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The road to Delhi goes through Uttar Pradesh. This election though,it also stops at Gujarat,as is evident from both the Congress and the BJP choosing party leaders from the state to steer their campaigns. If Madhusudan Mistry is doing the job for the Congress,its the choice of the other camp that evidently makes clear both its intent and its goals for volatile UP. He is Amit Shah,Narendra Modis closest confidant,an accused in the Ishrat Jahan encounter case,a partyman with known organisational skills,and a man few dare cross in Gujarat.
Crucially,Shahs choice was made before Modi was picked as the BJPs prime ministerial candidate. In the six months since,from booth-level panels to party tickets,he is trying to set in place changes to win the crucial state of Uttar Pradesh for the BJP.
Any Gujarati politician worth his salt ensures he spends Navratras with his constituents. On the evening of October 5,thats what Modi was doing,attending a colourful and spectacular cultural programme in Ahmedabad to mark the start of the nine days of festivities. Shah at the time was trying to negotiate a kilometres-long traffic jam,in an Audi SUV,near Fatehganj town in Bareilly in Uttar Pradesh,on his way to Delhi.
His Navratras week,in fact,was packed,with meetings scheduled in Bareilly (October 5),Varanasi (October 7-8),Allahabad (October 9) and Kanpur (October 10) marking the first set of regional meetings of the BJP since he was handed charge of the state. He has been moving town to town,with two suitcases,his vehicle more packed with mementos from partymen. Every stop he changes vehicles,to the one provided by the organiser of the next meeting.
If the people of Uttar Pradesh decide to bless Narendra Modi, he tells a public meeting in Mathura,October 2,the entire country will bless the people of the state.
In meetings after closed-door meetings,attended by vetted invitees,Shahs message is clear: this is a do-or-die battle for the BJP in the state,and can only be won if they fight as a united force.
UP mein hum khatam hone ki kagar par hain. Ek chuano aur haar jaate hain to kyon koi vote dega (We are at the edge of oblivion in UP. If we lose one more election,who will vote for us)? he says. This is not true of Gujarat,where they would still be the main opposition if they lost,or Rajasthan,where we once lost but made a comeback,Shah emphasises.
Party leaders who appear disinterested or act against official candidates would have to pay the price,he further threatens. The party is like our mother and she needs us. Bete ko ye nahin dekhna chahiye ki maa bula rahi hai ya nahin (The son shouldn’t wait to see if the mother is calling or not), he tells former MPs,MLAs and ex-heads of urban local bodies in Bareilly.
Shah is planning to visit 52 of the states Lok Sabha constituencies personally while the remaining 28 would be toured by Ramapati Ram Tripathi,the UP election campaign committee chief of the BJP.
Apart from Tripathi,UP BJP chief Lakshmikant Vajpayee and RSS hand Rakesh Jain,who is also the general secretary (organisation) of the state unit,accompany Shah at internal party meetings. They take down notes as partymen talk.
District-level office-bearers report on the constitution of booth-level committees and mandal-level meetings,and their assessment of the political situation in the Lok Sabha constituencies of the area. Shah can be exacting,and one of those present at an Agra meeting talks about a district president who made one fumble after another under pressure.
Shah emphasises the importance of such committees and meetings and stresses on getting databases computerised.
Leaders of the BJPs frontal organisations and other affiliate cells are told that their programmes have to be targeted specifically at the polls,with Shah drawing a parallel with Arjun in the Mahabharata,who kept his focus only on the eye of the fish he was aiming at.
At Varanasi,he urges the party to target the SP governments welfare measures like unemployment allowance dole or laptop distribution. Do some out-of-the-box thinking. Promising free electricity or debt relief is much easier than holding the government accountable for the promises they have not fulfilled. Protesting against Nawaz Sharif will only ensure people get angry against the government. It does not guarantee them turning towards the BJP, Shah notes.
A Yuva Jodo Abhiyan is laid out at these meetings. To be held from October 15-November 15,it would involve the party reaching out to over two-thirds of the estimated 35,000 educational institutes across the state. Interestingly,Shah says,with caste loyalties weakening,the institutes could be crucial vote banks.
However,caste does matter. Particularly the OBCs. That Modi belongs to one of the other backward classes is a fact Shah doesnt shy away from at public meetings,though at internal sessions,the matter never comes up.
The man who used to be a small tea vendor,who belongs to a backward class,is going to become the PM. Opponents,however,do not want a person with a poor background to become the PM. They do not want a person born in a backward class to sit on the throne of Delhi. Because they consider it the birthright of Pappu, he says at a public meeting at Phaphamau in Allahabad,making a rare reference to Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi.
