Growing Dissent Within the BJP: How the Party's Delhi Unit Tried, and Failed, to Save the Day

BJP workers protest and shout slogans against Delhi BJP President Satish Upadhyay to protest the distribution of tickets for the upcoming Delhi assembly polls at Delhi BJP office on 20 January, 2015. Vipin Kumar/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
24 January, 2015

This past Monday, 19 January, the Bharatiya Janata Party announced the names of sixty-two candidates for the assembly elections in Delhi, which are scheduled for 7 February. In an upset to many members of the Delhi BJP, Kiran Bedi was nominated as the party’s chief ministerial candidate.

Caught off guard by the protests that broke out in the city the next day, the party acted quickly to stifle any dissent. Senior national leaders made it clear that Bedi was handpicked by Narendra Modi, and those, such as the BJP MP Manoj Tiwari, who had voiced their dissatisfaction with Bedi’s nomination, were made to toe the line. But, if the party believed that this would suffice, then the illusion lasted only till about 4 pm on Wednesday.

On Tuesday, 20 January, supporters of Satish Upadhyay—the Delhi BJP chief since July 2014, who, until the announcement of Bedi’s nomination, was believed to be nurturing electoral ambitions, but was asked to sit out and manage the campaign instead—stormed into the party office to protest against the leadership. Similar news came in from other parts of Delhi, including Rohini, Dwarka and Okhla. Dhir Singh Bidhuri, who wanted to contest from Okhla, but had to forego his ticket in favour of Brahm Singh—a turncoat from the Bahujan Samaj Party—resigned on the same day.

On Wednesday, 21 January, I visited the party office on Ashoka Road to gauge the reactions of the BJP cadre to the unexpected discord. I saw five OB vans parked in front of the BJP’s office, and journalists engaged in some banter with party workers. Harish Khurana, son of former Delhi chief minister Madan Lal Khurana and BJP Delhi’s media in-charge, alternated between mingling with television journalists and going live on news channels to field questions from anchors.

Once the show-and-tell was over by around 2 pm, the compound settled into a mundane silence. But at 4 pm, supporters of Abhay Verma—a Poorvanchali leader from the BJP and the party’s erstwhile candidate from Laxmi Nagar in East Delhi—burst onto the premises to protest his being denied a ticket from the constituency.  These disgruntled supporters told me that they were taking Verma’s denied ticket as an insult to the Poorvanchali population—comprising people from Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh—who constitute nearly 45 percent  of north-east Delhi’s constituency.

They staged a sit-in on the driveway to voice their displeasure and shouted, “Abhay tum sangharsh karo, hum tumhare saath hai. Poorvanchal ka ye aapman nahi sahenge” (Don’t give up on the struggle Abhay, we are with you. We will not tolerate such a grave insult to Poorvanchal). The BJP is fielding only two Poorvanchali candidates in the 7 February polls against eleven by the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP).

Embarrassed party leaders tried to calm the gathering, but the latter wouldn’t have any of it, and the agitation intensified. This went on for a while before Upadhyay himself came out to quell the disturbance. The visibly exhausted BJP chief found himself surrounded by Verma’s irate supporters. Upadhyay resorted to platitudes on the importance of dissent in a democracy and emphasised that there were a limited number of tickets to be offered. At this point, someone in the crowd interrupted, saying, “Paisa leke ticket becha” (Tickets were given to those who paid). Once Upadhyay realised his attempt wasn’t working, he went back to his office and spoke to Verma, who emerged with Upadhyay and changed tack, presenting himself to the agitators as a helpless, yet disciplined party worker.

“They are party workers and they have all the rights to express their feelings,” Upadhyay said of Verma’s supporters when he turned his attention to the reporters again. “Some amount of anger and revolt is justified. They are my brothers and the ones who give blood to the organisation.” He added, “Workers are my god. I worship them.”

Pointing at a befuddled Verma, the BJP chief praised his work as a party member before going on to say, “Mujhe Abhay par bahut garv hai” (I am extremely proud of Abhay).

In the midst of this chaos, I spotted a growing crowd at another end of the compound. Prabhat Jha, BJP vice-president and Delhi election organisation in-charge, had come out of the office as well and was quick to show his displeasure at the events that were unfolding. “This is not good,” he said to the collective, consisting of some workers. “If he is unable to control his own supporters, the party will take action against him.”

With this sternly worded warning, Jha succeeded in getting the message across to the agitating workers. After a minute or two, the crowd began to dissipate. With the immediate crisis looking like it had been averted, senior party leader Vijay Goel, Upadhyay, Verma and Jha went inside the office to take stock of the situation.

While I and a few other journalists waited in the compound for them to come out, in walked about ten men wearing black caps embellished with the words, “Anjaan Aadmi” (strange men)—an apparent attempt to ridicule the Aam Aadmi Party. They told us that they were an anti-AAP advocacy group. When a journalist ventured to ask them what they were doing at the BJP office, one of them replied, “We are here to take the BJP’s blessing.”

Our curiosity was now piqued and we inquired why they had chosen to campaign against the AAP. “Hum Kejriwal-ji ki vichar-dhara se sahmat nahi hai” (We are not satisfied with Kejriwal’s ideology), one of them said. Another person accused Kejriwal of hijacking the term “aam aadmi” (ordinary man). “By floating his own party, Kejriwal has transformed all aam aadmi into anjaan aadmi,” this man said. He vowed to increase awareness among the masses about such “dangerous people.” “Vichar-dhara ho toh Modi-ji jaisi” (If you must follow an ideology, then it must be like Modi’s), he added. Our questions about their formation were met with vague replies, with one of them saying only that they had been “working for about a year now, by campaigning against the AAP and its chief Arvind Kejriwal from Amethi to Delhi.”

Once the initial interest in these newcomers waned, the reporters went back to waiting for the party leaders to emerge from the office. Meanwhile, the Anjaan Aadmi group receded to the background and sat in another section of the compound, without any apparent purpose.

At around 6 pm, Upadhyay came out of the closed-door meeting. While the reporters rushed to get an official statement on the events of day, the Anjaan Aadmi group—that professed to have come with the aim of seeking the BJP’s blessings—remained seated, uninterested. Upadhyay’s statement was short, “All is well.”