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Kushwaha row

Desperate to bloom

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TRYING TOO HARD: Even within the BJP, Kushwaha's inclusion caused much heartburn.

In a bid to lose its upper caste image, the BJP was foolhardy enough to back the scamtainted Babu Singh Kushwaha. But this strategy to woo a small core of the OBC base collapsed and the party is now flailing for a foothold.

Worsted by an unlikely backward caste-dalit alliance in the 1993 post-Babri Masjid demolition assembly poll in Uttar Pradesh, the BJP had found defeat hard to digest. With 177 seats in a House of 425, the BJP was marginally ahead of the SP-BSP combine's 175, but the message was stark - the Hindutva charge had run out of steam.

As the news sank in, an isolated BJP, facing the backwash of the drubbing, could only fume as the Congress and the Janata Dal helped install Mulayam Singh Yadav as the chief minister for the second time in his career. The man the BJP demonised for ordering the firing on kar sewaks in Ayodhya in 1990 was back and the golden summer of 1991 when saffronites won 211 seats seemed a receding mirage.

Mulayam Singh's pact with dalit icon Kanshi Ram was predictably short-lived. Caste rivalries and personality clashes ensured a bitter parting of ways and the infamous Lucknow guest house incident of 1995 when the BSP leader Mayawati found herself at risk of physical harm from the SP supporters sowed the seeds of a blood feud.

Even though its main opponents were quarrelling, the BJP did not regain lost glory. It did well in Lok Sabha elections but its fortunes have tapered dramatically since 1999. Its prime mascot, Kalyan Singh, did become chief minister again as the BJP did deals with the BSP, but undone by personal frailties and envious party apparatchiks, he could never recapture lost form.
As it looks to claw its way back to relevance in 2012, there is an air of desperation as well as determination about the BJP. After having relentlessly attacked the Congress since mid-2010 over corruption scandals, the party is aware it must do well in a state that could be the key to who rules Delhi after the next general election.

The reasons are manifold. The BJP leaders know that the Congress has raised its stakes in the election with Rahul Gandhi leading the campaign. While the Congress will put an adverse result down to local factors, Rahul has nonetheless put his leadership upfront, with associates like party general secretary Digvijay Singh making no secret of their desire to succeed at all cost.

Should Rahul's strategies work and the Congress manage to peg the BJP down to a lowly fourth spot, the main Opposition will find it hard to live down the result. Even modest success will see the Congress proclaiming the gains of its PM-in-waiting and argue that the baleful shadow of Team Anna on India's GOP is fading. A good show will arrest the impression that the Congress will be out of reckoning in the 2014 election.

While the desire to hobble its main rival drives the BJP, it has raised its own stakes immeasurably by adopting former Mayawati aide Babu Singh Kushwaha even though the Koeri politician is at the centre of the Rs 2, 000-crore National Rural Health Mission scam. The move was audacious and shocking. The move intended to garner OBC support seemed suicidal.

The calculation of BJP president Nitin Gadkari and some senior leaders was that the risk of being accused of opportunism and of paying mere lip service to probity was worth the prize at hand - the chance of consolidating OBC voters other than the Yadavs who are anyway not enamoured of the Congress. The SP and the BSP had already pledged sub-quotas for minorities.

With minorities reading as Muslims in UP's electoral cauldron, the BJP had nothing to lose by vociferously opposing the proposed quotas. It saw in Kushwaha a chance to position itself as a force behind the community said to account for 10-12 per cent of the population and to settle scores with Mayawati. Kushwaha is no mass leader, but he had been the conduit for official largesse to the community. His alleged "humiliation" could work to the BJP's advantage.

The temptation to go out on a limb despite being keenly aware that it was inviting a backlash over its claims to being an alternative to the graft-hit Congress underlines how much the BJP has invested in its pro-OBC gambit. Surveys and political pundits the party leadership relies on speak of Kurmis and Koeris as the "lesser" OBCs who do not see much profit in backing the SP which spells Yadav dominance.

The decision to field former Madhya Pradesh CM Uma Bharati from Charkhari in Bundelkhand dovetails with the desire to build an upper caste-OBC base. Protests within the party and widespread criticism in the media saw the BJP reverse the decision to take Kushwaha on board. He will now campaign for the BJP from an independent platform.

Yet, the BJP retraced its steps rather reluctantly. A few leaders griped that the party is too sensitive to criticism while some sympathisers felt the party was done in by a media keen to play the balancing act between the BJP and the Congress. But the primary question went unanswered: does the BJP not need to act in consonance with the beliefs it professes to espouse?
Try as it did in the past, the happy circumstance of having a backward leader like Kalyan Singh in its ranks has not worked and while the party remained open to accommodating OBCs, its base crumbled swiftly. The BJP's fall from grace at the Centre in 2004 accelerated the trend as its state leaders looked more and more jaded.

The BJP's last chief minister Rajnath Singh's stint as national president did not alter the story as the party became even more deeply enmeshed in factional disputes. All that the party could do was to hope to join a BSP-led alliance and share the loaves of office. For all their protestations, the BJP leaders' hopes of joining a Mayawati government were all too evident days before the 2007 assembly result.

Mayawati's sarvajan storm saw her form a government on her own and the BJP was reduced to 50-odd seats. There was more bad news in the 2009 Lok Sabha poll when the Congress reaped the benefit of minority votes thanks to the SP's illadvised dalliance with Kalyan Singh, by then a BJP reject. The BJP won 10 Lok Sabha seats from the state and 17 per cent of the votes. Some three years later, the party is looking to change its fortunes.

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