In a sign of possible turbulence for the Bharatiya Janata Party in the run-up to the Uttar Pradesh polls, the party's eagerness to field Union minister Smriti Irani as the chief ministerial candidate has reportedly led to a standoff with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, its ideological parent.
Officials in the RSS told Scroll.in that the organisation's state-level expressed their displeasure over Irani’s candidature during recent confidence-building exercise by Keshav Prasad Maurya, the BJP’s Uttar Pradesh president.
Uttar Pradesh, currently ruled by the Samajwadi Party, is going to polls early next year and is a crucial state for the BJP. The party is already in preparatory mode in the state, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressing a huge rally at Saharanpur on May 26 to celebrate the National Democratic Alliance's second anniversary in power at the Centre.
However, the party's plans could hit a roadblock with RSS' disapproval over the choice of Irani, the Minister for Human Resources Development, as the party's chief ministerial face.
A crucial decision
“Everyone in the state knows that Smriti Irani is an outsider,” said a senior office bearer of the RSS in UP. “The fact that she contested from Amethi in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections doesn’t make her a natural leader of UP. We have told BJP leaders that if there has to be a chief ministerial face, it should be a local.” Irani had lost the Amethi seat to Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi.
BJP officials confirmed the development but said this was not the end of the road for Irani and was “just the beginning of the consultation process”,
While speculation about Irani's candidature has been rife, the party has not openly spoken of it. Last week, when Modi was in Saharanpur, Irani, who was visiting Amethi, evaded the issue in an interview to a TV channel.
“Party leader and president Amit Shah will decide on the CM face,” Irani had said.
The election in "Uttar Pradesh is an opportunity for us to bring to the fore the resurgence of faith we have seen in the development capacity of the BJP”, Irani told the interviewer. “I am a worker of the party and what will make me happy is a majority in the state.”
In a state known for its caste-based social-political structures, the choice of the chief ministerial candidate could prove crucial. The party knows it will have to tread carefully and weigh all factors before making a final decision.
The issue of Irani’s candidature has fueled debate within the party as well. One faction argues that she has no connection with the state and could crash and burn the way former Indian Police Services officer Kiran Bedi did in the Delhi Assembly polls. Bedi had been declared the BJP’s chief ministerial candidate days before last year's polls, but her candidature was criticised by party members and rejected by voters.
“In UP, the first thing voters ask is a leader’s caste,” a senior BJP leader from the state told Scroll.in. “What can she [Irani] say to voters? Is she a Brahmin, Thakur or Bhumihar? Where would she fit in?”
But another section feels that in a faction-ridden society, a caste-neutral person may be the most appropriate to lead the party to victory. “The problem with the BJP is that if we project a Thakur as the chief ministerial candidate, Brahmins would desert us, and if we project an Other Backward Caste leader, upper-caste voters would leave us,” said a BJP leader considered close to Irani. “It is because of this reason that despite being an outsider, she has an advantage that no other party candidates may have in the state.”
The BJP is determined to wrest control of Uttar Pradesh, where it has not been in power for more than a decade now. The party feels that the results in the key north Indian state will also have a great bearing on the next Lok Sabha elections, due in 2019. It will now have to work hard to get the RSS on board so that the organisation can get into action and start the ground work for the elections. However, a stand-off over the chief ministerial candidate at such an early stage indicates that the going may not be so easy.