While Rajnath Singh faces a battle to remain a central figure in the Bharatiya Janata Party, party president Amit Shah has already begun to look into who could become their new Thakur face in Uttar Pradesh.

Although Thakurs constitute only about 8% of the population of Uttar Pradesh, they are one of the more influential caste groupings in the state.

Two names already being discussed with a view to effecting this generational shift in the BJP’s Thakur leadership are Sangeet Som, the BJP MLA from Sardhana in western UP, and Yogi Adityanath, the Lok Sabha representative from Gorakhpur. In the last few weeks – the same period that Rajnath Singh has struggled to quell a steady campaign against him and his son Pankaj Singh – concrete steps have been taken to increase the stature of these two firebrand Thakur faces.

Changed mood

The BJP announced early on Thursday that it had given Adityanath command of its UP by-poll campaign. Adityanath, a frequent purveyor of anti-Muslim, anti-Christian and even anti-Brahmin rhetoric, was previously restricted by the party to Gorakhpur and neighbouring districts. His elevation shows the changed mood in the BJP. The plan, as it stands, will see him address public meetings as 11 assembly seats and one Lok Sabha constituency go to the polls in by-elections on September 13 by-elections.

This decision was taken on August 19, when Amit Shah visited Lucknow and formed a panel of three leaders to campaign in the by-polls: Adityanath, former chief minister Kalyan Singh and BJP state president Laxmikant Bajpai. Kalyan Singh is likely to refrain from campaigning as he has been appointed governor of Rajasthan.

Steps have also been taken to enhance the stature of Sangeet Som, a Thakur leader who is one of the accused in the Muzaffarnagar riots. The central government’s decision just days ago to accord Som Z+ security is part of the effort to quickly raise his profile, so that he can emerge as the party’s fresh pro-Hindutva mascot in the western districts of the state.

The Uttar Pradesh police accused Som of uploading a fabricated video that sparked communal tensions in Muzaffarnagar in September. Sixty two people were killed and thousands forced to flee their homes. Although the central government has claimed that the decision to provide Z+ security to Som is based on his merits as a leader, political officials confirmed that this is a calculated attempt to raise his stature in the eyes of BJP supporters and contemporaries.

Thakurs wield enormous muscle and money power in Uttar Pradesh. They own close to half the agricultural land in the state. Since the early 1980s, when Congress’ Veer Bahadur Singh, a Thakur, became chief minister, the group has played a prominent role in state politics.

A split

In the late 1980s and 1990s, as a consequence of the Mandal reforms and the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, Thakurs started shifting towards the BJP. A Thakur-Brahmin alliance formed the bedrock of the BJP’s social base in the state. It was during this period that Rajnath Singh emerged as an undisputed Thakur leader of the BJP in UP. But Singh’s style of functioning and a series of electoral debacles for the party in the state resulted in a split between the Thakurs and the Brahmins. It was only restored when Amit Shah was put in charge of Uttar Pradesh before the Lok Sabha elections in 2014.

Both Adityanath and Som are known to frequently give communally charged speeches, so it is clear that the BJP does not mind polarising voting in the state. Yet the great advantage is that both these leaders will be likely to remain loyal to the Modi-Shah axis.

As for Rajnath Singh? This would, of course, signal the beginning of the end for yet another longtime party stalwart.