The unpredictability of Uma Bharati

Professor G D Agrawal has gone. India is the poorer for it. A life-long supporter of the values of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a trained civil engineer and committed to a clean Ganga, Prof Agrawal starved himself to death — he stopped drinking water in the last few days — because he argued, how could he, when his beloved Ganga was so impure? He attributed the impurity of the river to hydel power projects, sand mining and the release of industrial effluent.

Till 2017 when she was ousted in a cabinet reshuffle, Sadhvi Uma Bharati was in charge of the Ganga cleaning ministry. Chatter has it that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Party President Amit Shah were for dropping her altogether because as minister she had done little — but it was the Sangh that counselled (at a three day meeting with Shah at Vrindavan in September 2017) keeping her on. And why? For fear of alienating the Lodh community to which she belongs because the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had suffered a setback after it had taken action against Kalyan Singh, another Lodh leader and former chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. In ensuring she stayed in government — though in the PM’s judgment she had not done her job and the Ganga part of her portfolio was given to roads minister Nitin Gadkari late 2017 — the Sangh opted to sacrifice another quieter but apparently dispensable volunteer. At the time, she announced that if the plans to clean Ganga were not implemented by October 2018, she would undertake mahaupvaas se mahaprayan (fast unto death). Obviously, she is satisfied with the progress of implementation.

So who is Uma Bharati and what is the source of her power?

Actually, if you consider her career closely, she has been most effective when she has been out of power, looking in from the outside. She was a Lok Sabha MP in 1991, 1996 and 1998, having contributed to the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. In the 2003 Assembly polls, she led the BJP to a three fourths majority and became chief minister of Madhya Pradesh. She had to resign because of criminal charges against her relating to events in Karnataka. It was her effort that won the election for the BJP — and Babulal Gaur was the one who was made the Chief Minister. Though he remained in the position for only a year and a half before Shivraj Singh Chouhan replaced him. Obviously Bharati was not happy. 

Considered the most indiscreet — and most outspoken — woman member of the BJP, she found herself evicted from the party: In 2004 and then again in 2006. (In the presence of LK Advani and Atal Bihari Vajpayee, she charged Arun Jaitley with planting stories against her behind her back, criticised Sushma Swaraj and tore into many members of the BJP national executive at a meeting thought to be private, until someone discovered the microphone that was supposed to have been switched off was relaying everything to the press gaggle outside). She returned to the party when Nitin Gadkari became president, she claimed at the time, on her terms (a cameo at Gadkari’s residence office is unforgettable. She was waiting for him. “Now don’t you go writing I am meeting him because I want to beg him to take me back in the BJP” she said at the time, waggling her finger at reporters. “I’m here because I just love fat people...” and then an arch smile at Smriti Irani, also in the room: “that’s why I’m so fond of Smriti”. Smriti looked at her distantly, smiled lightly and said: “Arre didi, I thought you were going to say I’ve lost weight”). Gadkari shifted her to UP and she contested and won the Jhansi seat in 2014.

Bharati announced earlier this year that she would not contest any more elections though she wouldn’t say no to campaigning in the Madhya Pradesh assembly elections if invited. She was taken up on her offer. About three weeks ago, she appeared at a public meeting in the Bundelkhand region of Madhya Pradesh which accounts for 32 assembly seats. The region is adjacent to UP. She was appearing on a public platform in the state of her birth for the first time in nearly eight years. 

Bundelkhand is thought to be an area where Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) chief Mayawati has some influence. Both Amit Shah and the chief minister believe every weapon in the arsenal must be used to ensure victory in the assembly elections. Hence the invitation to Uma Bharati, though at the public meeting in her inimitable style she asked the crowd: ‘’I asked Shivraj-ji is there any point in my coming to MP? Will it make any difference? Only after he assured me it would, did I come to this meeting’’. That’s Uma Bharati for you. Predictable… but also unpredictable.  

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