Will Smriti Irani be the Kiran Bedi of Uttar Pradesh?
What\'s at stake?
- UP holds massive political importance but the BJP doesn\'t have a clear leader for the 2017 assembly election.
- Rumour has it Smriti Irani is being groomed for the position.
- The party needs a face to take on heavyweights like Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav.
- The BJP made a political novice like Kiran Bedi its face in the 2015 Delhi election, thinking her image would boost its fortunes.
- The party\'s strategy failed miserably. It won just three seats. The AAP won 67.
- Irani is more politically experienced, but she has never won a popular election.
- She lost to Rahul Gandhi from Amethi in the 2014 general elections.
- She may be thought of as an \'outsider\', who has no standing in UP\'s caste-divided society.
Smriti Irani could emerge as the Bharatiya Janata Party's face to counter Mayawati in the next assembly election in Uttar Pradesh. Although the election is due only in 2017, speculation about Irani's potential candidature is already making waves in the state's politics.
The feeling in the BJP's state unit is one of unease and discomfort, though many senior BJP leaders insist there's nothing official about the candidature.
BJP state unit president Laxmikant Bajpai told Catch: "The BJP always decides on its chief minister after consulting its elected MLAs."
This claim, however, flies in the face of facts - Kiran Bedi, for example, was projected as the party's CM candidate in Delhi before the election.
Asked what his reaction as party president would be if Irani is declared the party's face in UP, Bajpai said: "Any decision by the party will be welcome. I, for one, am not going to be the chief ministerial candidate. I also do not think that anyone else will have a problem with the party's decision."
However, another senior BJP leader from the state, not willing to be identified, remarked: "You know the outcome of bringing in paratroopers like this and the damage it does to our image."
He advised the party bosses to perish the thoughts of another Bedi-like experiment, given the high possibility of a repeat of the BJP's Delhi debacle.
The leader went on to add that most of his colleagues in the party's state unit were opposed to 'too much interference from Gujarat'. He argued: "This will not help revive the party in Uttar Pradesh."
An OBC leader from the state observed: "Elections in the Hindi belt are won on jaat (caste) and baat (statements or beliefs). Smriti Irani has no jaat (caste) to make her an attractive candidate in caste-ridden UP. As for baat, the BJP has been making such outlandish statements against Muslims that it seems to be warning them against even considering voting for the party. So Smriti Irani's candidature as the chief ministerial face is a non-starter."
The question is, how did Irani's name start doing the rounds in the first place?
Irani, currently the Union Human Resources Development minister, contested the last general election against Rahul Gandhi from the Congress vice-president's family bastion. Even though she lost, she has been a frequent visitor to the constituency and has kept up her connect with the voters.
In May this year, while she was attending a rally in Salon in Amethi, a former two-time MLA, Dal Bahadur Kori, announced that the people of UP wanted to see her as their next chief minister.
Seeing Irani's firebrand oratory and popular connect in Amethi, some leaders think she can counter Mayawati
Asked about Irani's candidature, he said, "What is wrong if she becomes the BJP's candidate for chief minister of UP? She will give a strong fight to Mayawati. The Samajwadi Party and the Congress have already lost ground in the state. Smriti Irani will ensure the BJP's victory."
Another leader from Amethi argued that Irani's firebrand image and her outstanding oratory skills, combined with Modi's magic, could work wonders for the party in 2017.
Political observers see a two-pronged strategy behind Irani's repeated visits to Amethi.
One, by speaking about the lack of development in Amethi, she manages to engage the Gandhi family on local issues, bringing them down from their lofty national discourse.
And two, her activities in Amethi project her as a local leader in Uttar Pradesh - the only one who takes on the Congress directly.
Akhilesh Pratap Singh of the Congress, while not ruling out Irani's potential candidacy, said: "The BJP imported Uma Bharti from Madhya Pradesh the last time around to deal with the internal leadership crisis in the party. It did not pay them any electoral dividends. Smriti or no Smriti, the BJP is not in a position to mount a winning challenge in UP."
The BSP too seems least bothered by the prospect of Irani's candidature. Munkad Ali of the BSP feels heavyweights within the BJP itself would ensure that this does not happen. And even if Irani does become the party's face, Ali said: "The last time around the voters were fooled by Modi with the help of the media. They cannot be fooled again. For the BJP, the next election in UP is a disaster waiting to happen."
Sources in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) said it was far too early to decide anything about who the BJP's face in UP will be. They argued that the BJP's focus at present is the Bihar legislative assembly election towards the end of this year. Only after that would the focus shift to UP.