|Amit Shah, the BJP general secretary in charge of Uttar Pradesh
New Delhi, March 10: Sunder Singh Bhandari, remembered in BJP’s legend and lore for silencing the likes of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L.K. Advani in internal meetings because he was supposedly endowed with nerves of steel, was a transformed persona when in Uttar Pradesh.
Bhandari, who passed away in 2005, was a quintessential RSS pracharak whose words were measured and whose demeanour was stony. Yet when he was Uttar Pradesh’s central minder for the BJP, he would quake in anger each time journalists mentioned the state and the local leaders.
Even Bhandari, whose reputation as a “no-nonsense” organisational person preceded him, could do nothing to contain the state’s factional heads who at that time were Kalyan Singh, Kalraj Mishra, Lalji Tandon, Om Prakash Singh, Kesri Nath Tripathi and Rajnath Singh.
“The script went something like this. These district chieftains squabbled among themselves in Lucknow. But when they heard the footsteps of an outsider entering the BJP’s state headquarters, they closed ranks, ganged up against him and ensured he could not get his little toe inside,” an old-timer recalled.
That was in the 1990s.
Nearly 15 years later, the protagonists on the BJP’s Uttar Pradesh landscape remain unchanged — a testimony to their resilience and manoeuvrability.
But in 2014, when Tandon — who thinks he is to Atal Bihari Vajpayee what Bharat was to Ram in the Ramayan, a turf-protector — started to throw shenanigans at the first whiff of trouble over his Lok Sabha seat, Lucknow, Amit Shah swung into rearguard action.
In 24 hours, Tandon had to retract his threat that if anyone other than Narendra Modi was fielded from Lucknow, he would oppose the candidate. It is an open secret that Rajnath wished to shift from Ghaziabad to Lucknow before the Lok Sabha polls, for various reasons, including the apprehension that the Aam Aadmi Party could be a mighty challenger.
Ever since Shah, who was Advani’s and later Modi’s political manager in Gujarat and now a general secretary, was tasked to clean up the act in Uttar Pradesh in 2013, he made one thing clear to the local worthies: he was there for a specific purpose — to maximise the BJP’s returns from Uttar Pradesh, an indispensable factor for getting power at the Centre.
He was non-aligned to any faction or leader and he had no vested interest in the state because the moment his job was done, he would leave, possibly not to return in time to come.
Shah, assisted by two deputies from Bihar, directly touched base with district and block-level leaders and office-bearers.
His first job was to vet the membership lists and sift the fake from the real— an exercise that unsettled the big guns who often flaunted their “success” in membership enrolment to perpetuate their hegemony.
In this, he was helped by several workers who waited for years without expecting and getting nothing from the BJP and finally glimpsed hope of “fair treatment”.
It helped that everyone in Uttar Pradesh’s top hierarchy was an electoral dud: despite kicking and screaming, Tandon could not ensure that his son, Gopal Tandon, won the Lucknow North seat in 2012. Mishra, in his seventies, won his first Assembly election, in 2012, by a whisker.
Rajnath could not deliver a single Assembly segment from Ghaziabad, his Lok Sabha constituency. Tripathi lost from Allahabad. The three who won from Varanasi’s Assembly segments were perennial victors and owed no thanks to Murli Manohar Joshi.
Shah’s message to rebels and potential rebels was simple, said sources. “Do you want the BJP to be out of power at the Centre yet again? Are you putting your own interests above the party’s and most importantly, the nation? If you do, our ‘India First’ campaign goes for a toss,” he was quoted saying.
That Rajnath and the RSS were “100 per cent” behind him helped Shah’s endeavour. “Nobody is unhappy, nobody has told you and me that,” said Shah.
But in quelling the incipient rebellion threat posed by Joshi and Tandon, sources said the RSS also sent a larger message to Advani and Sushma Swaraj who repeatedly articulated their unhappiness with the BJP’s working in the Modi regime publicly or made known to the media their private utterances through their confidants. “They should hold their horses,” a source said.
Sushma is reportedly keen to shift to Bhopal from Vidisha while Uma Bharti, now an MLA in Uttar Pradesh, wants to return to Madhya Pradesh via a Lok Sabha contest.