BJP loses steam: ‘Battle for UP’ hots up

BJP repeatedly shot itself in the foot this week. Mismanaging the aftermath of the violence in Lakhimpur Kheri could potentially damage BJP’s electoral prospects more than the Covid mismanagement

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, Chhattisgarh CM Bhupesh Baghel and Punjab CM Charanjit Singh Channi detained at the Lucknow airport
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, Chhattisgarh CM Bhupesh Baghel and Punjab CM Charanjit Singh Channi detained at the Lucknow airport

Mini Bandopadhyay

Tension was brewing in and around Tikunia since the third week of September. That was when Union Minister of State for Home Affairs Ajay Mishra Teni was heard in viral videos threatening farmers. It was time for farmers to mend their ways and start behaving, he was heard saying, because before becoming an MLA, MP or minister, he was a ‘goonda’ and would easily straighten the farmers in two minutes.

The Minister is indeed accused in a murder case. He was accused of killing one Prabhat Gupta (23) in the year 2000. He was however acquitted by the trial court in 2004. An appeal was filed by the state against the acquittal and the Lucknow Bench of the Allahabad High Court reserved the judgment in March 2018. But the judgment is yet to be delivered because the case apparently has not even been listed for the past two and a half years, since February 2019. And somehow Mishra has not had the time to turn up in court.

Mishra, who was inducted into the Union Council of Ministers in July this year to placate Brahmins annoyed with BJP for neglecting them, was shown black flags after the video was shared widely. He allegedly responded with a thumbs down sign at the protesters from his car.

When it was announced that Mishra and Deputy Chief Minister Keshav Prasad Maurya would be attending a wrestling tournament or ‘dangal’ in Mishra’s ancestral village on Sunday, October 3, thousands of farmers gathered at the helipad that morning with black flags. Bus loads of PAC and policemen were deployed in the village, at the helipad and on the approach road.

Local intelligence reports had confirmed that tension was brewing and Maurya, who had arrived in the district, was advised not to attend the tournament. He had earlier abandoned plans to land at the helipad. Mishra and Maurya were advised to keep away from the helipad too and the police put up barricades to keep the farmers at bay and prevent a clash. Armed policemen with tear gas shells were also present in the area to ward off a clash.

Why then didn’t the elaborate arrangements work? Any investigation into the gruesome violence in Lakhimpur Kheri on October 3 must look into the police failure to prevent the killings. Police might not have anticipated the sudden rush of blood that made occupants- -or one occupant--of the cars deliberately plough through farmers. But what explains their failure to protect the other occupants (BJP workers?) from being lynched?

Is Sunday’s violence in Lakhimpur Kheri a turning point in UP’s politics? While it is possibly too early to tell, there is little doubt that BJP has emerged politically bruised and looking a little silly.

By refusing to act against the occupants of the Mahindra Thar jeep that ploughed through farmers from behind, the state government set a poor example of misgovernance. A posse of policemen and civil officials were on the spot.

There was no excuse for not taking immediate action. But not only did the state government drag its feet, in the next four days it kept on making one political mistake after another.

In the last assembly election held in 2017, BJP had bagged 80 of the 103 assembly seats in Western UP. The ongoing farmers’ agitation had threatened to wipe out BJP’s footprint in the region. However, till Sunday, October 3, BJP was reasonably confident of dividing agitating farmers and winning over some of the farm leaders. It was hopeful of salvaging the situation while being reconciled to serious losses. But after shocking videos of a Union minister’s jeep ploughing through a group of farmers, killing four of them and a journalist, and injuring eight more people surfaced, BJP leaders in the state have lost their swagger.

Smiles returned on BJP leaders’ faces when farmers’ leader Rakesh Tikait and the ADG (Law & Order) brokered a deal with the families who were refusing to cremate the bodies of dead farmers till the Union minister’s son was arrested. Cash compensation, a judicial inquiry, a proper investigation and a government job were assured. Smug BJP leaders claimed to have a back channel to Tikait.

