After a series of high-level meetings in Delhi and Lucknow, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has decided to persist with incumbent Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath as its face for the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections due early next year.
This decision wasn't without its share of internal wrangling with there being a fair degree of criticism for Adityanath's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and the lack of coordination between his government and BJP MLAs and MPs.
But in the end, the party is said to be maintaining status quo for now.
This article will look at three things: the meetings that took place and the sequence of events, the main differences between the BJP top brass and Adityanath, and what finally worked in the CM’s favour.
The High-Level Huddle
Two sets of meetings took place. The first was said to have been a high-level huddle in in the fourth week of May, which included Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Home Minister Amit Shah, RSS Sarkaryavaha Dattatreya Hosabale, and BJP President JP Nadda. BJP's UP General Secretary (organisation) Sunil Bansal was also summoned from Lucknow.
The main focus of the huddle was believed to be the COVID-19 situation in Uttar Pradesh and its possible political impact.
The rising COVID-19 cases in the state, visuals of hundreds of dead bodies being found on the banks of the Ganga, the deaths of government school teachers on Panchayat Election duty, and the stretched healthcare system have lead to a great deal of criticism of the Yogi Adityanath government.
Some of the criticism even came from within the BJP, with Union Minister Santosh Gangwar and MPs Kaushal Kishore and Lokendra Singh raising concerns about the government.
Adityanath has also personally come under fire for his handling of the pandemic.
Besides broader concerns over the handling of the pandemic, a number of specific issues also emerged:
- Lack of co-ordination between the CM's office, ministers, and MLAs. The feedback received by the BJP leadership is that there was a breakdown of communication between the three.
- Most MPs, MLAs and party functionaries not being seen helping people on the ground as much as required.
- Poor performance in the recently held Panchayat elections.
- General atmosphere of dissatisfaction and negativity in Uttar Pradesh.
Though a change of guard was also under consideration, the main decision was to send pointspersons from the BJP and the RSS to plug the gaps.
However, a crucial aspect of this huddle was the inclusion of Bansal and the exclusion of CM Adityanath and BJP state unit chief Swatantra Dev Singh.
Apparently, Adityanath didn't take this too well.
Tussle Over AK Sharma
One major bone of contention between Adityanath and the central leadership is former Gujarat cadre IAS officer and now UP MLC AK Sharma.
When COVID-19 cases spiked in Modi's constituency Varanasi, Sharma was tasked with personally monitoring the pandemic situation in the district. The cases did come down eventually and some say Sharma's intervention played a role.
The fact that Sharma was made an MLC soon after he took voluntary retirement from the IAS in January 2021 was a clear indication that Modi had a larger role for him in mind in Uttar Pradesh.
But Sharma and Adityanath got off on the wrong foot from the very beginning. The CM saw Sharma as someone who had been foisted upon him by Modi and Shah. Sharma, on the other hand, didn’t quite help matters with his style of functioning and took time to understand the ways of doing politics in UP.
Apparently, Sharma, used to being a top bureaucrat in Gujarat, acted in an imperious manner which ruffled feathers in the UP government.
On one occasion, Adityanath is even said to have told him off in a harsh manner.
Apparently, the proposal was to appoint Sharma as Deputy CM or a minister with a key portfolio to ensure better delivery of government schemes ahead of the 2022 Assembly polls. Replacing state unit chief Swatantra Dev Singh with current Deputy CM Keshav Maurya was another suggestion doing the rounds.
However, Yogi is said to have been firm in blocking Sharma's elevation. It remains to be seen whether Yogi will have to induct Sharma into the cabinet in future, as a trade-off for remaining at the helm.
Hosabale's Visit to Lucknow
A few days after the huddle, Dattatreya Hosabale, who is known to be close to PM Modi, went on a visit to Lucknow from 24 to 27 May.
The public stand of the Sangh is that the visit wasn't a political one and it was mainly to take stock of the COVID-19 situation in the state, what the RSS is doing, and what it could do.
However, in the closed-door meetings with Sangh functionaries and phone calls with pracharaks in a few distant districts, Hosabale is also said to have taken feedback regarding the government’s functioning and the public’s opinion of it.
There were rumours in Lucknow's power circles that Adityanath showed his displeasure at the Delhi huddle by rushing on a visit to Sonebhadra while Hosabale was in the state capital. The rumour is that Hosabale had to extend his visit because of this and still ended up returning without meeting Adityanath.
However, the state BJP unit insists that Hosabale's was not a political visit and meetings with the CM or party leaders was never on the cards.
BL Santhosh and Radha Mohan Singh Go to UP
BJP's General Secretary (organisation) BL Santhosh and party Vice President Radha Mohan Singh were in Lucknow earlier this week during which they interacted with 15 ministers in Yogi's government, including the two deputy CMs Keshav Maurya and Dinesh Sharma.
The feedback they received was that there are no doubt gaps between the government and MLAs, with the latter not finding a voice with the CM or bureaucrats.
In particular, those loyal to non-Yogi factions in the UP BJP, are facing problems.
However, the ministers also told Santhosh and Singh that the handling of the pandemic had improved significantly compared to April.
Following the visit, Santhosh on Wednesday, 2 June, put out two tweets praising Adityanath's handling of the pandemic, he wrote.
“In five weeks, @myogiadityanath’s Uttar Pradesh reduced the new daily case count by 93% … Remember it’s a state with 20+ cr population. When municipality CMs could not manage a city of 1.5 cr population , Yogi ji managed quite effectively.”Tweet by BL Santhosh
This was also accompanied by a number of positive stories in the national media about Yogi Adityanath.
This made it clear that Adityanath will remain in the saddle for now and if nothing major goes wrong in the meantime, the BJP will fight the next Assembly elections under his leadership.
What Worked for Adityanath?
"He is different from other BJP CMs. He has a strong base in Uttar Pradesh and any effort by the BJP or Sangh to remove him would have backfired on them," a party functionary loyal to Adityanath told The Quint on the condition of anonymity.
There is some truth to this. Replacing Adityanath is a very different matter from other changes of guard the BJP has done recently – such as replacing Trivendra Singh Rawat with Tirath Singh Rawat in Uttarakhand and picking Himanta Biswa Sarma over Sarbananda Sonowal in Assam after the Assembly elections.
Another loyalist from East UP said, "He is seen as a potential PM candidate, just like Modi ji was between 2009 and 2014. Those who tried to sideline Modi then, themselves got sidelined.”
However, Yogi's critics as well as neutral observers in UP warn against comparing Yogi of 2021 with Modi of 2009-14. They say that Yogi's "base" is often overstated and that it is more a result of the buzz created around him by the media coupled with his "power to intimidate".
"His base in UP is nowhere near Modi's popularity as Gujarat CM. Just that because he follows an aggressive approach, a perception has been created that you can't mess with Yogi in UP," a party MP said.
Yogi also receives some support from the RSS, which has often acted as a buffer between him and Modi-Shah.
Also, it may have been too late for the duo to go for a change of guard in UP.
"He has kept the Hindutva base happy with his policies, and he doesn't have a corrupt image. Anyone else would have been been too much of a lightweight against leaders like Mayawati and Akhilesh (Yadav)," says a BJP functionary.
Yogi may have survived this crisis but it doesn’t alter the fact that he has largely been an underachiever as CM and his popularity is mainly due to his Hindutva credentials and caste base among Thakurs. This may be sufficient in dealing with rivals within BJP but it remains to be seen if it is enough to come back to power.
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