If there is one message that emanates from the Bharatiya Janata Party’s choice of its candidate for the Rajya Sabha from Uttar Pradesh, it is this: The party considers Yogi Adityanath, the sitting MP from Gorakhpur and its hardliner face in the state, to be a threat, and is looking for ways to cut him down to size.

On May 30, as the BJP cleared the name of Shiv Pratap Shukla as its official Rajya Sabha nominee, the message the nomination sent out started creating waves in and around Gorakhpur.

The party’s decision marks the political resurrection of a man who had been kept out of electoral politics for nearly 14 years simply because Adityanath considered him to be a threat.

A rival subdued

Shukla had won Assembly elections four times consecutively – in 1989, 1991, 1993 and 1996 – from Gorakhpur town. In 2002, Adityanath, who had become the BJP MP from Gorakhpur by then, exerted pressure on the party to deny Shukla a ticket. But the BJP went ahead and gave the ticket to Shukla for the fifth time. In response, Adityanath fielded his aide, Radha Mohan Das Agrawal, against Shukla as an Independent candidate. In the fiercely-fought election that followed, Agrawal trounced Shukla. Subsequently, the BJP in that region came under the complete sway of Adityanath, and Shukla was not allowed to enter the poll fray thereafter.

The electoral battle of 2002 settled not just the rivalry between two individuals but also one between two castes – Brahmins and Thakurs. Until then, caste-based rivalry constituted the central battle-line in Gorakhpur and its neighbourhood. The emergence of Adityanath, a Thakur, as a power centre in the late 1990s followed a void created among his caste brethren after a Brahmin hitman, Shri Prakash Shukla, ended Thakur domination when he killed Virendra Pratap Shahi, a Thakur gangster, in 1997. The next year the police killed the Brahmin hitman in an encounter.

After Adityanath became the BJP MP in 1998, it was, therefore, necessary for him to force out Shiv Pratap Shukla, a Brahmin leader, from electoral politics in Gorakhpur so that he could establish undisputed Thakur domination in the region. By ensuring Shukla was defeated in 2002, Adityanath secured this and forced the BJP to toe his line in his pocket borough thereafter.

Brahmins vs Thakurs

Fourteen years down the line, the BJP’s decision to bring Gorakhpur’s Brahmin leader out of the political wilderness is being seen widely as the party’s bid to develop a parallel power centre in the region.

Shukla, a known Brahmin face in this eastern UP belt, may, if required, attract to himself a substantial section of his caste brethren who have accepted Adityanath’s leadership in the absence of a parallel Brahmin face. This possibility may be detrimental to Adityanath’s politics.

The reason is simple. Although Adityanath succeeded in establishing Thakur dominance in and around Gorakhpur after Shri Prakash Shukla was killed and Shiv Pratap Shukla was made to bow out of electoral politics, he could sustain it primarily because the leaderless Brahmins – who are numerically stronger than Thakurs in the region – extended their support to Adityanath, who is also the mahant of the Gorakhnath temple. Thus, the possibility of the emergence of a Brahmin leader does not augur well for the Gorakhpur strongman.

Thinking ahead

But why did the BJP feel the need to bring out Shukla after all these years?

The party is thinking ahead, explained a senior party leader of Uttar Pradesh.

“Yogi Adityanath is not just a party MP,” said the BJP leader. “He also runs an independent organisation [Hindu Yuva Vahini], which has its units in most districts of eastern UP. This is not good for the BJP in the long run.”

The leader added: “We don’t want a situation in which a new outfit tries to divide the Hindu vote as is happening in Maharashtra. We don’t want a Shiv Sena in Uttar Pradesh.”

Adityanath, who has areas of influence in eastern UP, flashed across the national political radar in January 2014 when he took Narendra Modi – then the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate – in his helicopter to Gorakhpur to address a rally. In the Lok Sabha elections that year, he was the only BJP candidate apart from Modi and Rajnath Singh to campaign for other members of the party.

He was put in charge of the BJP’s campaign for UP in the Assembly by-elections held in September 2014. But after the party’s electoral debacle in those by-elections, Adityanath lost much of his attraction for the saffron party. His stock with the BJP leadership has been falling consistently since then.

He was back in the news on Wednesday, with provocative statements about Mohammed Akhlaq, the Muslim man who had been lynched by a mob in the Uttar Pradesh town of Dadri in September on rumours that he had stored beef in his home. Eating and possessing beef is not a crime in the state – only killing a cow is. But after reports emerged on Tuesday that a forensic report showed that the meat found in a bin near Akhlaq's home was beef and not mutton as initial investigations had said, Adityanath demanded that action should be taken against the Akhlaq family and demanded that they return the compensation they had been paid.

Coming at a time when Adityanath is trying hard to get the BJP to project him as its chief ministerial candidate for the 2017 Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, the party’s decision to nominate Shukla to the Rajya Sabha is an indication that it wants to fix Adityanath before it takes on its electoral rivals – Mulayam Singh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party and Mayawati of the Bahujan Samaj Party.