Poaching MLAs and engineering defections speak of the BJP’s unscrupulous pursuit of power. It is also indicative of a deep malaise in the Congress party.
Imagine a game of snakes & ladders: one player has navigated dangers, steadily ascended, and is only a square or two from winning, when he lands on a serpent’s head and comes sliding down to square one. But the other player is incredibly lucky; he constantly runs into helpful ladders to take him to the top. He wins in the end.
In recent years the political trajectory of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Congress Party has been a bit like that game. But there are differences too.
No game board of snakes & ladders has a serpent on the finishing square, but the real-life player has suffered even this mortification. Moreover, it is not mere luck that has aided the BJP’s victories, but a string of cunning manoeuvres straight out of Machiavelli’s treatise. Likewise, political insouciance, not always ill-luck, has proven to be the Congress’s nemesis.
One rested, the other wrested
In the Goa assembly elections of 2017, the Congress emerged as the single largest party with 17 seats, falling short of four to form a government. The BJP won 13. While Digvijaya Singh, senior Congress leader and in-charge of Goa, waited for instructions from the high command, the BJP acted swiftly. Within days, it cobbled up an alliance with the support of two Independents and three members each of the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party (MGP) and Goa Forward Party (GFP). Then-Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar quit his position and was sworn in as chief minister.
Watch: Congress leader Digvijaya Singh talks about why the Congress failed to form a government in Goa in 2017
In the Manipur assembly elections of 2017, the BJP won 21 seats and the Congress 28 in the 60-member assembly. After frenetic negotiations with regional parties, conducted by Himanta Biswa Sarma, and Union Ministers Piyush Goyal and Prakash Javadekar, the BJP formed the government with the help of its ally the National People’s Party, MLAs from regional parties, and a Congress MLA who defected to the BJP. Former Congress leader N. Biren Singh was made chief minister. A few weeks later, five more Congress legislators joined the BJP, reducing the strength of the Congress to just 22 in the Manipur Assembly.
In the 2018 Karnataka assembly elections, BJP emerged as the single-largest party with 105 MLAs in the 225-member Karnataka assembly, falling short of a majority. The Congress, with 78 seats and Janata Dal (Secular) with 34 seats entered into a coalition and formed the government with JD(S)’s H.D. Kumaraswamy as chief minister. But the 14 month-old government crumbled when 14 Congress and three JD(S) MLAs resigned, reducing the Congress-JD(S) coalition strength to just 101 seats. Three weeks later, HD Kumarasamy lost the trust vote in the house, and BJP’s B.S. Yediyurappa was sworn in as chief minister. Though the rebel Congress and JD(S) MLAs were disqualified by the Karnataka Assembly speaker, the BJP rewarded them by offering party tickets in the December 2019 by-polls.
Watch: How the Karnataka poaching row unfolded
Next, came Madhya Pradesh. In the November 2018 Assembly elections, the Congress defeated the BJP which had been in power for three consecutive terms. But the BJP had sniffed out the fratricidal resentment brewing within the Kamal Nath-led Congress government. In early March 2020, four-term Member of Parliament Jyotiraditya Scindia quit the Congress and joined the BJP, taking with him 22 MLAs who resigned en masse and also joined the BJP. With 92 members in the Assembly, the Congress government was reduced to a minority, prompting the chief minister to resign. Two days before India entered a COVID-19-induced nationwide lockdown, BJP’s Shivraj Singh Chouhan took his oath as chief minister.
In early June, the Ashok Gehlot-led Congress government in Rajasthan accused the BJP of trying to topple it by engineering defections of its MLAs. The Congress herded its legislators into a resort, ostensibly to forestall BJP’s horse-trading efforts ahead of the Rajya Sabha polls on June 19. Meanwhile in Gujarat too, the opposition Congress is facing predicament over the recent resignation of eight of its MLAs which effectively thwarts its hopes of winning two of the four seats in the Rajya Sabha.
It must be noted that the BJP’s lack of majority in the Rajya Sabha has not in any way hindered the passage of bills central to its social and political agenda such as the Triple Talaq Bill, Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, and Jammu & Kashmir Reorganization Bill.
