The shuffling of chief ministers in Uttarakhand -- three in a four-and-a-half-year span – certainly reveals that there is a problem in the ruling BJP’s structure in the two-decade-old state. The party has a commanding majority -- 57 out of 70 seats -- in the state Assembly, and yet stability seems to elude it. The party seems unable to find a leader. Trivendra Singh Rawat gave way to Tirath Singh Rawat, and just four months later he is replaced by Pushkar Singh Dhami, a party member who has never been in the government. Even a centralised party like the BJP, where the lines of command are clearly drawn -- the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) directs the central leadership of the BJP, and the central leadership calls the shots in the state -- power politics and the clash of interest groups assert themselves.
There is the additional factor in the inner party dynamics of the BJP --the streak of Hindutva which each leader wants to flaunt to show that he is true-blue ideological soldier. This could be seen in Trivendra Singh allowing the untrammelled Kumbh Mela at Haridwar to take place at the beginning of the year, when Covid-19 was yet to be controlled and the rollout of the Covid-19 vaccine still remained a vague programme. But as the fury of the second wave of the pandemic was unleashed in April-May, the Kumbh Mela was seen as the culprit super-spreader, along with the farmers’ agitation and the state Assembly elections in Kerala, Puducherry, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and Assam. The first Rawat tried to defend the state government’s decision to allow the Kumbh Mela, saying this was an open air gathering and therefore less problematic.
But it would be naïve to believe that the BJP’s central leadership replaced him because of the Covid-19 sin of allowing the Kumbh Mela. There were pressures from the state party unit. His replacement, the second Rawat, did not seem to be particularly skilled to hold the party together and lead it into the elections early next year. But there was enough rivalry and spite between the two Rawats because the inquiry into the medical clearance for those participating in the Kumbh Mela has revealed a racket of false permissions. But the problem was not squarely nailed, because there was no tracking of the thousands who poured into Haridwar for the Kumbh Mela.
The false certification showed the cavalier manner in which the Covid-19 pandemic was treated by the BJP state government. And the government at the Centre cannot pretend that it was unaware about it. Trivendra Singh Rawat was also pushing to turn the “Char Dham”, comprising the Kedarnath, Badrinath, Gangotri and Yamunotri shrines, into a pilgrim circuit under an administrative authority called the Char Dham Devasthanam Board. The Brahmins in these pilgrim centres resented this as it would take away their private monopoly in dealing with the pilgrims. Tirath Singh Rawat was trying to roll back the decision on the Char Dham even as he allowed an inquiry to expose the false certification during the Kumbh Mela.
There was of course the issue of a by-election which was necessary for Tirath Singh Rawat to cross in order to continue as chief minister till election time. It is possible that the BJP’s central leadership did not anticipate the difficulty of the Election Commission’s inability to hold a byelection, and the prospect was further hobbled by the norm that if the Assembly election was less than a year away, then a byelection should not be held. The BJP leaders at the Centre appeared to have tied themselves up into knots. There were also the internal party murmurs of disaffection with Tirath Singh Rawat. The BJP could not have gone into the Assembly election with its members disgruntled. Whether the new chief minister, Pushkar Singh Dhami, will be able to carry through is not much of a question as there was no option but to replace Tirath Singh Rawat. The speculation that the ploy of sacrificing Tirath Singh Rawat is to create a dead-end situation for a byelection in West Bengal, which is needed for chief minister Mamata Banerjee to remain in office, looks plausible enough given the desire of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union home minister Amit Shah to checkmate her. But the immediate challenge for the BJP in Uttarakhand is the disarray in the party.
The BJP’s central leaders are not exactly in a comfortable position in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh, which is also set to go to the polls next March. UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath is proving to be a tough nut. He is unpopular in the state party unit, and his government has lost much ground because people are angry with the shoddy Covid-19 management by the state government. The central leadership would have liked to replace him as they did Tirath Nath Singh Rawat and Trivendra Singh Rawat in Uttarakhand. But Yogi Adityanath is extremely unlikely to give up without a fight. The party’s central leadership must have realised the futility of stirring the pot as it were in the state. The writ of Mr Modi and Mr Shah, ironically, does not run in Uttar Pradesh.
There is room for the speculation that the stranglehold Mr Modi and Mr Shah have over the BJP appears to have loosened a bit after the party’s decisive defeat in West Bengal, and its failure to make headway in Tamil Nadu and in Kerala. It has shown that the BJP can’t always assume it will win elections in the name of Mr Modi. The Assembly elections in April-May have shown that there are limits to the Prime Minister’s charisma. So, Mr Modi and Mr Shah are facing hurdles inside the party as well as in the state electoral battlefields. It may not be the end of the road for Mr Modi and Mr Shah. But they can’t any more have a free run. They must learn to navigate through political potholes. After the impressive second victory in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, Mr Modi appeared invincible and Mr Shah a successful Man Friday. The good times for the Narendra Modi government appear to have ended with the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic at the beginning of 2020.