It was 8.15 am on the last day of November, 2016, when the phone rang in Manoj Tiwari’s North Avenue residence. It was the party high command calling to inform him that he will now lead the Delhi unit of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), more than three years after he officially joined the party as its ‘star campaigner’. Tiwari, arguably India’s most popular Bhojpuri star, with thousands of songs and over 70 films to his credit, was brought on to perform hit songs for potential voters at election rallies across the Hindi-speaking belt.
Two years before the phone call, Tiwari was elected Member of Parliament from Delhi’s North East Lok Sabha constituency, over 800 km away from his first Lok Sabha contest against Yogi Adityanath in 2009. At the time, he had fought on a Samajwadi Party ticket and lost. “I didn’t even know where North East Delhi was when my name was announced to contest from there,” he told The Indian Express. He would have preferred to contest from his home constituency of Buxar in Bihar. “So, me and my friends got into a car one night and drove to North East Delhi to look around.”
It was not the first time Tiwari had heard rumours of his elevation as Delhi BJP president. Six months earlier, while he was campaigning for the West Bengal elections, a senior BJP functionary had commented, “Aapko Dilli mein adhyaksh banaane ki tayari ho rahi hai.” Tiwari recalled feeling ecstatic. “I felt very happy when my photo was printed in newspapers. After barely three years in the party, I was thrilled at the possibility that I could be made president…,” he said.
A new strategy
Tiwari’s elevation as the face of the Delhi BJP is telling. It is a significant repositioning of the party in the capital, and one which, senior party functionaries claim, may jeopardise the BJP’s chances in the 2020 Delhi Assembly elections. Further, this could prolong a two-decade-long failed battle to elect a BJP chief minister in Delhi — the last was External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj in 1998.
Reports over the last few months have also indicated a rift between Tiwari and Union Sports Minister Vijay Goel, also a former Delhi BJP president. Tiwari, though, brushes off such tiffs: “His work is different, mine is different. I respect him, he respects me.”
While the move reflects a demographic change in the city, it has also led to discomfiture over the party elevating outsiders at the cost of BJP leaders who have worked their way up the party cadre. This has happened before. Prominently, when BJP announced former IPS officer Kiran Bedi as its CM candidate ahead of the Delhi elections in February, 2015. The party faced such a drubbing that only three BJP legislators made it into the Delhi Legislative Assembly, while Bedi was packed off to Puducherry as governor.
For old-timers in the state organisation, Tiwari is no different. “When he was a newly-elected MP, he was often seen asking BJP leaders, what is a samiti? What is a zila? He really had no idea then, and I don’t think he has a clue even today,” a senior BJP leader claimed.
Tiwari admitted that after the initial whispers over his elevation to state president, he became more sincere about attending Pradesh meetings at the party’s Pandit Pant Marg office. “I realised I better attend all meetings to understand what goes on,” Tiwari said.
Among the most high-profile politicians to join the BJP ahead of this year’s MCD polls was Congress leader and former cabinet minister in Sheila Dikshit’s government, Arvinder Singh Lovely. “There is so much more focus on the organisation in the BJP, which was missing in the Congress,” Lovely told The Indian Express, adding that the Congress is top-heavy in its functioning. “You will see a lot more leaders start working for the BJP,” he added, hinting at the possibility of more defectors from the Congress.
According to Lovely, Tiwari has a “good face” and a “clean image”. “This party provides an open platform for all sorts of people. I think every community has a right to lead the party. So far, it has been dominated by Punjabis, so why not Purvanchalis?” he asked.
The state BJP website lists 21 state presidents before Tiwari, some of whom enjoyed multiple terms, and the majority have been Punjabis or Banias. Tiwari’s elevation is seen as a deliberate attempt to woo the Purvanchali vote — migrants coming into Delhi from Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh, who have over the years become a sizeable population.
However, there is a parallel theory offered by senior party leaders who claim that the previous state president Satish Upadhyay was a civic body councillor, and it was time for him to be replaced by someone with a higher profile.
This was to match up to the likes of Congress’ Ajay Maken and AAP’s Arvind Kejriwal. However, the decision to choose Tiwari, sources told The Indian Express, was also the working of a “Purvanchali lobby” within the national party ranks.
“Definitely, in the last 10 years, the number of Purvanchali voters has grown,” noted Centre for the Study of Developing Societies Director Sanjay Kumar.
“While previously, every party made various promises as a token to woo these voters, now it has gone beyond appeasement with tickets offered to candidates from the community.” A look at the current make up of the Delhi Assembly is an indicator: a dozen AAP legislators and two of Kejriwal’s initial cabinet colleagues, Gopal Rai and Kapil Mishra, are from this region.
