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