Not all’s well with the Modi juggernaut. The BJP, playing caste in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, is discovering it can be like quicksand. It was easy to project Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi as a tall leader, but—dominated as the party is by upper-caste leaders—it’s finding it difficult to zero in on Other Backward Class (OBC) and Extremely Backward Class (EBC) candidates to field in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
Modi belongs to the Ghanchi (oil miller and trader) community, listed as an OBC in Gujarat, but relatively well off and integrated with the savarna communities. For instance, most housing colonies with an unwritten code allowing only savarnas to dwell there have no problems admitting Ghanchis. But in its desperation to woo the OBC vote, crucial in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, the party is projecting him there as an EBC leader. Since EBCs are chosen by states as the worse-off on the OBC list, this is as abject an attempt at hardselling backwardness as there was one. The UP party unit has even been organising district-level EBC conclaves and its spokesman Lautam Ram Nishad has been fuming against the creamy layer OBCs running away with government sops, leaving the EBCs at a loss.
The desperation to play up Modi as an EBC has created some strategic problems. Insiders say the Modi camp fears this might alienate the more numerous OBCs. Some say it might foul the (rumoured) deal between BJP president Rajnath Singh and the Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav. (Yadavs are OBCs.) Says an OBC leader of the BJP, “Didn’t SP withdraw its candidate against Rajnath in Ghaziabad during the last election?” Given the distrust between the Modi camp and the BJP chief, it’s being alleged that Rajnath is settling old scores with Modi.
Meanwhile, the ‘backward push’ continues. Some leaders are demanding a posthumous Bharat Ratna for Kanshi Ram, the late BSP leader, to project a newfound love for Dalits; in Bihar, Rajnath discovered striking similarities between Modi and the late Karpoori Thakur. And in collecting iron for Modi’s grand Sardar Patel statue, the BJP is projecting the Sardar as a Kurmi leader, conflating the vague lines between land-owners and tillers that vary from region to region to suit its purpose. And while it hopes Modi’s personality cult will make candidates immaterial, the party is struggling to striking the caste balance in choosing candidates. It’s also hamstrung by a lack of OBC leaders. There’s Kalyan Singh and Uma Bharati, but they are seen as spent forces.
Also unnerving cadres is the delay in finalising candidates, caused by intense infighting. Plans were to have a list by January-end. It was argued that delaying the list for the Delhi assembly polls had led to bad results, and that an early announcement would energise party workers for the campaign. But with February drawing to a close, the list still eludes them. Ideally, the party would like to dump many of the 12 MPs from Bihar and 10 MPs from UP. But it has been advised to hold the decision to stall malcontents and mischief-makers. In the process, it’s unable to give a headstart to those it wants to retain.
Many sitting MPs are looking for safer seats. Rajnath, who won from Ghaziabad in 2009, is said to be one. If party insiders are to be believed, his camp had floated the idea that he should fight from Lucknow. But the incumbent MP, Lalji Tandon, is adamant that he would give up the seat only if Modi decides to contest from there. But despite speculation that Modi would be contesting from either Varanasi or Lucknow, such an announcement, if at all, is expected closer to the election.
The party’s decision to welcome into its fold former bureaucrats like retired home secretary R.K. Singh and former Mumbai police commissioner Satyapal Singh and field them from key constituencies has also run into heavy weather. Disappointed local aspirants are suspected to be responsible for the hostile reception received by Satyapal Singh at Baghpat. The reception by the local BJP unit at Arrah in Bihar to R.K. Singh was also reported to be cold.
It is in this backdrop that RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat spent five days this month holed up in Varanasi. His terse message to the BJP: Stop being complacent, put the house in order, unite and put an end to the infighting. Right now, the party with a difference does not seem so different from others after all.