When Kumar wrote his 2013 book, Changing Electoral Politics in Delhi: From Caste to Class, he pointed out that migrants constituted 40 per cent of the city’s population, “accounting for 3-3.5 million migrant voters in Delhi”, and that 665 people migrate to the city on a daily basis. His book states that the largest number of people migrating to Delhi were from Uttar Pradesh, followed closely by Bihar. “Purvanchalis are now prominent in 18 to 25 Assembly constituencies and the competition between political parties is largely for their votes,” Kumar said.
It is this section, Kumar said, that the BJP is after. “The party is aggressively going after this group of voters and Tiwari is the face.” This is significant given the trends from past elections: While the Congress has been successful at tapping into the Purvanchali vote, it was the AAP that benefitted from this migrant group in the last state assembly elections. “Traditionally, Punjabis and Jats have supported the BJP. Add the Purvanchali vote and this could make a significant difference for the party in the next elections,” said Kumar.
While these disparate groups have been the strength of the party, they are also its weakness when lobbying begins. The state unit is jostling three different factions, preventing it from working towards a united front, sources said.
It was in April this year that Tiwari faced his first challenge as party president. Pictures had appeared of him spending the night in slums and JJ clusters to attract votes. On April 23, more than half the registered voters in Delhi lined up outside polling booths to vote in the municipal elections. Three days later, it was announced that the BJP had won 184 of 270 wards in the city.
The party, still giddy from its win in Uttar Pradesh, rejoiced once again, calling it a “stamp of approval” for the Modi government, and party chief Amit Shah said it would serve as the “foundation” for a BJP government in Delhi. Shah felicitated the victorious BJP councillors at the civic centre in North Delhi, but what was absent from his speech was direct praise for Tiwari.
Within the party ranks, a debate ensued on whether Tiwari was effective in attracting the Purvanchali vote. The party’s vote share is an effective indicator. For instance, the party managed a 36.08 per cent vote share in the civic polls, up from 32.2 percent in the 2015 Vidhan Sabha elections.
“The BJP’s vote share is fixed. Our range is 32-39 per cent in every election, and unless the opposition vote is split, we won’t win,” a senior BJP leader admitted.
“That’s exactly what happened in the MCD elections as well. In every seat we won, the vote was split between the Congress and the AAP.” Once again, vote shares back up this claim. The AAP secured 26 per cent vote share, while Congress got 21 per cent.
Interestingly, while a close aide of Tiwari claimed that an informal survey conducted by him after the MCD elections revealed massive migration of Purvanchali votes from AAP to the BJP, sources in the BJP said many of the 80-odd seats the party lost during the MCD elections had a significant number of Purvanchalis. “This doesn’t make sense if Tiwari was brought in to attract exactly those votes,” claimed a BJP leader.
The next step
With three years to go for the next big fight for the Vidhan Sabha, the BJP is once again looking towards what has worked in other states: effective booth-level management. Before the civic polls, Tiwari had called booth-level workers the “very core of the BJP’s electoral success”. Infighting within the party ranks may, however, impede this process.
On the other hand is the RSS in Delhi, which has quietly been cementing a strong base for the BJP. Swayamsevaks claim their work made a “difference” in the civic polls, too. “National security issues dominated the minds of many voters,” said RSS joint president of Delhi unit Alok Kumar. “So did slogans raised in JNU and the forces that backed them.” The RSS membership has increased steadily in the capital, he said, with 1,800 shakhas operating daily in Delhi.
Tiwari, meanwhile, has a series of “plans” for the capital: Making it garbage-free, getting rid of dark spots, harvesting rainwater, helping women defend themselves, bringing out a favourable policy for street vendors, and a portal for property owners to get mutation certificates.
Yet, he admitted there is a “problem of time” that restricts him from doing what he enjoys most: his performances. “Since I am a singer, people like me a lot. So, I do manage to try and do two or three shows a month,” he said. His personal favourite is the song Jiya Tu Bihar Ke Lala from Gangs of Wasseypur. “That has sort of become the anthem of Bihar. When Nitish Kumar won the elections, that song was played.”
As for films, the day after the MCD elections, Tiwari flew to Mumbai for a hectic two-day shoot for Farhan Akthar’s next film, Lucknow Central. “The shooting was going on during election month so I asked them to reschedule the dates to accommodate me. I flew out after the polls and flew in just before results,” he said. “I am not playing myself. I am not Manoj Tiwari, I play a star singer in the film.”