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Bengal test for heartland’s master strategist
Tripathi heads to Raj Bhavan

New Delhi, July 14: Keshari Nath Tripathi’s birthplace Allahabad and political turf Uttar Pradesh have been unkind to him since 2004 — he never won any parliamentary or Assembly election after that.

Think BJP and Uttar Pradesh, and it is impossible to drop Tripathi from a pantheon that included him, Kalyan Singh, Lalji Tandon, Kalraj Mishra, Om Prakash Singh and Rajnath Singh. Of the six, only the youngest, Rajnath, managed to beat the storms that pounded them. The rest came out, bruised and battered in varying degrees.

Tripathi, who was MLA five times from the prestigious Allahabad seat, was denied a Lok Sabha ticket in the general elections this year. Before he was turned down, he had said: “When the high command sought my opinion, I told them that if given the responsibility of contesting from Allahabad, I will certainly win the seat given the (Narendra) Modi wave prevailing in the country.”

Later, Tripathi was one of the handful of BJP leaders to publicly acknowledge that the “Modi factor” had powered the BJP’s victory.

His last Lok Sabha election was in 2004, as a candidate from the rural Machchlishahr seat in eastern Uttar Pradesh. Tripathi, essentially an urbane politician more at ease in Allahabad High Court where he practised for decades than the dust bowl, took up an issue that made no sense to the rural voters: then HRD minister Murli Manohar Joshi’s decision to slash IIM fees. Tripathi lost to the BSP’s Umakant Yadav, who fought the polls from behind bars as an under-trial in a murder case.

Tripathi’s subsequent poll campaigns lost steam too, failing to pick up even when he contested from native Allahabad in the 2012 Assembly polls. In January that year, just before the polls, he conceded defeat mid-way to the Samajwadi wave that swept the state. He admiringly spoke of how Akhilesh Yadav, the young man who would be chief minister, had inherited his father Mulayam Singh Yadav’s “political genes”.

Tripathi and Mulayam go back a long way, their bonhomie starting in 2003 when the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led government was in power at the Centre. After the BJP withdrew support to a government headed by Mayawati, Vajpayee, L.K. Advani and Pramod Mahajan worked with state leaders to facilitate a rag-tag coalition headed by Mulayam.

Mulayam poached on other parties to get a majority as the Centre looked on benignly. Tripathi was Speaker of the Assembly when the BSP’s Mayawati was chief minister. Mulayam did not disrupt the arrangement and let Tripathi continue — a rare gesture in a highly polarised and fractious polity.

Tripathi helped Mulayam in touch-and-go situations in the legislature and ensured the coalition stayed intact.

In doing so, the BJP leader appeared to have forgotten the horrors of a black day in the Assembly in January 1993 when a Samajwadi Party-BSP coalition government held its first session after coming to power.

The MLAs of the BJP and the Samajwadi-BSP combine had used cycle chains and rods to attack each another in full view of the Chair. Tripathi, small built and helpless, was pulled out of his seat, slapped and struck with an instrument that left him with a broken nose.

However, his vulnerable frame belied a quick-silver mind that not only bailed an Opposition politician like Mulayam at times but his own party, the BJP, in its moments of trial.

In 1997, when the BSP decided to pull out of the first coalition government it had formed with the BJP — after aborting an alliance with the Samajwadi Party — Tripathi came into his own as a master strategist. He stymied, with Kalyan and Rajnath, the BSP’s demand that he should step down as Speaker.

The BJP-BSP alliance had worked out an arrangement for sharing power on a six-monthly rotational basis. Since there was a BJP Speaker (Tripathi) with a BSP chief minister (Mayawati), the BSP argued that it was fair that a BJP chief minister should co-exist with a BSP Speaker. But Tripathi said he would not step down as he was “entitled to a full term”.

Confronted with his resistance, the BSP backed off. Tripathi and his team smelt blood and upped the ante. The day after he became chief minister, Kalyan issued an executive order to “curb misuse” of the Dalit Act that the BSP interpreted as a “dilution” of its provisions.

The face-off continued. Efforts by Vajpayee, Advani and Joshi to save the partnership failed as Tripathi, Rajnath and Kalyan worked in tandem on a “Plan B” that eventually engineered large defections from the Congress, Janata Dal and the BSP to shore up a majority for a vote of confidence the BJP won.

Tripathi saved the government repeatedly against internal machinations. But his endeavours came at a price because the BJP, the so-called party with a “difference”, had lost its iqbal (prestige) by then.

The BJP’s decline saw Tripathi plunge almost full-time in his legal calling. He wrote poetry in Hindi and was a regular in kavi sammellans (poets’ assemblages) in India and abroad.

Fast-forward to today. Asked how he viewed his new assignment as Bengal governor and the prospect of working with a Trinamul government, Tripathi said: “I am looking forward to it. Whatever I do will be strictly within the ambit of the Constitution.”

The legal eagle, whose terms as Speaker became controversial but whose commentaries on the Representation of People’s Act, 1951, are well regarded, should know that.