SHIFT­ING LOY­AL­TIES

It’s de­fec­tion sea­son in poll-bound Mad­hya Pradesh and Ch­hat­tis­garh, as lead­ers switch par­ties to stay in the game

India Today - - ASSEMBLY POLLS / DEFECTIONS - BY RAHUL NORONHA

AAS CH­HAT­TIS­GARH AND MAD­HYA PRADESH GEAR UP FOR AS­SEM­BLY POLLS, de­fec­tions—those last-minute moves dic­tated by re­assess­ment of po­lit­i­cal prospects— are on in full swing. And if they are an in­di­ca­tor of which way the po­lit­i­cal wind is blow­ing, then the BJP in Mad­hya Pradesh is in trou­ble, as is the Congress in Ch­hat­tis­garh.

On Oc­to­ber 13, Ram­dayal Uike, a vet­eran Congress tribal MLA from the Pali Tanakhar as­sem­bly con­stituency in Ch­hat­tis­garh, joined the BJP while party pres­i­dent Amit Shah was tour­ing the state. Uike had been elected MLA from Mar­wahi on a BJP ticket in 1998, had de­fected to the Congress and va­cated the seat for Ajit Jogi in 2000 en­abling him to en­ter the House as chief min­is­ter. Sub­se­quently, he had been elected on Congress tick­ets from Pali Tanakhar in 2003, 2008 and 2013. Chief Min­is­ter Ra­man Singh termed Uike’s re­turn a ‘home­com­ing’.

For the Congress, Uike was a marked man, as he had been ex­tremely close to Jogi. To pre­vent his flight to the newly formed Janta Congress Ch­hat­tis­garh (JCC), the Congress had in Jan­uary ap­pointed a num­ber of lead­ers per­ceived to be close to Jogi to party posts. Uike was ap­pointed work­ing pres­i­dent. Af­ter his de­fec­tion, Jogi said: “Uike felt marginalis­ed in the Congress as it was giv­ing im­por­tance to other lead­ers in the party.”

With most of the 29 re­served ST seats with the Congress, snatch­ing a few of them is key for the BJP to re­tain power in a state whose chief min­is­ter has been their long­est serv­ing one. While one part of the strat­egy is to woo tribal vot­ers with com­mu­nity-spe­cific schemes, such as the dis­tri­bu­tion of tendu leaf bonus, elec­tri­fi­ca­tion of vil­lages and dis­tri­bu­tion of pres­sure cook­ers, an­other is to cause at­tri­tion in the ranks of the Congress tribal lead­er­ship through de­fec­tions. All through the week­end, the cap­i­tal Raipur was rife with ru­mours of more de­fec­tions from the Congress.

While Uike’s was the first ma­jor de­fec­tion, Ch­hat­tis­garh has been wit­ness­ing such ‘home­com­ings’ for months. For­mer Union min­is­ter Arvind Ne­tam, ex­pelled from the Congress in 2012, re­turned to the fold in May this year. The pres­i­dent of the JCC youth wing, Vinod Ti­wari, crossed over to the Congress, while some other JCC lead­ers who had been given party tick­ets for elec­tions have switched sides to the BJP af­ter they lost their seats to the BSP in its seat-shar­ing ar­range­ment with the JCC.

In neigh­bour­ing Mad­hya Pradesh, it is the Congress that is ben­e­fit­ting from de­fec­tions. Padma Shukla, chair­per­son of the state so­cial wel­fare board with cab­i­net min­is­ter rank and a leader from the Katni district who lost the 2013 elec­tion, was among the first to jump ship in late Septem­ber. On Oc­to­ber 13, Shekhar Chaudhry, who was the Congress MLA from 1998-2003 from the Gote­gaon seg­ment of Nars­ingh­pur district and who had joined the BJP be­fore the 2008 elec­tions, re­turned to the Congress. A day later, for­mer MLA Su­nil Mishra from the Mud­wara seg­ment in Katni district who had also joined the BJP in 2014, came back to the Congress. On Oc­to­ber 15, Gu­rudev Sha­ran

Gupta, the for­mer BJP district pres­i­dent of Da­tia, fol­lowed suit.

