The RSS tries to reconcile the imperatives of Chanakyaniti with its moral reservations over defections
The ruling party’s opendoor policy on political defectors stirs up a debate within the RSS
Back in 1981, when a BJP municipal councillor defected to the Congress and brought down the party numbers in the Rajkot Municipal Corporation, veteran BJP leader, the late Chiman Shukla, went on a fast that lasted 19 days. So intense was the moral pressure that the councillor left the Congress and went into political exile.
Later, in 1995, when BJP leader Shankarsinh Vaghela and 47 of the 122 Gujarat BJP MLAs threatened to break the party in an act of rebellion against the then chief minister Keshubhai Patel and then state BJP organisation secretary and now prime minister Narendra Modi, it evoked horror within the BJP leadership as well as the rank and file.
In the recent past, however, the saffron party has shed all inhibitions in embracing rebels from other parties. Just last week, 10 MLAs of the Sikkim Democratic Front joined the BJP. Earlier, in September and October 2016, almost the entire Congress legislature leadership in Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur had crossed over to the BJP. As a result, the current BJP governments in both states largely comprise those who were originally from the Congress and other parties, including Arunachal Chief Minister Pema Khandu and his Manipur counterpart Biren Singh.
The Northeast’s saffron turn came when disillusioned Congress leader Himanta Biswa Sarma became rebelin-chief for the BJP on August 29, 2015. Ever since, Sarma, along with BJP general secretary Ram Madhav, has been instrumental in establishing the BJP footprint in the Northeast by using his significant contacts and goodwill to lure legislators from the Congress and other regional parties into joining the BJP.
With the 1985 anti-defection law becoming largely toothless, legislators have no qualms in shifting loyalty to the party that best serves their
political interests. It was in 2016, the third year of the first Modi government, that there were widespread defections to the party. Eight Congress MLAs from Uttarakhand, along with former chief minister Vijay Kumar Bahuguna, joined the party that year. They went on to become ministers in the BJP government that came to power after the 2017 assembly election.
Defections gathered steam at the start of 2019 in anticipation of the general election in May. And with the BJP winning a resounding mandate, the number of people wanting to hitch their wagon to the winning horse is only growing. Especially as the Congress looks like a sinking ship and the sphere of regional parties has considerably reduced.
And the BJP isn’t complaining. The party leadership calls it ‘Chanakyaniti’, or pragmatic politics. As Sarma, the health and finance minister
in Assam, puts it, defections have helped the party to expand its footprint and build presence in areas that have been politically virgin territory, such as the Northeast. In West Bengal, the defection of Mamata aide Mukul Roy in November 2017 marked the beginning of the process that led to the BJP’s impressive tally in West Bengal in the May general election. Large-scale defections in Karnataka and Goa helped the BJP form governments in the two states this July. Given the success of defection politics, it will not be surprising if the BJP soon deploys the same strategy in Tamil Nadu and Kerala.
Even in the upper house, where the saffron party lacks the numbers, the BJP relied effectively on rebel MPs to push through crucial legislation, as on triple talaq and Article 370. And it doesn’t matter who they are. Two of the four Telugu Desam Party Rajya Sabha MPs who defected to the BJP, both of them
businessmen, are under the scanner of investigating agencies. S. Chaudhary has an Enforcement Directorate case pending against him while C.R. Ramesh had his group firms raided by income tax authorities. Ramesh, in fact, played a key role in managing the floor of the upper House in the passage of the triple talaq and Kashmir bills.
Defections, says a source close to the BJP leadership, “are a political necessity”. He thinks a complete ‘transformation’ is needed if India is to gain its rightful place in the comity of nations. “And legislative strength is necessary for this transformation.” Adds another source: “We need strength in the Rajya Sabha at the earliest. Whatever we are doing is part of a larger game plan and in the absolute national interest.”
But is the entry of outsiders in the interest of the party? According to Sarma, it is in keeping with party president Amit Shah’s goal of making BJP a pan-India party. However, mindful of fears regarding outsiders joining the party, the local RSS leadership is taken into confidence. As Sarma puts it, “Both the goals of the party and the due process for admitting outsiders are in place. There is proper screening before a leader from another party is admitted. Not all those who want to join the BJP are admitted.”
When asked about outsiders being welcomed into the party in such large numbers, Amit Shah had in an interview to india today late last year said that no political party can survive without induction of fresh blood.
However, despite the assertions of the party leadership, a significant section of party workers drawn from the RSS and the larger Sangh Parivar are clearly uncomfortable with the BJP brand of defection politics. They think that larger moral objectives are being sacrificed for short-term gains, dealing a blow to ‘value-based politics’.
Says a former ABVP leader, “Many imported leaders who have turned out to be useful for the party prove that the line between what is politically correct and what is unethical gets blurred sometimes. TDP MP C.R. Ramesh is a case in point. However, there are many instances which show that the party has admitted leaders from opposition parties for no reason. Rape accused MLA Kuldeep Sengar, for instance. He came from the Samajwadi Party and has brought only shame to the party in the past two years.”
When SP Rajya Sabha MPs Neeraj Shekhar, Sanjay Sinh and Satyanarayan Nagar were inducted into the BJP, a UP-based RSS leader asked, “We have 300 MLAs in UP. Where was the need for taking them in?”
The atmosphere building up in the party might force even the consciencekeepers into the political race because what was an exception is becoming a norm for what was once a party with a difference. “This milavat (unholy mixing) can have serious consequences for the cadre in the future,” says a top leader overseeing a national social service activity of the RSS.
However, while a section of the Parivar completely decries defection politics, another set is more open to the idea if it serves a political contingency, as when the BJP needs numbers to form a government and the rival party is playing the same game, like in Goa in 2017.
Says a source close to Arun Kumar, head of the national publicity wing of the RSS, “Some of our cadre do feel uncomfortable at the kind of defection politics they are seeing, but we can’t overlook the fact that the exercise is being carried out with a twin political objective: weakening the opposition and ensuring the legislative strength needed for enacting the requisite laws in national interest.” The source also points out how the BJP did give tickets to ideologically strong candidates in the 2019 election despite the impression that it is importing leaders from other parties. But where the party is weak, inviting leaders from other parties makes political sense.
Besides, many in the Parivar are willing to put up with defection politics as long as the larger RSS objectives—uniform civil code, abrogation of Article 370 and the Ram temple in Ayodhya—are being served. As an RSS ‘purist’ puts it, “When they are delivering on our ideological agenda, how can we oppose them on smaller things? If the end result is good, why should we object to the path they are taking to achieve it.” The end, after all, justifies the means. ■
THE BJP SEES DEFECTIONS AS A WAY TO ESTABLISH A FOOTPRINT IN AREAS WHERE IT HAS NO PRESENCE
AND THEN THERE WERE TEN BJP working president J.P. Nadda with the Goa CM and rebel Congress MLAs in New Delhi
INTO THE FOLD Union home minister Amit Shah with Baijayant Jay Panda