The smiles disappeared when Tikait clarified the next day that the deal was for the limited purpose of cremating the bodies. Farmers would still wait for the arrest of Ashish Mishra, who, they accused, was in the jeep which ran over the farmers.

Smiles reappeared when Congress loudly complained that other political party leaders, notably from AITC and the RLD, had been allowed to reach Lakhimpur Kheri but not Congress leaders. While AITC leaders had posed as tourists on their way to Nepal, RLD leader Jayant Chaudhary was said to have walked some distance to evade police check posts. But with more videos surfacing and growing outrage in the country, they began to have second thoughts.

The Prime Minister and the Union Home Minister did not utter a word on the horrific crime. The PM was seen as insensitive as he nonchalantly went through an event in Lucknow to celebrate 75 years of Indian Independence. It reminded many of his famous statement, when asked if he was sorry for the deaths in post-Godhra riots, that even when pups were run over, he would feel sorry. But here four human beings had been run over and killed but the PM did not seem to be sorry. People were again reminded of his insensitivity when in Uttarakhand this week the PM declared that it was the job of the government to reach help at people’s doorstep.

The chief minister did not utter a word of condolence. The state police dragged its feet in arresting the culprits. The son of the Union minister was reluctantly summoned for ‘questioning’ only after the Supreme Court asked for a status report on how many people were named in the FIR and how many were arrested.

While a posse of civil and police officers were present on the spot, at least one of whom miraculously escaped serious injuries, none of them recorded any statement, not a shining example of good administration.

The state government made it even worse by detaining Priyanka Gandhi Vadra and Deepender Hooda among other Congress leaders at Sitapur, preventing them from visiting the victims’ families. Forty-eight hours later she was arrested, and within the next 12 hours released and allowed to visit Lakhimpur Kheri.

Political observers believe BJP did not expect Congress supporters and workers to hit the streets in large numbers. In several Uttar Pradesh cities, Congress supporters took out candle light marches. In Sitapur, Congress workers, including women, staged a dharna and began organising a ‘langar’ to offer food to both supporters and visitors. The mobilisation caught BJP and the state government by surprise. And when they realised that things were threatening to get out of hand, they quickly released Priyanka Gandhi and Hooda.

The same pig-headedness marked the decision to withhold permission for Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel’s plane to land in Lucknow. Permission was denied to Punjab Congress leaders to visit Lakhimpur Kheri, where a sizeable Sikh community of farmers is settled for long. And when Congress MP Rahul Gandhi, Baghel and Punjab Chief Minister Charanjit Singh Channi flew into Lucknow in a commercial flight, they were asked to sit in a police jeep, which they refused.

The previous day, the UP authorities had refused permission to the Chhattisgarh Chief Minister from leaving Lucknow airport to reach the party office in Lucknow. Asked by Baghel if he needed a visa to visit Lucknow, officials came up with the lame excuse that Section 144 (CrPC) was in force in both Lucknow and Lakhimpur Kheri; and orders were not to allow him to leave.

BJP leaders defended the administration and accused Congress leaders of “playing politics”. State minister Siddharth Nath Singh pompously declared that no Congress leader would be allowed to do any “mischief”. They looked a little silly when hours later all Congress leaders were allowed to proceed to Lakhimpur Kheri.

Some BJP leaders put up a brave face in Lucknow and explained the missteps as masterful strategy. Driving a wedge in the Opposition and allowing Congress leaders to steal the thunder, they argued, were meant to put the Samajwadi Party in a spot. If Congress votes surged in some constituencies at the cost of SP, they added hopefully, it would suit the BJP just fine.

But BJP leaders again seemed to have taken a false step when they called on families of the three BJP workers killed in Sunday’s violence on Thursday and handed over Rs 45 lakh each as compensation to them. Uttar Pradesh Government had earlier announced a compensation of Rs 45 lakhs to the four farmers killed on that day. The state government did not announce any compensation for the BJP workers or to the journalist killed, triggering resentment and prompting questions to be asked. Did they miss the chance of earning some goodwill by ignoring the journalist, who they had earlier described as a BJP worker?

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