No known names, mean­while, have joined the BJP till now. Yet an­other rea­son why the 2018 as­sem­bly elec­tions are look­ing dif­fer­ent for the BJP com­pared to the past three elec­tions. In 2003, the late Govin­d­narayan Singh, a for­mer CM, had joined the BJP along with a num­ber of Congress lead­ers. In 2008, for­mer Congress min­is­ter Prem­narayan Thakur had joined the BJP and got elected on the party ticket from the Amar­wara seg­ment of Ch­hind­wara. In 2013, the BJP man­aged to get prom­i­nent Congress leader and the then deputy leader of the party in the House, Chaudhry Rakesh Singh, to cross over to its side. Just be­fore the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, the BJP got San­jay Pathak, then a Congress MLA from Katni district, to switch sides; he went on to win a by­elec­tion on a BJP ticket. Congress lead­ers Bha­gi­rath Prasad and Rao Uday Pratap Singh both de­fected to the BJP be­fore the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, were given party tick­ets, and went on to win. Pathak and for­mer Con­gress­man Harsh Singh were rewarded with min­is­te­rial port­fo­lios by the BJP gov­ern­ment in the June 2016 ex­pan­sion.

While some of the de­fec­tions such as that of Shukla in Katni could be tac­ti­cal, given that Pathak, against whom she had con­tested the 2013 elec­tions, was now in the BJP, lead­ers such as Mishra and Chaudhry have al­ways had their ears close to the ground. Even Uike’s de­fec­tion from the Congress to the BJP stemmed from the fear that he may lose his ticket from Pali Tanakhar be­cause the Congress wanted to ac­com­mo­date Hira Singh Markam of the Gond­wana Gan­tantra Party (GGP), with whom it is work­ing out a seat-shar­ing ar­range­ment.

Wak­ing up to the chal­lenge, the BJP pa­raded for­mer min­is­ter Ramashanka­r Chaudhry, who had joined the party in Hoshangaba­d, on Oc­to­ber 14 in the pres­ence of na­tional gen­eral sec­re­tary (or­gan­i­sa­tion), Ram­lal. “There are nu­mer­ous Congress lead­ers who are join­ing the BJP across the state and bring­ing with them their sup­port base,” says party spokesper­son Rahul Kothari, to counter the as­ser­tion that de­fec­tions are go­ing in the Congress’s favour.

The Congress, too, has changed its strat­egy of tak­ing back those who had de­serted its ship while it was sink­ing. Leader of the op­po­si­tion Ajay Singh, and gen­eral sec­re­tary in charge of MP, Deepak Babaria, have gone on record say­ing there were nu­mer­ous ex-Con­gress­men who wanted to re­turn but would not find it easy to do so. In con­trast, Nath, ever the prag­ma­tist, said on Oc­to­ber 13 in Bhopal, “Those who are join­ing the Congress can­not be ruled out for tick­ets.”

How do de­fec­tions help a party? “De­fec­tions make for good op­tics just be­fore an elec­tion,” says a Ch­hat­tis­garh BJP leader, not want­ing to be named. A prom­i­nent de­fec­tion, he adds, makes the op­po­si­tion look like it’s in dis­ar­ray.

“It is not only BJP lead­ers dis­il­lu­sioned with the party who are join­ing the Congress, but also lead­ers from the BSP and SP,” says state Congress spokesper­son Shobha Oza on the Congress’s ac­cep­tance of BJP lead­ers into its fold.

More de­fec­tions are likely once the Congress and BJP an­nounce tick­ets in Ch­hat­tis­garh and MP. In Ch­hat­tis­garh, the JCC-BSP com­bine is be­ing seen as a port of call for dis­sat­is­fied Con­gress­men and BJP lead­ers left out in the process of ticket dis­tri­bu­tion. With de­fec­tors in both par­ties be­ing rewarded for their ef­forts, this isn’t the last we have heard of the phe­nom­e­non.

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