Following comprehensive victories in the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) polls in 2017 and a clean sweep in the Lok Sabha elections two years later, then Delhi BJP Manoj Tiwari was confident that he would be the front-runner to be the chief minister in the 2020 Assembly polls.
But it was not just him who aspired to be the CM. Former Union Minister Vijay Goel and then Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan also nursed chief ministerial ambitions. When the polls came, the BJP decided against declaring a CM candidate, as it believed it would lead to more factions in the state unit, and contested the elections in the name of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, with Union Home Minister Amit Shah taking the lead during campaigning. The strategy failed and the BJP managed to bag only eight of the 70 Assembly seats.
Cut to 2022 and the Delhi BJP’s problems only seem to have multiplied. “Now there are even more people nursing chief ministerial ambitions,” said a party leader.
The BJP’s East Delhi MP Gautam Gambhir, however, believes that it is time for the party to project a CM face to take on Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal. “Indian politics is now about the personality cult. We need to have a face who is honest, accountable, responsible and more importantly, ready to face criticism,” Gambhir said at the Idea Exchange event of The Indian Express last week.
The BJP is still searching for the answer to Gambhir’s question. It has been out of power in Delhi for 24 years, the longest in any north Indian state. The last time BJP had a CM in Delhi was Sushma Swaraj in 1998.
The Delhi BJP at present is in a phase of transition. The rivalry between Vardhan and Goel is no longer a factor as both have been sidelined. “Vardhan, after a disgraceful exit from the ministry, after Covid is largely away from media glare while Goel being given the post of vice-chairman of Gandhi Smriti is seen in political circles as his retirement plan by the party,” said a Delhi BJP leader.
Vardhan was the CM candidate against Kejriwal in 2013 when the BJP emerged as the single-largest party winning 32 seats.
Among the new generation of leaders at the forefront are West Delhi MP Parvesh Sahib Singh Verma; Tiwari, the North East Delhi MP; Gambhir; and New Delhi MP Meenakshi Lekhi.
Verma is considered to be close to Amit Shah, who had used his Delhi home to hold meetings with Jat leaders of western Uttar Pradesh during the Assembly elections in the state earlier this year. Verma was also given the task of getting the community to vote for the party. “Of late, he has evolved as a good speaker both in Parliament and in press conferences due to his witty style and taking AAP head on,” said a BJP leader.
Manoj Tiwari, insiders said, had his best chance to be a CM face in 2020 and still can make it because of his Purvanchali connection. A senior BJP leader said in the last elections the MP’s “acceptability was not the same among Punjabis or the Bania population” and that had affected his chances. With migrants from Bihar and eastern UP, referred to as Purvanchalis, estimated to comprise nearly a third of the city’s two crore-plus population, it may make it difficult for the BJP to ignore Tiwari.
Lekhi, a Union minister, is also considered to be a front-runner to be the BJP’s CM face because of her Punjabi connection. The two-time MP is known for her sharp oratory and her legal expertise has helped her rise through the ranks of the party. At present, she is the only Delhi leader in the Union government.
Gambhir, who suggested that it was time for the party to project a CM face, is the latest entrant in the Delhi BJP’s long list of leaders nursing chief ministerial ambitions. Party workers, however, are sharply divided over the former cricketer. A section feels that Gambhir’s clean image, fresh face, and initiatives such as setting up Re 1 canteens, new libraries and playgrounds, and getting landfill heights shortened give him the image of a doer. But others consider him a reluctant politician whose natural instincts still come on the cricket field. He mentors IPL team Lucknow Super Giants and does cricket commentary for Star Sports.
“You make someone MP or state chief on January 1 and she or he will start dreaming of becoming a CM on January 2,” said a party leader, describing how the Delhi BJP was a house of CM aspirants.