If there is a big message to be read in the Bharatiya Janata Party’s choice of candidate for the upcoming bye-election to Gorakhpur Lok Sabha seat, it is this: despite making Adityanath the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, the leadership is unwilling to give him a significant voice in the party’s affairs.

Upendra Shukla, the candidate, is among the BJP leaders in Gorakhpur who had to stay out of electoral politics for over a decade because they had angered Adityanath by trying to diminish the political influence of Gorakhnath temple in the region. Adityanath is the temple’s chief priest.

BJP leaders said Adityanath wanted the party to field someone “closely associated” with the temple in Gorakhpur but was snubbed. The seat fell vacant when Adityanath resigned to take over as the Uttar Pradesh chief minister last March. His deputy, Keshav Prasad Maurya, vacated the Phulpur parliamentary seat. Both constituencies go to bye-polls on March 11.

“Adityanath first tried to persuade Swami Chinmayanand to contest from Gorakhpur,” an aide of the chief minister claimed. “In a meeting held at the temple on February 14, Swami Chinmayanand politely turned down the offer, saying he might not be a suitable candidate because he was an outsider. He said Yogiji should field someone who belonged to Gorakhpur and who could take along all major caste groups in the constituency.”

Chinmayanand, a minister in Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s government, is originally from Gonda in eastern Uttar Pradesh. He was a disciple of Avaidyanath, Adityanath’s predecessor as the chief priest of Gorakhnath temple as well as MP from Gorakhpur. Chinmayanand has represented Badaun (1991), Machhlishahr (1998) and Jaunpur (1999) in Parliament.

Turned down

After Chinmayanand refused to contest, Adityanath tried to get the BJP leadership to field Swami Kamalnath, who acts as the chief priest in the absence of Adityanath. “On February 18, Adityanath flew to Delhi where he had a meeting with BJP chief Amit Shah and the party’s UP president Mahendra Nath Pandey,” the aide said. “He proposed the name of Swami Kamalnath but Amit Shah turned down his proposal and suggested the name of Upendra Shukla. The proposal was immediately seconded by Mahendra Nath Pandey. Despite Adityanath expressing reservations, Shukla’s candidature was finalised.”

In 2006, Shukla had contested the bye-election to Gorakhpur’s Kauriram Assembly seat as an independent candidate after being denied a ticket by the BJP. He divided the BJP’s vote and helped defeat the party’s nominee Shital Pandey, an Adityanath loyalist. Shukla garnered 17,635 votes, which resulted in Pandey losing to the Samajwadi Party’s Ram Bhual Nishad by 10,629 votes. The defeat of his loyalist, however, did little to stop Adityanath from strengthening his grip on the BJP organisation in northeast Uttar Pradesh. Shukla stayed with the BJP but was kept out of electoral politics.

Inside the BJP, the nomination of Shukla, a Brahmin leader, is seen as an attempt to create a parallel power centre to Adityanath in the region. It could also be seen as an outreach to Brahmins, the largest upper caste group in not just Gorakhpur but across the state.

Shukla is the BJP’s first Gorakhpur candidate in three decades from outside Gorakhnath temple, which is believed to wield considerable influence on the region’s voters. From 1991 to 1996, the constituency was represented by Avaidyanath, won had also won it as a Hindu Mahasabha candidate in 1989. Avaidyanath was succeeded by Adityanath, who won five straight terms until 2014.