Modi-Yogi standoff: Temporary truce

Round one has gone in UP CM's favour, but those who have watched the PM closely know that forgive and forget does not figure in his scheme of things
Last Updated 28 June 2021, 11:35 IST

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath's standoff is now on the back burner. Still, all isn't well within the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP).

Tension continues to brew in the party rank and file. The CM, some of his cabinet colleagues and many legislators do not see eye to eye. These ministers and legislators have a common complaint against Adityanath. They are bitter that the chief minister is inaccessible and unresponsive.

"We cannot ensure even small things for our constituencies and constituents simply because the chief minister does not listen to us. Instead, he gives precedence to bureaucrats over public representatives," lamented a senior ruling party legislator.

The MLA was one of several of his colleagues who recently shared their grievances with the top Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) functionaries and prominent BJP leaders. These senior Sangh Parivar leaders had undertaken repeated trips to Lucknow to gather feedback on Adityanath's style of functioning, thought to be responsible for the disgruntlement in the party.

The UP chief minister's refusal to accommodate AK Sharma, the PM's nominee, in his cabinet had prompted the feedback collection. A former IAS officer of the Gujarat cadre, he was persuaded to opt for voluntary retirement nearly two years before his superannuation when he was a full-fledged secretary to the Government of India. However, on his arrival in Lucknow, the party promptly nominated him as an MLC in the UP Legislative Council.

Having been closely associated with Modi right since 2001, speculation was rife that he would be the deputy chief minister in UP, where two deputy CMs – Keshav Prasad Maurya and Dinesh Sharma - were already in place. So, AK Sharma either expected to replace one or get a new slot explicitly created for him.

Adityanath stuck to his guns even after sustained cajoling and persuasion by RSS deputy national head Dattatreya Hosabale, BJP national organization secretary BL Santhosh and party's UP in-charge Radha Mohan Singh.

The refusal by his chief minister unsettled the prime minister. Yet, there was precious little he could do about it. Perhaps the humiliating defeat of the BJP at the hands of a Mamata Banerjee–led Trinamool Congress left Modi somewhat weakened to stand up to the RSS.

RSS supremo Mohan Bhagwat, or so it is believed, backed Yogi to the hilt, compelling the Modi-Amit Shah duo to put off their plans to affect a change of guards in Lucknow. However, even as Hosabale was in complete agreement with Modi-Shah, the RSS chief managed to prevail over everyone else on the plea that this was not the appropriate time to send a message that there were divisions within. After all, the UP Assembly elections are barely eight months away.

Adityanath promptly went into rapprochement mode with deputy chief minister Keshav Prasad Maurya. He surprised everyone by visiting Maurya's residence, where he had not ventured even once in four-and-a-half years of his stay at the chief ministerial house, especially when the bungalows of the CM and Dy CM are less than 100 metres apart.

Insiders maintain that Adityanath did so at the behest of a top RSS functionary, who had urged him to mend his fences with Maurya, a strong contender for the chief minister's post right from the beginning, essentially on the strength of his OBC (Other Backward Castes) lineage. As state president of the party in the run-up to the 2017 Assembly elections, Maurya was responsible for drawing a chunk of the non-Yadav OBC votes into the BJP fold.

And to have that going, the Sangh Parivar renewed the efforts to keep Maurya in good humour. Sure enough, the joint visit to Maurya's home served the dual purpose of enhancing Maurya's profile and watering down the widespread perception about Adityanath's tilt towards upper caste Thakurs.

Adityanath accompanied two senior RSS leaders who suddenly drew up a plan to call on Maurya. Their pretext - offering their blessings to Maurya's newly-wed son. That made a good reason for Adityanath to visit as well, although the wedding had taken place almost a month ago.

When the day ended, it was evident that round one in the tug-of-war between Modi and Adityanath favoured the saffron-robed Yogi.

The next move of Adityanath's propaganda machinery was to impress upon all and sundry that all was well in the party. Adityanath went out of his way to put up giant advertisements thanking the prime minister for providing free Covid vaccines to the country.

"Thank You, PM Modi Ji," was emblazoned on thousands of hoardings put up all across the state on behalf of the UP chief minister. Also plastered with these advertisements were most of the daily newspapers. The fact that Adityanath undertook this mission precisely 13 days after the prime minister's "free vaccine" announcement betrayed all that might have contributed to this blatant afterthought.

Meanwhile, Modi's pointsman AK Sharma ended up with an insignificant vice president's position in the state BJP organization, which already had 16 vice presidents. That, more than anything else, sent the message loud and clear that Adityanath had got away with his open defiance of the prime minister.

Soon after assuming charge as one of the many vice presidents, AK Sharma shot off a letter to state party president Swatantra Dev Singh, which speaks volumes of what was brewing in the party. "In my humble opinion, even today, the people of Uttar Pradesh love Modiji as much as they had in 2013-14. So, to win the upcoming (UP Assembly) elections, the name and patronage of the mass leader are enough", the letter read.

Significantly, it was only towards the end of the letter that he added, "I am of the firm belief that under your leadership and the leadership of Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, the BJP will bag more seats in the 2022 Assembly elections than in the past."

It would, however, be somewhat naïve to believe that such acts would lead Modi into letting bygones be bygones. Those who have watched Modi closely say that forgive and forget does not figure in his scheme of things.

So, notwithstanding the party and RSS's subsequent echoes that they will fight the next state elections in March 2022 under Adityanath's leadership, time will tell whether he will sail smoothly or there are choppy waters in store for him.

It may be a bit too late now for Modi to make Adityanath meet the same fate as witnessed in Uttarakhand not very long ago. However, it is too early to predict whether an Assam-like formula could seal Adityanath's future. After all, there could be many a slip between the cup and lip.

(The writer is a Lucknow-based senior journalist)

(Published 28 June 2021, 11:35 IST)

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