New Delhi, Bengaluru: Where is Tejasvi Surya, the young, firebrand leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) who had kept headline writers busy with controversial speeches and remarks since his successful electoral debut from Bangalore South constituency in 2019?
He was hardly seen in the West Bengal and Assam election campaigns. And when Indian Youth Congress (IYC) president Srinivas B.V. has had the social media abuzz with his Covid relief work, Surya, the BJP’s youth wing president, has been missing from the discourse.
Surya has been active on social media. Only that he has been posting interviews that he himself conducts with professionals and doctors to disseminate information on Covid-19, and activities of the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha (BJYM), which he heads.
But he has been completely overshadowed by the proactive approach of young opposition leaders amid the Covid catastrophe.
He has also been missing from the limelight, which he managed to hog for the most part of last year.
Speaking to ThePrint, Surya said those questioning him should check his social media handles and those of the BJYM.
He also said that allegations of the party asking him to stay quiet hold no water. “Until today, not once has the party told me whether what I have said is right or wrong,” he said. “I am busy with legislative work in my constituency. Also, I get more opportunities to speak in the party and affect changes, so the less I need to speak out.”
Surya further said that the second wave has severely hit other parts of the world while talking of the rising cases in Karnataka.
“But compared to last year, in every respect the state as well as the country is better equipped to address the pandemic,” he said. “Last year, Karnataka had about 1,000 oxygen beds. This year Karnataka has about 19,700 beds. But the sheer number of cases has put a huge pressure on the resources. No country in the world can deal with numbers like these and therefore we have rightly gone for a lockdown. Once the 14-day period of the lockdown is complete, the chain of infections will break.”
A BJP leader echoed Surya and said that the MP has been in Karnataka for some time to take care of his Lok Sabha constituency, Bengaluru South.
The leader, who did not want to be named, added that the MP’s visits to hospitals and other places are all restricted to Bengaluru.
“He is the MP and he knows he has to satisfy his constituency first. Which is why he has been there and if you look at his social media posts too, you’ll see he has been arranging remdesivir for Karnataka, or visiting hospitals etc in Bengaluru,” the BJP leader said. “His focus is his state and there’s nothing wrong in that. But as the youth president he needs to visit other places too as it will send a positive message.”
Where Surya’s absence is telling, however, is on social media, a medium that he has in the past exploited to his advantage.
As the country reels under the second Covid-19, IYC president Srinivas B.V. and AAP MLA Dilip K. Pandey have emerged as heroes, with a massive number of people reaching out to the duo for help on social media.
The Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha (BJYM), which Surya heads, only got into action following a directive from party president J.P. Nadda on 18 April asking all state units and morchas to “immediately start their campaign and initiatives against corona without any delay”.
A BJYM functionary defended Surya’s “absence”. “He doesn’t need to be visible on social media or otherwise. It is the work that counts. He is on endless coordination meetings, with the national team, various state teams, even district teams,” the functionary said.
“He decides on what is to be done in terms of relief work and holds meetings with senior leaders. He ensures BJYM functions as one giant unit, in sync. Just because someone is not putting it out on social media doesn’t mean he is not working.”
Another BJP functionary, however, admitted that the party and its youth wing have lost out to the opposition on this count.
“We should have started our welfare programmes much earlier. The opposition, especially Srinivas, started helping out much earlier and hence became the talk of the town,” said the BJP functionary. “At the same time, unlike last time when the focus was on providing food, masks and sanitisers, this time it is oxygen, beds and medicines, which are not in our hands but the government. Our party is in power so naturally we will have to face the criticism but there’s not much we can do as party workers.”
Missing from election campaign
Even before the second Covid wave hit the country, Surya was conspicuous by his absence in the high-profile West Bengal election campaign, though he did make an appearance in Tamil Nadu.
His absence was all the more telling as in October last year, in the run-up to the elections, he had campaigned aggressively in West Bengal and even in Bihar, both states with which he has no connection.
As ThePrint had reported in November last year, it was the time when the BJP high command trusted Surya with some important responsibilities, such as appointing him as the youth wing chief, and as a member of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information and Technology, besides the election campaigns.
In West Bengal, as the then newly appointed BJYM president, he led a series of protests including the ‘Nabanna Chalo (let’s go to Nabanna, the state secretariat in Kolkata)’ march in October last year, his first protest rally outside his home state of Karnataka.
He even attacked Mamata Banerjee by calling her administration the “worst and most apt example of a fascist government”.
But when the West Bengal campaign really picked up pace ahead of the eight-phase elections that began in the last week of March, Surya seemed to have waned into the background.
A senior BJP leader from West Bengal said one reason was that he was not seen as a major vote puller.
“He might be a name for the media but for the people in West Bengal, he didn’t matter. When you have senior leaders like the PM, the home minister and the party president, the campaign is focused on them,” the West Bengal leader said. “He had done a big rally in October, which was important as he had just become the youth wing president. In this year’s assembly elections, he had come and done a few small corner meetings but nothing substantial.”
This was seconded by a BJP leader from Karnataka. “We were focused on winning seats. Diatribe is alright. What we need is actual votes in our favour,” the leader said. “Surya was seen in Tamil Nadu, especially campaigning aggressively for former IPS officer Annamalai.”
A senior BJP leader said many in the party were also concerned that Surya’s speeches would hurt the BJP’s prospects in Assam where the party had kept mum on the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).
“He was a star campaigner in Tamil Nadu but his rallies did not get much traction,” the leader added. “As far as utilising him is concerned, in states like Tamil Nadu, it is leaders like Modi and Shah that people come to listen to.”
Karnataka BJP spokesperson Capt Ganesh Karnik told ThePrint that he was used in the southern states as he hailed from here. “He led protests in Bengal just before the dates of the elections were announced. He was later seen in the southern states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala,” Karnik said. “It is possible that the party seniors felt that it would help use Tejasvi Surya’s south connect in the southern states.”
Brief appearance in TN but not without controversy
Surya did make an appearance in Tamil Nadu, where he was one of the BJP’s star campaigners, but his stint there was not without controversy.
He was left embarrassed when in early April, he boasted that “unlike the DMK”, he paid his breakfast bills at a prominent restaurant in Coimbatore.
He was trolled on social media that “it was the norm” to pay bills, with even the restaurant tweeting that “everyone comes forward to pay their bills”.
Months earlier, at a rally in Salem on 22 February, he had kicked up a row after calling the DMK “anti-Hindu” and saying if Tamils have to survive, Hindutva has to win. The statement not only raised eyebrows but also did not go down well with the Tamil Nadu BJP unit.
A second senior BJP leader, however, said Surya’s absence has nothing to do with the young MP’s speeches. The senior leader explained that the BJP campaigns until 2014 were helmed by multiple leaders.
“The entire campaign today is focused only on one person, who is PM Modi. There are other senior leaders who also address rallies but the focus is always the PM,” the BJP leader added. “This change of strategy has worked for the BJP and we are following that. So whether Tejasvi Surya addresses meetings or not is immaterial.”
(Edited by Arun Prashanth)