30/01/2016 11:07 AM IST | Updated 23/01/2017 11:04 PM IST

BJP Must Learn From Bihar, Delhi Debacles And Announce CM Candidate For UP

Supporters of India’s main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) stand beneath a party flag as they listen to their prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi during an election rally at Srirampur, outskirts of Kolkata, India, Sunday, April 27, 2014. With 814 million eligible voters, India is voting in phases over six weeks. Results are expected May 16.(AP Photo/Bikas Das)

I am a firm believer in taxi driver psephology. The taxi driver in Lucknow said, “It will be a contest between BJP and BSP. The SP knows it is out.”

The taxi driver was Brahmin, so no surprise that his choice was the BJP. He ranted about the Samajwadi Party’s alleged Muslim appeasement, and then mentioned the three Cs of heartland politics: crime, corruption, and caste.

His answers were all clear and forthright, except when I asked if the BJP should declare a chief ministerial candidate. “You have asked the most difficult question.”

On the question of the CM candidate, the BJP in UP stands at the same crossroads as it did in Delhi and Bihar last year. In Delhi, it picked a CM candidate too late into the campaign, and a poor one at that. Kiran Bedi was no match for Arvind Kejriwal. In Bihar, not declaring a CM candidate made it a Nitish vs Modi contest. Instead of looking like a challenger with a new offering, the BJP was forced to defend the central government’s performance. In the absence of a CM candidate, Nitish Kumar and Lalu Yadav were able to make the OBCs fear the possibility of an upper caste chief minister should the BJP win.

The BJP fears factionalism and infighting if it declares a CM candidate.

Similarly in Uttar Pradesh, the campaign could easily become Modi versus Mayawati, a la Bihar. The BJP fears factionalism and infighting if it declares a CM candidate. It is better to keep everyone guessing and let all the leader and caste-driven silos work hard to make the party win. If it declares an OBC as the CM candidate, the upper castes may not be attracted to the BJP. If it declares a Brahmin as the prospective CM, it may see rebellion from Thakurs.

But are Modi and Amit Shah, together with the election-winning machinery of the RSS, not powerful enough to tide over these differences? How difficult is it for the party to make a Thakur the party president, give Brahmins more tickets than their population proportion, and declare a widely accepted OBC leader as the CM candidate?

Yes, the BJP in UP has no leader who can match up to Mayawati’s political stature. But given that there is still a year to go for the UP election, can it not craft a presidential style campaign and make its CM candidate look larger than life?

Declaring a PM candidate in advance took Modi from political untouchability to 282 seats in the Lok Sabha. Modi’s presidential style campaign helped the BJP end India’s 30 year run of coalition governments. Having heralded us into a new era of presidential style campaigns, can the BJP pretend that it is easier to win elections without giving voters a clear signal who their chief executive will be?

Narendra Modi and Amit Shah.

Voters know the Samajwadi Party will get them Akhilesh Yadav and the Bahujan Samaj Party will get the Mayawati. Who in the BJP should they compare these leaders with?

In the assembly elections in Maharashtra, Jharkhand and Haryana, where the BJP won without pre-declared CM candidates in late 2014, the situation was different. The incumbents were in a bad way and Modi’s popularity was sky-high.

After the Bihar experience, it is likely the BJP may not over-expose the prime minister in state elections. Instead, it may project three-four leaders in UP and keep everyone guessing. This only adds to the confusion in the voter’s mind, and would help the other parties exploit such incoherence. In the post-Modi politics of India, the leader is the message. If the message is clear, voters give a clear and decisive mandate. Modi should know this better than anyone else.

A large, complex and multi-polar state like UP cannot be won without a clear leadership face. No, the party president is not it.

A large, complex and multi-polar state like UP cannot be won without a clear leadership face. No, the party president is not it. The era of clear, decisive, leader-centric mandates arrived in 2007 with Mayawati.

Could it be that the Modi-Shah duo are reluctant to share credit for a state victory with a local leader? Does it seem like the BJP has copied the high command culture of the Congress? One can only speculate in those directions.

The time to declare a CM candidate is now – to give her time to prepare, to have the time to build a presidential style campaign around the candidate, and for the party to turn around the election into a race between a clean, promising newbie and old incumbent players. The promise of parivartan needs a visage. It will be a risk, but high risk has high rewards, as the BJP knows from the Modi campaign.

It seems likely that the BJP will instead bank on Modi's persona, and on a heavy dose of Hindutva. In doing so, it will, again like Bihar, only make apparent its desperation for power, thus giving the voter the signal of un-winnability, only helping Mayawati. Like the Congress, it is the arrogance of looking at UP-Bihar from the high pedestal of Lutyens’ Delhi that will be the BJP’s undoing.

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