It is a measure of the concern in the RSS over the BJP’s prospects in next year’s crucial UP assembly polls that Nagpur dispatched no less than its recently-appointed second-in-command, Dattatreya Hosabale, to Lucknow. His brief: to assess the Yogi Adityanath government’s handling of the COVID pandemic amid daily bad news from UP, and to quell dissent in the government and the party against the chief minister’s high-handed style of functioning.
But there was a secret agenda as well. This was to effect a truce between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Yogi Adityanath who had flatly refused to accommodate the former’s handpicked aide and newly-elected MLC Arvind Sharma in any administrative or ministerial capacity (Modi had wanted him appointed as deputy chief minister.)
Modi-Yogi Showdown: RSS Gen Secy Hosabale’s Task Ahead
Hosabale seems to have succeeded to some extent. Yogi agreed to come to New Delhi and meet his two big bosses, PM Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah. Whether or not they actually smoked the peace pipe and hammered out a compromise on Sharma, they certainly made an effort through photo ops and select briefings to favoured journalists, to signal that all’s well that ends well.
However, given the combative nature of the three principal players involved, Hosabale has his work cut out for him in the run-up to the Uttar Pradesh polls as the Sangh pulls out the stops to ensure that the BJP wins this politically important state again.
A defeat in UP in 2022 could jeopardise the big prize: a third term for Modi in the 2024 Lok Sabha election.
Reports from Lucknow suggest that Hosabale intends to spend more and more time in UP as the elections draw nearer. The Sangh hopes that the physical presence of one of its top leaders will not only keep dissident activity in check, but more importantly, help to manage the uneasy Modi-Shah-Yogi equation and prevent tensions from exploding in public again.
How Yogi Became a ‘Frankenstein’s Monster’
It’s a tough call for Hosabale. In the four years since he became UP chief minister against Modi’s wishes, Yogi has become something of a Frankenstein’s monster. Till 2017, he was a mousy saffron-clad figure in Parliament, and known largely in and around Gorakhpur as the foulmouthed communal head of the famous Gorakhnath Math.
Today, he is not only the BJP’s most sought-after star poll campaigner, he has emerged as a national Hindutva icon who could one day dare to challenge Modi for the crown of ‘Hindu Hriday Samrat’.
His ambitions have soared with the rise in his national profile. Yogi may be a lousy administrator and a textbook case of mis-governance, but he has learnt the crafty art of politics at the best school in the country — UP. The manner in which he outmanoeuvred two of the most cunning political minds on the issue of a post for Arvind Sharma is a tribute to his mastery.
Yogi Has ‘Leverage’ But He Must Pay Heed to Hosabale
It is interesting that, on Hosabale’s advice, the RSS and Modi-Shah decided to stick with Yogi and not change the CM eight months before the polls. One reason is the BJP’s past unhappy experience with election-eve leadership changes.
The second is Yogi’s popularity as a Hindutva icon. Removing him would not have gone down well with the BJP’s hardcore Hindu vote base.
This was Yogi’s lever and he used it to secure his position. But under Hosabale’s watchful eye, Yogi will have to make some concessions. Speculation is rife that he will be forced to induct Sharma into his Cabinet, may be not as deputy chief minister but in an important ministry. The decision is being monitored because it will be the first indication of how much Yogi has agreed to step back after an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with the Modi-Shah duo.
The story will not end with Sharma, however; the RSS is acutely aware that there are many pitfalls ahead. There will be arguments over tickets as Yogi pushes for his people and Modi-Shah advocate for their loyalists.
There will be caste tensions as well. The sudden induction of Jitin Prasada into the BJP is a signal that the party is trying to make a play for the Brahmin vote. While it’s good politics to keep this influential community happy, it is a potential flashpoint with Yogi and his Thakur lobby, which has been ruling the roost in UP for the past four years. Hosabale will have to manage the Brahmin-Thakur rivalry in such a way that it doesn’t damage the BJP’s electoral calculations.
And then there is the all-important question of who will lead the charge in UP. The BJP has announced that the election will be fought with Yogi as the face. Where does that leave Modi who is, after all, the MP from Varanasi and has been the pivot of every poll campaign in UP?
BJP Must Fight UP Polls On the Hindu Card
A section in the RSS and BJP feel that Modi should not go out on a limb in UP the way did in West Bengal. The loss in Bengal has dented Modi’s image. On the off chance that anti-incumbency sets in and the BJP loses UP, the defeat would irretrievably damage Modi for the all-important 2024 national election.
Those who know Modi’s style say that he never shies away from a challenge and will refuse to play a lowkey role in an election as important as the upcoming one in UP. But the debate is raging in RSS and BJP circles.
It is evident that the BJP has to fight UP on the Hindu card. This is the dilemma then — who will be the Hindu icon for 2022: Modi or Yogi?
(The writer is a Delhi-based senior journalist. She tweets @AratiJ. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)