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S.P. Shahi is new BJP president in U.P.

Special Correspondent

LUCKNOW: After months of speculation over the next BJP chief of Uttar Pradesh, Surya Pratap Shahi's name was finally cleared by party president Nitin Gadkari on Wednesday.

Mr. Shahi is expected to take charge of the new assignment in the second fortnight of May. The biggest challenge before him is to fine-tune the faction-ridden BJP and arrest its downslide in the State before the 2012 Assembly polls. He succeeds Ramapati Ram Tripathi who took over the reins of the party in September 2007.

From ruling Uttar Pradesh, the BJP has been reduced to a marginal player in State politics. The saffron party has a strength of 48 MLAs in the Assembly.

An old Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) hand who had a stint in its student wing ABVP, Mr. Shahi's name had been making the rounds but the announcement was delayed as there were other claimants for the post. A Bhumihar from Deoria district in eastern Uttar Pradesh and a former MLA from Kasia, Mr. Shahi was the Excise Minister in the BJP governments headed by Kalyan Singh, Ram Prakash Gupta and Rajnath Singh in the 1990s and in 2000.

Before being nominated as the U.P. unit chief, he was the vice-president of the State BJP.

The new BJP president had to contend with the claims of MLA from Bareilly and former Deputy Speaker of the Assembly Rajesh Agarwal, a Bania, the Lucknow Mayor Dinesh Sharma, a Brahmin, former Minister and a Lodh, Dharampal Singh and Swatandra Dev Singh, an OBC before getting the nod from party's central leadership. Informed sources in the party said that Mr. Shahi's long association with a senior BJP leader in New Delhi tilted the scales in his favour.

Sources said Mr. Tripathi had to go as he had been appointed by former BJP president Rajnath Singh and was considered close to him.

Mr. Shahi is the first Bhumihar leader to be appointed the U.P. BJP chief.

But the Bhumihars as a vote bank have a relatively negligible presence in the State where their percentage varies between one and three per cent, mostly in eastern Uttar Pradesh ( Purvanchal).