Towering above everything famous in Allahabad—the Kumbh, mangoes, guavas and the university—is Anand Bhawan, which was built by Motilal Nehru and donated to the nation by his granddaughter, Indira Gandhi. Among the rambling old bungalows are those that were home to freedom fighters, mostly Congressmen.
Huge posters of Varun Gandhi, Motilal's great-great-grandson, greeted BJP members who descended on the dusty town for a national executive meeting on June 12. The young Gandhi is the BJP MP from Sultanpur and projects himself as a potential candidate to lead the party in the assembly elections next year. The party leadership, however, is not keen on him, and leaders chose to wave away the posters. For once, the Gandhi surname seems a liability.
A state leader of the BJP said Varun was “probably interested in the job”. “He has an attitude problem. He can't smile, wave out or reach out like his father. A better candidate would be his mother, Maneka Gandhi, a UP girl, accessible, leads a hindutva life even if not of a saffron variety. She espouses the cause of animals, of which the cow is one, and stands for women empowerment,” he said.
The name of Union Minister Smriti Irani has been doing rounds. But the leader said the state unit was apprehensive that she might turn out to be another Kiran Bedi, referring to the assembly poll debacle in Delhi. Sanjeev Balyan, Union minister of state for agriculture, he said, was tailor-made for the job. “But we are sure that the leadership in eastern UP will ensure he is not projected as the chief ministerial candidate,” he said.
Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh was the last BJP chief minister in Uttar Pradesh. He lost the post in March 2002. The Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party have been taking turns since then. The BJP believes things will change this time, as it won 71 of 80 Lok Sabha seats from the state in 2014.
But the big question is, who will lead the party? “Whether to announce a leader's name, and who that person is, will be decided by the parliamentary board of the party at an appropriate time,” said Union Telecom Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad. “Leadership issues are not decided by posters.”
The divide between eastern and western Uttar Pradesh could be one reason the BJP may, for now, go with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Rajnath as the campaign leaders, along with party president Amit Shah. The official posters have stalwarts A.B. Vajpayee and L.K. Advani as well.
The party's strategy has been clearly spelt out. Modi will restrict himself to talking development. Shah will take on the SP and the Akhilesh Yadav government on dynastic politics, caste, communal tension and law and order, and the BSP and Mayawati on corruption. He has a penchant for using the communal card—he mentioned the alleged fleeing of Hindus from Kairana in Shamli district and urged people to throw the Akhilesh government out if they did not want it to happen elsewhere in the state.
The allegation turned out to be baseless and clever use of half truths to polarise people communally ahead of elections. It was BJP MP Hukum Singh, an accused in the Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013, who released a list of 346 people who he claimed had fled the place because of “threats and extortions by criminal elements belonging to a particular community”. Independent investigations nailed his lie—some in the list had not left the place, some were long dead and many had left for education and employment. As Shah and the BJP used “Hindu exodus from Kairana” in the poll discourse and the government machinery was on the verge of mobilising itself to avert a communal clash, Hukum Singh backtracked, saying he had not mentioned the name of any community.
Incidentally, he was among the Uttar Pradesh MPs believed to have been given a dressing down by Modi in a closed-door meeting. “Modi talked tough,” said an MP. “But that has become a way of life in the BJP now. Everyone has got used to it.” A source said Modi was “more than annoyed” with the manner in which they were behaving and speaking out of turn.
The prime minister apparently presented a sugarcoated solution to the MPs, putting forward a seven-point code of conduct for party leaders and workers—seva bhav (sense of service), santulan (balance), sanyam (restraint), samanvay (patience), sakaratmakta (constructive way), samvad (discussion) and sadbhavana (harmony). “These will impact the behaviour and policies, because the nation expects that at a time when the BJP has exceptional political strength, we use this for the benefit of the people,” said Finance Minister Arun Jaitley.
BJP leaders have for long lamented that the media, instead of focusing on the well-researched debates of the hardworking parliamentarians, was diverting the attention of the government and the nation by highlighting eye-ball grabbing statements. Apparently, Modi stepped in to fix it.
The Ram temple in Ayodhya—not far from Allahabad—did not find a mention in the meeting despite the sangh parivar expecting it. Ravi Shankar Prasad reiterated the stand the party has taken in the past two years. “It is not an agenda for the government, it is not an agenda for the executive meeting. It is a matter of faith,” he said.
It seems the BJP is reluctant to ease up on the anti-Congress agenda. The national executive exulted that “a call given by Prime Minister Modi during the Lok Sabha elections for Congress-mukt Bharat has today become a people’s mission.” The political resolution at the executive said defeating the Congress everywhere would be the primary objective of the BJP. “It also means ridding the country of the Congress brand politics—corruption, nepotism, politics of inheritance and blue blood, arrogance and non-accountability, politics of obstructionism and vote banks,” it said. There was, of course, no mention of Eknath Khadse, who quit as revenue minister in Maharashtra after allegations of corruption.