|(From top) Meenakshi Lekhi at a meeting in New Delhi on Tuesday, Kirron Kher in Chandigarh and Smriti Irani. Pictures by Yasir Iqbal and PTI
New Delhi, April 1: A sulking Uma Bharti’s dig at Narendra Modi today reflected the latest strand of a larger trend: a sidelining of the BJP’s female stalwarts amid the rise of a fresh crop of women in the party.
Aides confirmed that Uma was “upset” at lawyer Ajay Aggarwal being fielded against Sonia Gandhi late last night after she had signalled her readiness to contest from both Jhansi and Rae Bareli.
Typically unmindful of how her outspokenness had repeatedly landed her in trouble and even forced an expulsion, Uma let off steam by unfavourably contrasting Modi’s oratorical skills with Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s though she conceded his popularity.
“Have you heard Modi’s speeches? Vajpayee has been our party’s best orator. If you analyse deeply, Modi is not a good orator. The crowd goes to his rallies to show support and not to listen to him,” she was quoted as telling BJP workers in Jhansi.
She later claimed she was not snubbing Modi.
Uma, a former chief minister whose stock has fallen, is one of two pioneering women who left their imprint on the male-centric politics of the Sangh-mentored party decades ago.
The other, Sushma Swaraj, feels as left out in the cold as Uma in a dispensation increasingly dominated by Modi and his aide Amit Shah.
Sushma was supposed to be a star campaigner in this general election but has confined herself to her constituency Vidisha except for a day’s appearance in Delhi to address a few meetings.
When a BJP spokesperson last week unveiled the campaign schedules of Modi and party chief Rajnath Singh, down to the number of constituencies they would chopper-hop to, he was silent when details were sought on Sushma.
“She feels uninvolved,” a source said. In the past, Sushma would spend her days on the campaign trail giving long interviews to the electronic media that followed her.
The BJP now has a new cast of favoured women, many of whom began as spokespersons and ended up on the Lok Sabha battleground.
Smriti Irani, Meenakshi Lekhi and Kirron Kher are Modi’s frontline ladies while Nirmala Sitharaman, Vani Tripathi Tikoo and Shaina NC operate from the backrooms.
None of them is as politically accomplished as Sushma or Uma. The party’s only woman leader of comparable stature, Rajasthan chief minister Vasundhara Raje, sees herself less in gender terms and more as a power politician on a par with the other regional chieftains.
Smriti, a Rajya Sabha MP from Gujarat, has emerged as a Modi favourite despite challenging his leadership many years ago, apparently at the prodding of her late mentor, Pramod Mahajan.
Some in the BJP complain that Smriti has had it easy without “sweating it out”. When Amit Shah sounded her out on Amethi, she accepted the ticket “without ado”, a source said, “knowing well that she might be fighting to lose” because Amethi is Rahul Gandhi’s constituency.
Meenakshi, the feisty voice on television, is married into a family of Sangh sympathisers. Her husband Aman Lekhi, a lawyer like her, has defended Sangh officials in terror cases.
It had been a toss-up between her and Sonia baiter Subramanian Swamy for the New Delhi seat. The party picked her following feedback that the young voters would relate more to her.
Shaina, a Mumbai fashion designer and party spokesperson, was asked to contest against the Congress’s Priya Dutt from Mumbai Northeast. She declined, saying it was “too tough” to even make a fight of it in a minority-dominated constituency.
Vani turned down ticket offers for the Delhi Assembly polls as well as the Lok Sabha elections. Sources said the leadership was not amused by these responses.
In the ladies’ pecking order today, Kirron, Meenakshi and Smriti are ahead of their peers, regardless of whether they win or not.
As for Uma, sources said she was expecting the snub and felt short-changed by Shah.
Uma had wanted to return to home state Madhya Pradesh but was kept out by chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan and given Jhansi in Uttar Pradesh.
Sources said Uma had last week turned down the offer of Rae Bareli, informing Rajnath she was serious about winning Jhansi and did not want to confuse its voters by contesting from a second seat as well.
“So we looked for options,” a source said. But Uma later got back to Rajnath saying she had changed her mind. By then, Shah had zeroed in on Aggarwal, a Moradabad resident.
Shah, Modi’s minder for Uttar Pradesh, today ruled out a candidate revision in any seat in the state except for Fatehpur-Sikri, a state BJP source said.