In the 2015 Delhi Assembly election, the Bharatiya Janata Party fielded former police officer Kiran Bedi as its chief ministerial candidate. She was up against Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal of the Aam Aadmi Party, with whom she had been associated during the India Against Corruption movement in 2011 and 2012. Bedi was also up against her own party’s leaders such as Vijay Goel and Harsh Vardhan who were not exactly thrilled by the party leadership picking her over them.

The election ended in a crushing defeat for the BJP. It won just three of the 70 seats, with AAP getting the rest. The loss led the safforn party to do something few expected: in the Punjabi-dominated Delhi, it handed over the reins of the state unit to Manoj Tiwari, who hails from Purvanchal, the region consisting of the eastern end of Uttar Pradesh and the western end of Bihar.

Tiwari, best known as a singer and actor from Bihar, was elected to the Lok Sabha on the BJP’s ticket from North East Delhi in 2014. In spite of his relative inexperience, he was elevated to the important postion in Delhi in the hope that an outsider to the state unit would be better able to quell the infighting and factionalism that had cost the party the Assembly election. Another calculation was that he would attract more Purvanchali voters to the BJP.

So how has Tiwari fared since his appointment in November 2016?

“It has improved a lot but there is more room,” Tiwari said about unity in the party’s Delhi state unit. “My biggest challenge when I became the leader was to expose Arvind Kejriwal’s lies, but I could not do that until my party was united from within.”

If the BJP’s bet was that Tiwari, with his popular appeal and folksy idiom, would bring verve to the party, it must also contend with a string of controversies he has sparked, leading veteran party hands to question his leadership style. He invited a contempt notice for forcing the lock on a house sealed on the orders of the Supreme Court, quarrelled with AAP leaders and the Delhi police, and drew flak for campaigning in military fatigues after the Balakot air strike.

Going after Purvanchalis

Senior Delhi BJP leaders agreed that Tiwari was given the job mainly to help the BJP attract the city’s growing Purvanchali population, most of whm are migrant workers. “Delhi’s demography changed and the party thought it was necessary to have Purvanchali representation,” explained Tiwari’s predecessor Satish Upadhyay.

Purvanchalis now form nearly a third of Delhi’s population, said Praveen Rai, a political analyst at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. “In North East Delhi constituency, they are in even larger numbers,” he said. “So all parties field candidates with this identity and their votes determine the outcome.”

Manoj Tiwari addresses a campaign rally in Delhi. Photo via Twitter

Tiwari’s identity isn’t his only draw: he’s also a popular Bhojpuri singer and actor. His roadshows in slums in his constituency are invariably accompanied by loudspeakers blaring out Bhojpuri music.

“He is a vote fetcher for the BJP as his acting and singing skills in Bhojpuri appeal to Purvanchali voters,” said Rai.

Neelkant Bakshi of Delhi BJP’s media relations cell compared Tiwari to NT Rama Rao, who was a Telugu filmstar before becoming Andhra Pradesh chief minister in 1983. “I remember at a rally in Uttar Pradesh’s Ballia in 2015, lakhs of people rushed towards his [Tiwari’s] helicopter to greet him,” said Bakshi. “They went mad after him. This is what works. I see our future in him.”

To achieve firmer success, though, Tiwari needs to first put his house in order.

Dissension within ranks

The Delhi BJP has been riven with infighting since at least 2013, when Vijay Goel and Harsh Vardhan began vying to be declared the party’s chief ministerial candidate for the Assembly election that year.

Though Vijay Goel was the BJP’s state chief, the party’s leadership chose Harsh Vardhan as its candidate for the top job. The party won 31 of the 70 seats, falling just short of a clear majority to form the government.

In February 2014, Goel was replaced as the party chief by Harsh Vardhan. But Vardhan quit after winning from Chandni Chowk in that year’s Lok Sabha election and was replaced by Satish Upadhyay in July 2014.

Upadhyay, who held the post until 2016, said his main challenge was “keeping people together” in the faction-ridden Hindutva party. “And I did it in a graceful manner,” he claimed.

But not effectively enough, or so the party’s leadership believed. Tackling continued infighting was one of the key reasons they brought in an outsider, Tiwari, to lead the Delhi BJP.

