The BJP is the most avid patron of the election marketplace, angling for the disgruntled and the discontent among rivals.
Last Saturday, the Congress, sapped internally with the serial defections to the BJP, was about to suffer another haemorrhagic stroke that was apparently arrested after the news went viral. Jitin Prasada, the scion of Jitendra Prasada – whose patrician good looks were as much of a talking point as his political ingenuity – was reportedly in serious negotiations with the BJP, with the proviso he would be its candidate from Uttar Pradesh’s Dhaurahra, the constituency that he lost to the BJP in 2014. It appeared that only a formal announcement was awaited because Jitin had run out of patience with the Congress. In the October of 2001, Prasada senior had challenged Sonia Gandhi in a rare election to the post of the Congress president that he lost because his associates of yore, notably PV Narasimha Rao, ditched him. Jitendra was political secretary to Rajiv Gandhi and Rao.
Jitendra’s dare to Sonia did not impede his son’s rise in the Congress. He was counted among Rahul Gandhi’s aides and last appeared publicly in the Gandhi siblings’ road show at Lucknow. Jitin was nominated from Dhaurahra but his gripe was that two adjoining constituencies, Kheri and Sitapur, had gone to Muslims. Why did that matter? Jitin feared the presence of Zafar Ali Naqvi and Kaisar Jahan (both former MPs) would imperil his election by polarising the electorate on communal lines and benefit the BJP. Congress insiders also said he had promised the two seats to his nominees, convinced that his “proximity” to Rahul would swing a favourable response. If his father took Rao’s support for granted, Jitin thought Rahul was his endorser. Both erred.
Narendra Modi and Amit Shah might look disparagingly at the crème de la crème of Lutyens’ Delhi, but, like the others in the BJP, they have a weakness to cultivate the elite. Jitin is one. He’s a Brahmin of covetable pedigree: Purnima Devi, Rabindranath Tagore’s niece, Jwala Prasada, an ICS officer, and Pamela Prasada from the Kapurthala royalty are his ancestors. So he wasn’t just another acquisition. “Thoroughbreds” aren’t necessarily winners. This was proved in 2014 when Rekha Verma, who described herself as a “trader” in her CV, bested her rivals and pushed Jitin down to a fourth place. The BJP hasn’t yet re-nominated Rekha while declaring the nominees for the seats around Dhaurahra – a pointer to its interest in Jitin.
Five years ago, when large swathes of India were swamped with the “Modi mania”, the BJP handed out tickets somewhat indiscriminately, convinced that Modi was enough to underwrite a win. Maheish Girri, who was elected from East Delhi, was recommended by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, the Art of Living founder, while Babul Supriyo, a playback singer, who won from West Bengal’s Asansol, made it by dint of a “chance” meeting with Ramdev. BJP lore says Ramdev asked Supriyo if he wanted to contest. Supriyo said yes and the story had a happy ending.
The BJP maintains an open-door policy and has an eclectic bunch of newcomers but would love to get in the gilt-edged to give a patina of savoir vivre that might force the Lutyens’ zone to give a once-over.
In the 1990s, roping in “outsiders” was not much about foraging for candidates as seeking legitimacy that was undermined by the divisive and combustible Ayodhya campaign. The Babri mosque’s demolition underlined the breach between a growing number of Hindutva adherents and a declining population of secular liberals that still exists in some measure. The BJP framed the polemics as a chasm between India and “Bharat” although LK Advani was among the first to feel distinctly uncomfortable with the divide. He reached out to the social and economic elite and was keen to repackage the BJP as another version of Australia’s Christian Democratic Party. The induction of individuals such as Yashwant Sinha (from the Janata Party) and PR Kumaramangalam (from the Congress) softened the brutish edges that “Hindutva” inflicted. Kumaramangalam was the son of S Mohan Kumaramangalam, who started out as a Communist and in the ’70s shaped Indira Gandhi’s socialist agenda.
In the Modi-Amit Shah regime, inductions are more about identifying candidates because they know the BJP has attained a level of success Advani would never have dreamt of and need not prove anything to anyone. The parameters have changed to the extent that instead of relying on a Ramdev for a testimonial, the duo gets down to brass tacks such as caste and the ability to work local networks advantageously. Other factors apart, Jitin’s utility lies in him being a Brahmin. The BJP has to seriously court Brahmins in Uttar Pradesh where Yogi Adityanath, the chief minister, leans excessively on the side of the Rajputs.
In 2014, the “Modi wave” could absorb local infirmities so seamlessly that in places, voters didn’t care less who their candidate was. A wave has a life span. Once it ebbs, it takes quite a bit for a wave to rise again. BJP insiders have placed a greater premium on candidates this time than in the last election. Why else would the party have dropped candidates wholesale in Chhattisgarh after it was routed in the December 2018 elections? Is there a sense that Modi alone cannot guarantee a win? Doubtless, the BJP has an upper hand over the Opposition that is beginning to look fractious. But the hunt for suitable suitors will go on.
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