New Delhi: Ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, when Jitin Prasada had made up his mind to join the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), another young Congress leader prevailed upon him: “The Congress is not a party. It’s our family. No matter what, we don’t abandon our family.”
Prasada, whose father and grandfather were also Congressmen, stay backed, knowing well that his career prospects as a Congress leader in Uttar Pradesh were bleak.
It was a tough decision.
The Congress wasn’t the right party for a young, ambitious leader in UP. Jitin Prasada, a popular Brahmin leader, was too smart a politician to not see the seemingly inexorable downslide in the Congress’ fortune in the state. The BJP also needed Prasada.
The era of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Murli Manohar Joshi and Kalraj Mishra was gone and Brahmins — estimated to constitute over 10 per cent of UP’s population — were looking for new icons. The BJP propped up a few Brahmin faces, including imported ones like former Bahujan Samaj Party leader Brajesh Pathak, but none of them enjoyed the popularity and stature that Prasada, son of late Jitendra Prasada, did among Brahmins across UP.
For the BJP and Prasada, it was like a made-for-each-other scenario. But the young leader baulked at the last moment, as much because of the old family ties with the Congress as because of the persuasive skill of his friend and party colleague who was close to Rahul Gandhi. That friend himself joined the BJP a year later, in March 2020.
Unhappy with Congress stance
Jitin Prasada stayed back in the Congress but was a bitter man. His father had unsuccessfully contested against Sonia Gandhi for the Congress president’s post in 2000. That history seemed to dog Prasada even though the Gandhi family sought to give out the impression that they carried no grudge.
He was made a minister of state (MoS) in the Manmohan Singh government in 2008. Although acknowledged by party colleagues as an astute politician and administrator, he remained an MoS for the next six years while other young Congress leaders went on to get independent charge of ministries and even become Cabinet ministers.
Conscious of the numerical strength of Brahmins in UP as well as their influence on other communities, the Congress always sought to woo them, giving prominence to leaders such as Rita Bahuguna Joshi and Pramod Tiwari. But Prasada, despite his family’s standing among Brahmins, was given short shrift.
He was also unhappy with the party’s stance on important issues, be it the Balakot airstrikes or the removal of Jammu & Kashmir’s special status or triple talaq.
“My leaders don’t understand public mood. When the entire country is supporting revocation of Article 370, my party is opposing it! God knows what our leaders have in mind,” Prasada had told this correspondent one day at that time.
His base UP, and the Bengal polls
Although disheartened, Prasada sought to expand his own base in UP. With the party leadership showing no inclination to build the organisation, he started virtual meetings with Congressmen across the state and was getting very enthusiastic response from the rank and file when he was instructed by his party bosses to stop it.
Close associates of Priyanka Vadra, Congress general secretary in charge of UP, were out to undermine him. He was sidelined in the party.
Prasada then sought to build on Brahmins’ perceived anger against the Yogi Adityanath government. He founded the Brahmin Chetna Parishad and became its patron. Just when he started visiting different districts to mobilise the Brahmins and also touch base with party workers at the grassroots, he was made in-charge of West Bengal.
Although it was projected as his elevation, the fact is it was a ploy to shift him out of the state.
Meanwhile, he had become a signatory to the controversial letter written by 23 Congress leaders, demanding a full-time party president and changes in the organisation.
He was frustrated with the state of affairs in the party and disillusioned with its leadership, but Prasada carried on fulfilling his responsibility as the West Bengal in-charge.
The elections in the state became a tipping point for him. A leader closely associated with him told this correspondent, “The Congress had gone into West Bengal elections to lose. Despite Prasada making scores of calls and sending repeated messages to Rahul Gandhi and other Central leaders to come to Bengal and campaign, there was no response from Delhi. It soon dawned on Jitin Prasada that he had been sent to Bengal to become a fall guy.”
It was at that point that he made up his mind to quit the Congress. It was a matter of days before he would let the BJP leadership know about his decision.