They were asking about our PM candidate,we have decided. It is time for them to reveal theirs… Chalega Pappu? he asks,to cheers. They will not declare Pappu,because of the fear of losing the elections.
Former elected representatives raise the importance of social justice and the need for sufficient representation for castes in internal meetings at Bareilly,Varanasi,Allahabad and Kanpur. Some participants after the meeting at Kanpur appear disappointed. But other than giving concrete reassurances,Shah tells them there is another way to tackle the issue.
Several of you highlighted concerns about OBCs,which are real. You need to communicate to them one thing. Remind them that except the BJP,all others the Congress,SP and BSP have been in favour of reservation for minorities within the OBC quota. The Supreme Court has mandated reservation ceiling at 51 per cent. Accounting for SC and ST reservations,only 27 per cent reservation is possible for OBCs. If 4.5 per cent or 9 per cent or 18 per cent reservation for minorities is to be accepted,what is going to be left for the OBCs? Shah tells party leaders in Bareilly.
Similar arguments are extended in Varanasi and Allahabad. We are the sole protector of OBC reservations. Khulkar boliye ye baat,ye party ki neeti hai (Say this clearly. This is the partys policy).
As candidate selection roils the party,with district unit chiefs noting that the SP and BSP have already declared candidates at most places,Shah cleverly dodges the problem. A group of party supporters from the Salempur Lok Sabha constituency blocks Shah on his way to a meeting in Varanasi to register their objections to the possibility of a ticket being given to former prime minister Chandra Shekhars son Pankaj Singh,who was inducted into the BJP only on October 5.
Chandra Shekhar played a pivotal role in dislodging the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government in 1999. How can we tolerate his son joining the party in the run-up to the elections and contesting as a BJP candidate? they tell the media before Shah arrives. However,he gives them just a minutes hearing.
The jostling for Lok Sabha tickets is also visible on the walls en route Shahs travels,with posters from several hopefuls welcoming him. In Allahabad,an aspirant for the Phulpur Lok Sabha constituency ticket,sitting MLA Keshav Prasad Maurya,steals a march over his rival Siddhartha Nagar Singh,by ensuring Shah attends a rally with him. The same evening,Singh,a party talking head on TV channels,gets Shah to participate in his Kisan Jan Jagran Yatra,apparently using his Delhi connections. At both the meetings,Shah gives no hint of who will get the ticket.
Likewise,other party hopefuls are told to think above and beyond to the fight for Delhi. The elections should not be turned into a contest between the candidates of a constituency. Turn them into a contest between the PM candidates. Can the SP or BSP even hope for prime ministership? But Narendra Modi can become the prime minister. Jo rupya bikta hai uska vyapar kariye (Trade in the currency that sells), he says in Bareilly.
On his second visit to the state,Shah had raised many eyebrows with his remarks suggesting the BJPs commitment towards a Ram temple at Ayodhya. Its a topic he doesnt discuss any more. The riots in Muzaffarnagar also do not find a mention in the internal meetings he holds,though he does publicly compare the Akhilesh Yadav governments record to that of Modis in Gujarat.
Those accusing us of being communal should know that not even a single hour of curfew has been imposed in Gujarat,no police firing has happened in the last 12 years in the state, he tells gatherings at Phaphamau and at Nagla Chandrabhan (Mathura),going on to call the Samajwadi Party chief Mullah Mulayam and Mian Mulayam.
However,leaders with him dont show much restraint. At Mathura,former Uttar Pradesh chief minister Kalyan Singh vitually justifies Jat reprisal against the Muslims.
Sitting in Room No. 9 on the first floor of the Circuit House in Varanasi on October 9,Shah is relaxing with a cup of tea that has gone cold,after day-long meetings. He agrees to talk but declines to give an interview.
Explaining his strategy,he says: At the grassroots level,we have booth committees. A level above,we have matdan matthak,who is in-charge of each polling building (one polling building may host more than one booth). Above them,we have placed sector in-charges for every 8-12 polling buildings.
It goes on. A team of five acts as sanchalak for each Assembly segment. A team of five acts as sanchalak for each Lok Sabha seat level. That means there will be 400 people monitoring Lok Sabha segments over and above the 2,000 monitoring Assembly segments. And above them will be eight in-charges looking after 10 Lok Sabha seats each.
A leader who has been observing him says Shahs reasoning is clear The BJP is not a dead body in UP. It is like a dismantled vehicle with its tyres in one corner,steering junk in another,the gear box hidden somewhere. The challenge is to assemble these back into a machine ready to operate by 2014.
With plans for at least one lakh workers at the bottom-most level,monitoring over 1.25 lakh booths,responding to every message from the top of this machinery,Shah believes he has the nuts and bolts in place.