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Smriti for Lucknow hot seat? BJP cautious

Published On : 07 Mar 2016

New Delhi, (The Telegraph): The BJP leadership is likely to be circumspect about picking Smriti Irani to lead the party in the Uttar Pradesh elections early next year, party sources said.

The caution has been induced by the mixed experience the BJP has had with chief ministers handpicked by Narendra Modi and Amit Shah so far.

The buzz around Irani as prospective chief ministerial candidate gained momentum after her Parliament speech on the JNU controversy.

Although the Opposition and several academics punched holes in the human resource development minister's defence of the campus crackdown, the BJP claims she "clinched" the debate over who was more "nationalistic".

Video and audio copies of her speech have been handed out to the state units for translation, if necessary, and circulation. Irani was the "most in demand" among the ministers invited to address the BJP youth wing's national convention in Vrindavan that concluded today.

But an intra-party debate has begun whether Irani - who had nothing to do with Uttar Pradesh until she contested against Rahul Gandhi from Amethi in the 2014 general election - is the right person to lead the BJP in a make-or-mar election.

"Modiji's political fate hangs on the outcome. He has managed to weather the defeats in Delhi and Bihar but if we lose the battle for Lucknow, our cadres will be irreconcilably demoralised," an Uttar Pradesh veteran said.

Some fear that Irani might turn out a "disaster" like Kiran Bedi, the police boss declared the chief ministerial candidate days before the Delhi elections but rejected by the cadres.

"The first thing voters ask in Uttar Pradesh is a leader's caste. Is he or she a Pandit (Brahmin), Bhumihar or Yadav? Where does Smriti Irani fit in this template?" a source asked.

But some argue that the "ambiguity" over Irani's social antecedents - her father's a Punjabi and her mother a Bengali - might be an asset.

"The BJP is afraid of a scenario where, for instance, a Rajput projected as the chief ministerial candidate causes the Brahmins to desert the party and vice versa," a source said.

"An Other Backward Classes candidate is not universally accepted. A caste-neutral person like Irani could be the answer."

He recalled: "She herself asked her opponents (in the Rajya Sabha) to name the caste she came from and nobody could."

Another source claimed that by picking up the Amethi gauntlet, Irani had shown herself a " ladaaku mahila (fighting woman)".

"She made a fight of it and scared the Congress. People in Uttar Pradesh prefer aggressive women like Irani and Mayawati," she said.

Irani has maintained her Amethi connect and visits the place once or twice every month.

However, the BJP's latest crop of chief ministers - Anandiben Patel, Laxmikant Parsekar, Manohar Lal Khattar, Devendra Fadnavis and Raghubar Das - has been a mixed bag.

Few of them compare well with Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Raman Singh, now in their third terms, or Vasundhara Raje and B.S. Yeddyurappa (former Karnataka chief minister), who thwarted periodic challenges to their authority and retained their popular base.

Khattar was singed by the first crisis he faced when the Jat quota agitation in Haryana got violent.

Anandiben too failed to contain a Patel uprising, also over reservation, costing the BJP its rural following in the local elections in Gujarat and triggering murmurs whether she should helm the party before the next election.

BJP vice-president O.P. Mathur and joint general secretary (organisation) V. Satish will be in Gujarat from March 8 to meet party workers across the state and "get a sense of the political mood among them".

Photo credit: The Telegraph

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