He started out by effecting significant changes in the party’s organisational apparatus. “There was a need to bring in fresh faces,” Tiwari explained.

Then, he went to work on the ground. In January 2017, Tiwari toured the major slum clusters that were known to support AAP. “Because of this exercise, a lot of votes that used to go to AAP came to us,” Tiwari claimed.

Nearly four months later, the BJP swept the civic polls, retaining all three of the city’s municipal corporations. The BJP has long controlled these civic bodies. But the fact that it also maintained its vote share despite a spirited challenge from the ruling AAP was seen as a major achievement.

Vijay Goel is considered to be Manoj Tiwari's chief rival in the Delhi BJP. Photo credit: PIB

In spite of Tiwari’s early success, the Delhi BJP remained beset with infighting and factionalism. Vijay Goel and his loyalists resisted Tiwari’s authority, a party leader said, speaking on condition of anonymity. Vijay Goel even held meetings with the party’s workers without Tiwari’s knowledge, the leader added, creating confusion within the ranks.

Soon after the municipal election, Vijay Goel held a “felicitation function” for newly elected BJP councillors. Tiwari sent word to the councillors not to attend, the Hindustan Times reported at the time, but at least 50 of them went anyway. Infuriated, Tiwari threatened to take action against them for disobeying the leadership.

The rift was eventually resolved, BJP leaders claimed. But Ashok Goel, the party’s spokesman, denied there were any divisions to start with. “These differences are created but they are not there,” he claimed.

Tiwari himself was more forthright. “I realised that earlier people were working for their credit only,” he said. “They wanted recognition. So I just started acknowledging their work. If Vijay Goel organised a meeting without me knowing, then I would just say I had asked him to do it.”

The infighting has stopped for now after the party’s leadership finalised its Delhi parliamentary candidates, said the BJP leader who spoke anonymously. “There is democracy within the party which is why you know about this infighting,” the leader added.

Whether the truce will outlast the election, particularly if the result does not go the BJP’s way, remains to be seen.

Caught in controversies

Tiwari has not helped his cause or that of his party by landing in a series of controversies that his rivals have been quick to seize upon.

In keeping with a 2017 Supreme Court order, the municipal corporations launched a “sealing drive” to shutter unauthorised commercial properties in Delhi. By January 31, according to The Indian Express, at least 10,533 commercial establishments had been shut down. The sealing drive angered the trading community, a loyal support group of the BJP.

In an apparent attempt to mollify those affected by the sealing drive, Tiwari allegedly forced the lock on a property sealed by the East Delhi Municipal Corporation, inviting a contempt notice from the Supreme Court. Though the contempt proceedings were dropped later, the court said it was “pained by the machismo and manner of Tiwari” and left it to the BJP to take action against him.

“Tiwari’s act is a poor reflection on his leadership qualities but negativity sells like hotcakes in Indian politics,” said Rai of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. “He is a perfect match for AAP supremo in breaking laws for gaining political mileage.”

Traders protest against the sealing drive in Delhi. Photo credit: HT

The controversy also caused a rift within the BJP, with some members accusing the party’s leadership of failing to find a solution to traders’ problems despite being in power at the Centre.

In late 2018, at the inauguration of the Signature Bridge across the Yamuna, Tiwari was involved in a scuffle with AAP leaders and the Delhi police, whom he accused of “misbehaving” with him. It resulted in a police case against Tiwari as well as against Kejriwal and AAP legislator Amanatullah Khan, according to The Indian Express.

Tiwari kicked up another row by campaigning in army fatigues following the air strike on Balakot. Section 171 of the Indian Penal Code makes it illegal to dress in military uniform with the intent of impersonating members of the armed forces. He claimed that wearning the Army uniform was a “matter of pride” for him.

But a senior BJP agreed that Tiwari was wrong. “It was overacting and there was no need for it,” said the leader who asked not to be identified. “The party high command did not like what he did.”

Vijay Goel, who considered Tiwari’s chief rival in the Delhi BJP, defended him. “He showed boldness,” said the Union minister. “These are minor things. Nobody talks about them anymore.”

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Elections 2019: Could Delhi traders’ anger over sealing of shops damage BJP’s election prospects?