“Party with a Difference”
In his autobiography, My Country My Life, BJP veteran L.K. Advani wrote how his party’s then-tagline – “A Party with a Difference” was inspired by the idea of creating an alternative political culture free of the arrogance, corruption, and sordid underhand practices that the Congress in its heyday was known for.
But alas, the BJP in recent years has shown itself to be a party that exemplifies the savage realpolitik that lies at the heart of India’s political culture. Nothing more.
The BJP has persistently refuted the Congress’ allegations of fueling intra-party tensions, orchestrating rebellions, and “poaching” its MLAs. All the same, a disturbing pattern of mass resignations of Congress legislators followed by their induction into the BJP can indeed be observed. The only plausible explanation is that the BJP uses either coercion or the lure of money to induce them to quit the Congress. In many cases, rebels are rewarded with party tickets or ministerial berths. Jyotiraditya Scindia being fielded as the BJP’s candidate in the upcoming Rajya Sabha polls is a case in point.
These preposterous acts of skullduggery, euphemistically known as “Operation Lotus”, imply that if the ruling party does not have a majority, it engineers one without compunction.
It is also suggestive of the present leadership’s unscrupulous pursuit of power in which there is no shame in casting all obstacles – including democratic norms – aside.
As far as the turncoats are concerned, their behavior is symptomatic of the malady ailing our political system. The latest political drama of the BJP-led government in Manipur being reportedly imperiled by the withdrawal of lawmakers from regional parties and even the BJP, reeks of the same old fleeting loyalties. In prostituting their allegiances, they prove that a career in politics is about serving oneself, not the public.
Imploding under its own weight
Though a victim, the Congress cannot escape scrutiny. In truth, the ridiculously puerile practice of sequestering MLAs in hotels points to a deeper malaise, namely that the Congress party is not anchored in ideology that inspires loyalty or a sense of righteousness. And that its members are corruptible, incapable of countering a threat or resisting a bribe.
The Congress manifesto for the General Elections of 2019 contained several remarkable initiatives. The proposals to end cartelization and monopolies in the media, regulate the office of the National Security Advisor, increase social diversity in the higher judiciary (India’s Supreme Court has had just eight women judges and one Dalit Chief Justice in 70 years of its existence; presently there is no Dalit Chief Justice in any of the country’s high courts), repeal colonial-era sedition laws, and review the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) – termed “draconian” by many civil society groups – reveal the political will, if not capability, to undo historical wrongs.
Unfortunately, that will has been neutralized by the internecine conflicts unfolding within the Congress organization.
Factional rivalry between the “old guards” – loyal to incumbent Congress President Sonia Gandhi – and younger generation led by Rahul Gandhi is a major challenge.
Then there’s also conflict between those who think the party should be led by someone from the Gandhi family and those opposed to dynastic entitlement. A leadership vacuum, created by a reluctant Rahul Gandhi on the one hand and the party top brass – who are unsure of letting someone outside the family take charge – on the other hand, is another related factor. Not having a strong machinery at a grassroots level has only accelerated the decline. Most importantly, the party’s ideology – a fuzzy mix of economic populism and soft Hindutva – indicates lack of political imagination and the ability to offer an alternative vision. The former makes it indistinguishable from the multitude of regional parties, and the latter is neither acceptable to hardliners nor liberals.
Watch: The Congress’ terminal confusions
Introspection & Action
If there is still any doubt about the Congress’ blamelessness in the mass departure of legislators and prominent faces such as S.M. Krishna and Jyotiraditya Scindia, two questions might clear the air: if quest for power, not party principles, was the main reason they were in the Congress all along, why were they supported in the first place? Conversely, if these ex-Congressmen were principled politicians, why did the party let them down and let them go? The questions, being answers in themselves, are an indictment of the Congress party.
Introspection and action, the need of the hour, may not be easy for the Congress. All the same, it is the only path that could lead to political relevance. The other is a straight road to political extinction.