The Bharatiya Janata Party high command is in a peculiar dilemma as it gears up for next year’s crucial Assembly polls in Uttar Pradesh. On the one hand, the party is sorely tempted to announce a chief ministerial candidate after last year’s poll debacle in Bihar, where it projected Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party president Amit Shah instead of state leaders. The dilemma has become even more acute with the contrasting triumph last month in Assam where local politicians spearheaded the election campaign.

Yet, unfortunately for the BJP, the most popular party leader emerging from recent surveys in the state as a chief ministerial candidate is Varun Gandhi, who appears to be quite unacceptable to Modi, Shah as well as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

The surveys carried out by different agencies over the past few months are quite revealing. In April, an ETV poll on most popular BJP leader for the post of chief minister of UP had Varun Gandhi well in front with 51%. He was trailed by Home Minister Rajnath Singh a considerable distance behind with 28%, former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Kalyan Singh at 10%, Hindutva firebrand Yogi Adityanath at 8%, party veteran Kalraj Misra at 2% and Human Resources Development Minister Smriti Irani at just 1%.

In May, another similar survey for BJP chief ministerial candidates by Asume Research for India Today group also showed Varun Gandhi leading with 45%, Rajnath Singh at 34%, Yogi Adityanath at 5%, Kalraj Misra at 4% and Smriti Irani again at just 1%. Interestingly, even in the overall poll for all party leaders in the same survey, Varun Gandhi scored creditably with 20%, behind Mayawati leading the pack with 26% and Akhilesh Yadav at second position with 22% but well ahead of Rajnath Singh at 10% and Priyanka Gandhi at 12%.

This month, the widely circulated Hindi daily Amar Ujala published a survey that further confirmed Varun Gandhi’s high popularity ratings among potential BJP chief ministerial candidates. Here the young Gandhi scored 36.45% – ahead of Rajnath Singh with 29.64%, Yogi Adityanath at 22.22% and Smriti Irani languishing at the bottom with 11.72%.

The Gandhi problem

Had Varun Gandhi not been such an anathema to the top party leadership and the RSS, he would have been an automatic choice as the BJP chief ministerial candidate and perhaps already announced as such. The youngest politician from the Gandhi clan was considered quite a trophy by the BJP when he followed his mother Maneka to the party nearly a dozen years ago and was made its youngest ever national general secretary in 2012 by then party president Rajnath Singh. But his career in the BJP has rapidly slid downwards with the rise of Narendra Modi and particularly after the latter became Prime Minister.

The antagonistic relationship between the two is believed to be mainly because of Modi’s visceral hostility to the Gandhi dynasty and a total repudiation of their heritage. This is quite different from the attitude of the previous generation of BJP leaders, like Atal Behari Vajpayee, who despite their fierce political rivalry with the Nehru-Gandhi clan also held them in some regard.

If Varun Gandhi had been constantly badmouthing his aunt and cousins in the Congress, the prime minister’s resentment towards him may perhaps have lessened a bit, but his dogged refusal to do so, and even have the temerity to meet them occasionally, has raised deep suspicions of him as a possible Trojan Horse of the Gandhis in the BJP camp. The young Gandhi, who is cocky by nature, has also raised the hackles of the BJP high command by pointedly refusing to pay routine obeisance like the other party faithful to Modi and even made snide remarks about inflated accounts of the crowds the prime minister drew in Kolkata during the 2014 Lok Sabha campaign.

Varun Gandhi’s branding himself as a left of centre liberal quite different from his party’s ideology, particularly in Uttar Pradesh, is another major bugbear for Modi, Shah and the RSS. Ironically, he seems to have done a complete ideological somersault from his initial foray into politics seven years ago when he almost got jailed for making alleged hate communal speeches. Today, the young Gandhi has not only distanced himself from the Hindutva brand of politics but also espouses social democratic politics totally alien to the party line.

Party ideology

Significantly, after recent surveys in Uttar Pradesh placed Varun Gandhi ahead among chief ministerial aspirants from the BJP, he was told by the highest echelons of the party that he should remember that popularity ratings would not be the determining factor for selection. The person projected as the party’s choice for chief ministership will have to reflect the values, principles and vision of the BJP and also be subservient to its discipline. The RSS, which is deeply involved in preparations for the Uttar Pradesh polls, is also deeply upset with Varun Gandhi for not bothering to get in touch with local Sangh outfits while touring the state.

All this, however, leaves the top BJP leadership in a pickle on how to project a credible face for its Uttar Pradesh poll campaign. Ideally, it would like to field Smriti Irani who has strong backing from Krishna Gopal, the RSS joint secretary in charge of the BJP as well as the blessings of the prime minister. But all the surveys so far show that she is way behind in the race. In fact, even the ABP Nielsen poll in March this year that placed Rajnath Singh with 18% ahead of Varun with 7% still had Smriti Irani even lower at a mere 3%.

Among other possible chief ministerial candidates, Rajnath Singh does not quite enjoy the trust of either Modi or Shah and may himself be disinclined to jeopardise his political career. Kalyan Singh, on the other hand, is considered too old and antipathetic to the large party support base of Brahmins, while Yogi Adityanath is regarded as a hothead with extremist and inflammatory views on the Muslim minority.