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Saturday, July 31, 2021

Tripura to UP, MP to Kerala: Pot simmers in many BJP state units

Since 2014, the BJP’s electoral juggernaut, riding on popularity and a sense of its invincibility, steam-rolled differences in the state units.

Written by Liz Mathew | New Delhi |
Updated: July 5, 2021 9:44:03 pm
Several leaders in the party units are unhappy with the style of functioning of their chief ministers.

The abrupt change of the Chief Minister in Uttarakhand Saturday by the BJP may have been dictated by a procedural imperative — its inability to get the incumbent elected within six months — but it also comes in the wake of infighting within the state unit. And that’s not just an Uttarakhand story.

Indeed, the party faces trouble in several state units and the central leadership, as the devastating second Covid wave recedes, is at the drawing-board trying to manage fractious groups – from Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka to Tripura and Madhya Pradesh and even in states where it is in the opposition, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and West Bengal.

Since 2014, the BJP’s electoral juggernaut, riding on popularity and a sense of its invincibility, steam-rolled differences in the state units. The central leadership even pushed the political envelope by its choice of CMs in key states – a non-Maratha in Maharashtra (Devendra Fadnavis); a non-Jat in Haryana (M L Khattar) and a non-tribal in Jharkhand (Raghubar Das).

Seven years on, with these experiments not going as per script — Khattar was the only one who could return to power and that, too, in an alliance — and with competing ambitions among state leaders many of whom feel they haven’t got their due, discontent is brewing. In Assam, Himanta Biswa Sarma’s aspirations were acknowledged last month but leaders in other states are restive.

Catalysing this discontent has been the second pandemic wave that has dented the government’s image. At least three senior leaders admitted as much. “The sense of dismay among people in April and May and the party’s not-up-to-the expectations performance in the Assembly elections — these are also reasons for the sudden spurt in the disturbances in the state units,” said a senior office-bearer.

The pandemic, a leader said, also tied the hands of BJP chief J P Nadda who took over the reins from Amit Shah. “It was anyway difficult for him to get into the giant shoes of Shah and the pandemic meant he couldn’t tour states and meet leaders in person. That has definitely affected his position,” said a BJP national executive council member.

As the wave abates, BJP’s General Secretary (Organisation) B L Santhosh has been on an overdrive visiting Uttar Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Tripura and is expected to visit other states too. Other general secretaries have been making frequent visits, too.

Not much should be read into this, said party leader in charge of Madhya Pradesh P Muralidhar Rao who was in Bhopal to revamp the state executive. “During the pandemic, our focus was on services and organisational matters took a back seat,” he said. “Now that the situation is under control, party leaders are visiting the states to complete the organisation work. It’s natural there will be hectic activity in election-bound states.”

There’s more to it, though.

In poll-bound UP, discontent among senior leaders against the style of functioning of Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath has been brewing for a while. The criticism of the state’s pandemic management and the party’s sub-par performance in the recent Panchayat elections have bolstered disgruntled leaders including former state unit chief and Deputy CM Keshav Prasad Maurya.

There is also resentment among non-Thakur upper castes against what they called “Thakur policies” of the state government. Brahmins have conveyed their disillusionment through leaders like Brajesh Pathak and Dinesh Sharma. The entry of A K Sharma, a bureaucrat-turned-MLC, popularly known among party leaders, as “Modi ke Ram,” has stirred the already simmering pot. But the central leadership is underlining its support to the CM – the Prime Minister Sunday tweeted praise for him for the Panchayat poll success.

In MP, the recent defeat of the BJP candidate in the Damoh by-elections has brought internal differences to the fore. State unit chief V D Sharma and Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan – each identified with a rival camp – have met Nadda. With Sharma, senior minister Narottam Mishra and Union Minister Narendra Singh Tomar are also aspirants for the top job. Another camp chafing to play a bigger role is rallying behind Jyotiraditya Scindia who walked into the party from the Congress.

In Uttarakhand, it was the factional fight that was the last straw. Clearly, the move to appoint Tirath Singh Rawat as CM replacing Trivendra Singh Rawat didn’t work – both sparred over Covid mismanagement.

This also raises questions over the BJP central leadership’s decision to pick CMs rather than allowing state units to evolve a consensus – both these CMs were handpicked by Modi and Shah.

In Maharashtra, Fadnavis, again a choice of Modi and Shah, is not being seen as effective in hobbling the Uddhav Thackeray government. Its Maratha support is also in doubt despite efforts of state president Chandrakant Patil; consistent alienation led to the exit of veteran Eknath Khadse who joined the NCP.

A former BJP Lok Sabha MP admits that the Modi-Shah strategy to instal CMs hasn’t quite worked. However, in Karnataka, where regional leaders were given space, there is trouble, too.

Sources close to Chief Minister B S Yeddyurappa say he is being needled not by political rivals but from within. Both Modi and Shah seemed to have made it clear to the party – and his detractors including Santhosh and state chief Nalin Kumar Kateel – that the party cannot afford a change of guard. However, that hasn’t quelled the infighting.

In the Rajasthan party unit, former CM Vasundhara Raje continues to dig her political heels in. The party leadership’s attempts to topple the Ashok Gehlot-led Congress government using Union Minister Gajendra Shekhawat did not get much traction in her camp. Former state minister Rohitash Sharma, believed to be close to Raje, has publicly criticised the state leadership.

In Himachal, the state unit has seen open rivalry between various factions, including those led by party MLAs like Ramesh Dhawala and organisation secretary Pawan Rana. Videos highlighting the feud are on social media and, again, Santhosh had to visit the state to keep the groups united ahead of elections next year.

In West Bengal, after Mamata Banerjee’s landslide win, differences have deepened between traditional BJP leaders and those who had switched from the TMC with leaders like Mukul Roy returning to Banerjee. Former Governor and BJP leader Tathagata Roy has been targeting Kailash Vijayvargiya, general secretary in charge of the state.

In Tripura, those who joined the BJP from TMC — originally Congress leaders – are resentful of Chief Minister Biplab Kumar Deb. Led by former Congress veteran Sudip Roy Barman, a group of MLAs were in the national capital demanding Deb’s removal of Deb but in vain. Deb has won over some rebels but the turmoil continues amid reports that the central leadership is exploring alternatives to Deb.

In the Kerala BJP, always a faction-ridden unit, fault-lines have hardened after the party drew an electoral blank. The official group, led by state president K Surendran and Union Minister V Muraleedharan, faces resistance from other factions, mainly the one led by P K Krishna Das. The recent controversies over alleged poll fund misuse and bribery have given ammunition to rebels seeking Surendran’s exit.

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