Not all Delhi University Students Union presidents are destined for a mainstream political career. Some quit along the way, while a few plod on with the help of their party’s leadership. Nupur Sharama, recently suspended as the BJP’s national spokesperson after her derogatory remarks against Prophet Muhammed on Times Now television news channel sparked a diplomatic fire, is among the latter.
From the Campus Law Centre at Delhi University to the BJP HQ on Pandit Deendayal Upadhyay Marg, Nupur rose steeply in the party, going from being a member of the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha, the youth wing of the BJP, to contesting the 2015 Delhi assembly election, though unsuccessfully, against would-be chief minister Arvind Kejriwal.
By fielding her against Kejriwal on the prestigious New Delhi seat, the BJP leadership had indicated its faith in her abilities. In a 2017 interview to Firstpost, Nupur recalled Amit Shah telling her, “I am giving you a ticket. You will fight and win the election.”
The BJP’s top strategist had seen her work from up close, having drafted her into his core team managing the party’s 2014 general election campaign. Freshly returned after doing a master’s in law from the London School of Economics, Nupur was the youngest member – aged 28 – of Shah’s team, rubbing shoulders with BJP heavyweights like JP Nadda, Bhupendra Yadav, Arvind Gupta, Om Mathur, Anil Jain.
Nupur’s star continued to rise after the BJP won the election. In particular, according to a BJP leader who spoke anonymously as the BJP has barred its leaders from speaking to the media without permission, she impressed top leaders such as Arun Jaitley, whom she has called a father figure, Nadda and Dharemndra Pradhan with her ability to talk seamlessly in Hindi and English. So it came as no surprise to party insiders when she was appointed the BJP’s national spokesperson in 2020.
It was a surprise to many of them, however, when the party earlier this month disowned her as a “fringe element” and distanced itself from her views, even if seemingly out of compulsion to contain the diplomatic fallout from her remarks in Muslim nations than out of any ideological conviction. Her fall was as sudden as her rise was steep.
Born in a family of civil servants and businessmen, Nupur studied economics and law at Delhi University. In 2011, she went to do an LLM at the London School of Economics.
Her first brush with politics came at the Campus Law Centre in 2008, when she contested for president of the Delhi University Students Union. Her parents were not keen on Nupur getting into politics, said a BJP leader, but they were persuaded otherwise by Nakul Bhardwaj, then a top leader of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s student wing, ABVP, in Delhi, and Vikas Dahiya, a former students union vice president from the ABVP.
Nukul, who unsuccessfully contested the Delhi elections in 2008 and 2013, confirmed this saying it was his job at the time to scout for young leaders. Vikas declined to comment.
Not long after taking over as the students union president, Nupur in November 2008 led an ABVP group to disrupt a seminar by SAR Geelani, the late Delhi University professor who had been falsely accused of masterminding the 2001 Parliament attack and jailed. She allegedly heckled the professor while a fellow protester spat on him.
This and Nupur’s subsequent confrontation with Geelani on a TV show won her many friends in the BJP, said another party leader who asked not to be identified.
“She was always aggressive and feisty,” recalled Manohar Naagar, who was vice president of the students union when it was led by Nupur, “but not as much as we see her on TV debates nowadays.” Manohar was with the Congress party’s student wing at the time and would go on to be national coordinator of the Indian Youth Congress.
Nishant Yadav, a Congress leader in Rajasthan who was a year behind Nupur at the Campus Law Centre, remembered her as having “moderate views” at the time. “I don’t know why she chose ABVP despite her moderate views. But I had a hunch that she was going to be a national leader in four-five years,” he added.
Another student leader from the time disagreed. “The year 2008 was different. Sloganeering was limited to Bharat Mata Ki Jai and Vande Mataram, interspersed with cheeky comments about Sonia Gandhi. That’s it,” explained the former student leader who asked not to be named because he’s now a practising lawyer. To say she was moderate in her views is misleading because the atmosphere then was more peaceful and communal hatred was in check.”
Several Campus Law Centre alumni who have followed Nupur’s political career pointed out that she began cultivating her belligerent TV persona in 2016-17, calling people “moron”, “vagabond” and “senile” on air. It was downhill from there.
Nupur, who has apologised for her remarks, told Newslaundry that she “accepted the party’s decision” to suspend her. “Whatever the party has given me, I respect that,” she said. “I have nothing more to say.”