national leadership's handling of the Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh episode has been a bit uncharacteristic. Uncharacteristic because so far whenever the party has been caught in a difficult position, it either retreats - as it did with the farm laws, the land acquisition amendment and the MJ Akbar scandal - or it simply brazens it out as it has done in countless occasions in the past.

But neither seems to be happening regarding Wrestling Federation of India chief Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, accused of sexual harassment by several female wrestlers.

In fact, the entire issue is now becoming a much bigger embarrassment with wrestler Vinesh Phogat claiming that she told Prime Minister Narendra Modi about Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh's conduct in 2021.

What's going wrong for the BJP in this case?

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1. Delay in Decision Making

When the protests first broke out in January, the BJP seemed to have the matter under control. Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh was presented as an outlier within the party. It was pointed out that he doesn't get along with Uttar Pradesh CM Yogi Adityanath and is a foe of powerful Ayurveda and Yoga magnate Baba Ramdev.

The wrestlers too, made it a point to insulate the party from their criticism of Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh. Opposition leaders weren't allowed on their platform then.

In January, the wrestlers were given an assurance from the government that their concerns will be addressed and this made them stand down. But something went wrong between January and April.

"Either they (PM Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah) weren't given proper feedback on the matter or they decided not to act (against Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh). Only three people would know what exactly happened - Narendra Modi, Amit Shah and the sports minister (Anurag Thakur)," a BJP Lok Sabha MP told The Quint.

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2. Underestimating the Wrestlers

The party probably didn't anticipate that the wrestlers would once again come and protest, that too with renewed vigour.

"Probably the party leadership thought the issue would die down," the MP said.

Many of the wrestlers are still competing and by taking on the federation and the government, they have put their careers on the line.

Another thing that changed in the April protest compared to January, was that the protesting wrestlers showed a much greater willingness to engage with Opposition parties and let the protest become 'political'.

In January, it did seem that the wrestlers didn't want to antagonise the government and that's why didn't let Opposition leaders speak from their platform.

This time a number of Opposition leaders have gone there - from Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, to Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, RLD chief Jayant Chaudhary, former governor Satyapal Malik and CPI-M leader Brinda Karat, to name a few.

There is a clear difference between the wrestlers' protest in January and the one that began in April.

The wrestlers have been protesting against WFI chief Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh.

(Photo: PTI)

The first instinct of the BJP leadership was the consider the protests an 'Opposition conspiracy'. But the issue refused to die down. On Friday, the Delhi Police informed the Supreme Court said that it would be registering two FIRs against Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh.

Some in the BJP feel that the issue wouldn't have acquired political potency had the government acted against Brij Bhushan in January itself. However, this was easier said than done. More on that in the next section.

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3. Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh's Stubbornness

One big problem for the BJP has been the stubbornness of Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh.

Apparently feelers were sent to him in January itself that he should step aside. But Brij Bhushan decided to dig his heels in.

"It is an ego issue for him. He feels that resigning would be an admission of guilt," a BJP functionary sympathetic to Brij Bhushan told The Quint.

"He has not asked anything from the party - no ministership or position. He got this position in the Wrestling Federation through his own work. It wasn't given to him by the party." the BJP functionary says, explaining the limits of the party's leverage over Brij Bhushan.

Making matters more complicated, is the caste angle. Brij Bhushan's supporters are presenting the entire controversy as a "attempt by Jats of Haryana" to take over the wrestling federation.

They say that Brij Bhushan has been ensuring representation from other states and this is resented by what they call the "Jat lobby".

Many of the wrestlers leading the protest - Vinesh Phogat, Sakshi Malik and Bajrang Punia - happen to be Jat.

Brij Bhushan has accused Congress leader Deepender Singh Hooda and wrestler Bajrang Punia of 'hatching the entire plot' behind the protests.

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Brij Bhushan on the other hand is a Thakur. Incidentally, so is sports minister Anurag Thakur.

Brij Bhushan is being backed by a lobby from his own community. Even on social media, many Thakur youngsters have been trending 'We stand with Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh'.

But how much clout does Brij Bhushan truly hold?

Brij Bhushan's area of influence lies in mainly Bahraich and Gonda districts and parts of Shravasti and Balrampur - broadly corresponding to the Devipatan division of Uttar Pradesh.

Situated Northeast of Ghaghara river, these are backward and highly flood-prone areas. Considered a strongman, Brij Bhushan has a loyal support base in the region and is known to have done some work, especially by creating a chain of educational institutions.

His area of influence spans five Lok Sabha seats - Bahraich, Kaiserganj (held by Brij Bhushan), Shravasti, Gonda and Domariyaganj.

Currently, the BJP holds four out of these seats - three of them have Thakur MPs and one is a reserved seat.

Interestingly, in his first election from Gonda in 1991, Brij Bhushan had defeated the Congress' Raja Anand Singh, father of the current BJP MP from Gonda, Kirti Vardhan Singh.

The BJP's fear is that if Brij Bhushan falls out with the party he can harm it in these five seats. He already is said to have a good equation with the Samajwadi Party. Despite being associated with the Ram Mandir movement, Brij Bhushan had joined the Samajwadi Party for a few years and even became an MP on SP ticket in 2009.

Brij Bhushan's recent praise for SP chief Akhilesh Yadav is being seen as a signal to the BJP that he is not without options.

Now even if Brij Bhushan resigns and a proper criminal inquiry does take place, it would at most contain the damage for the BJP, not undo it.

The BJP's indecision has given the Opposition an opening on this issue. Since the target is an individual, this issue doesn't have the political potency of the Jan Lokpal movement during the UPA time or the mass connect of the farmers or anti-CAA protest during the present government's tenure. But it is an embarrassment that the government could have avoided nonetheless had it acted in time.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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