Election 2014: NEW PACKAGE, Old Whine

Dissension in the party, and a fast-diminishing vote share for the BJP have put Rajnath Singh’s Lucknow prospects under a cloud

Pradeep Kapoor Lucknow 

Not many in Lucknow believe that BJP President Rajnath Singh can win from the city’s constituency without serious support from Narendra Modi. Singh left his Ghaziabad seat to contest from UP’s capital to assert his credentials as the inheritor of former PM Atal Behari Vajpayee’s political legacy.  Vajpayee won from here five times since 1991. Singh is being challenged by the Congress’s Rita Joshi Bahuguna who lost by a whisker to BJP’s Lalji Tandon last time. Tandon, who is close to Vajpayee, was keen to contest again, but he was nudged out by Singh in his search for a safe constituency after the latter was unsure of winning the Ghaziabad seat due to the changing political preferences of its constituents. The rise of the Aam Admi Party in such areas is being cited as one of the reasons for Singh’s decision to shift. But a win may still prove elusive for the BJP chief.

Yet another reason for heading to Lucknow, according to political observers, is that contesting from Vajpayee’s seat gives Singh an aura to pitch for the prime ministerial job in the event of a hung house, and allies refusing to have Modi as PM. Singh’s supporters believe that, after Modi, he has the best chance to be PM.   

Expectedly, when he addressed his first press conference, Singh chanted Vajpayee’s name enough times and resolved to fulfil the promises made by him— like setting up a biotech city, cleaning up the filthy Gomati river, and linking it with other rivers. For better effect, he even roped in Vajpayee’s trusty Man Friday, Shiv Kumar, for stage company.   

In order to win over a large number of state and central government employees, Singh said he would look into the pending problems of the last many years. He has also promised jobs to win over a large section of youth, likely to play a decisive role in the elections.

Singh may try to package himself anew by repeating Modi’s message or presenting himself as the true follower of Vajpayee, but it is unlikely to really work with the people of Lucknow, who have seen him from close quarters. He is seen as a Thakur leader who promotes people belonging to his ilk. In a deeply casteist environment, exclusionary politics does not really work. Worse, his decision to para drop as a candidate has taken place at the expense of Tandon, who was expecting to be re-nominated. What further incurred Tandon’s ire was that he was not even consulted before Singh’s candidature was announced. Although the BJP boss’ name had been going around for a while, Tandon had indicated to the media that he would vacate the seat only for Modi and no one else. 

Upsetting Tandon in Lucknow has not really served the party’s interest. In an earlier assembly poll, he reportedly played a key role in ensuring the defeat of a party candidate after a ticket was denied to his son. Singh is conscious of the harm that could come his way and, therefore, made Tandon his election agent. 

Besides dissension in the party, the BJP has to contend with its fast-diminishing vote share in UP ever since the passion for the Ram Mandir at Ayodhya began to subside in the late 1990s. In the 2012 assembly polls, the party registered an abysmal performance, as only a few candidates including veteran leader Kalraj Mishra, could win. The Samajwadi Party, in comparison, won a landslide victory.   

Another cause for introspection and nervousness for BJP leaders was Modi’s rather anodyne rally in Lucknow on March 2. Despite the hype and marshalling of colossal resources— 29 trains, 6,500 buses and many more private vehicles— they could barely get 2 lakh people at Ramabai Maidan, which can easily accommodate many more. It seemed as if Modi could not sell his dreams to the people of Lucknow. This will now have to be tested in the elections scheduled for April 30.  

This time around, the elections will be seriously multi-cornered with Singh having to square off with SP’s Abhishek Mishra, former minister Nakul Dubey (BSP) and Joshi of the Congress, who has emerged as the main challenger. During the last few months,  AAP has also made inroads in Lucknow and it is making serious efforts to win over minorities on the plea that Arvind Kejriwal has taken Modi head-on in Varanasi, as well as in Gujarat. The buzz is that the AAP could field some influential Muslim candidates. 

In the 2009 elections, Joshi lost to Tandon by 38,000 votes, when she barely had 15 days to campaign as her candidature was announced very late. The SP had earlier announced Ashok Nigam’s name, who had been campaigning for a while, but he was then unceremoniously dropped. The BSP’s Dubey has also been working in Lucknow, but has not really been creating an impact despite a sizeable population of Brahmins in the city.

The SP, which got five out of seven UP Assembly seats from Lucknow in 2012, is unlikely to repeat its performance for the Lok Sabha due to the anti-incumbency factor against the Akhilesh Yadav government owing to non-governance and deterioration in law and order. The minorities are also angry because of the Muzaffarnagar communal riots, and the inept and criminal handling of the fallout.

Singh will face a major challenge from Joshi, who has the support of over 300,000 Brahmins, 400,000 Muslims, and 200,000 settlers from the hills. Lucknow has an electoral population of 18 lakh, of which four lakh are Muslims, three lakh Brahmins, and the rest ehhnic groups. 

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: APRIL 2014