The Vajpayee-Advani duo was soft, often tripped by an old establishment. Modi-Shah are distinct
During his stint as a Samajwadi Party (SP) Members of Parliament from Uttar Pradesh in the Rajya Sabha, Neeraj Shekhar established a reputation for himself as a heckler. Sometimes cutting, occasionally witty, and always loud, his presence was always felt in the Upper House. When he taunted government ministers - and he did that frequently - he seemed to speak for the entire Opposition.
That is why it came as a surprise when Shekhar resigned from the House last Tuesday, and joined the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). There was nothing dishonourable in Shekhar jumping ship. His differences with the SP were said to lie in the local politics of Ballia district, a familiar predicament that often prompts realignments. Party affiliations tend to be fluid in the Hindi heartland, and there are innumerable examples of stalwarts reassessing their political future in the light of the present.
Nor can it be said that paratroopers from other parties get second-class treatment in their new homes. Himanta Biswa Sarma, formerly a Congress stalwart in Assam, is today one of the most important political functionaries of the BJP for the entire Northeast. Mukul Roy, one of Mamata Banerjee's closest associates, is today a pillar of a rising BJP in West Bengal. Both have moulded themselves into a different political tradition - and, in fact, have contributed to even reshaping the BJP.
Yet, the issue is no longer one of individual entrants into a party that has won a majority in two consecutive general elections. The BJP's spectacular 2019 victory has led to a wave of desertions from both a demoralised Congress and shaky regional parties. In the main, the crossovers have occurred at the grassroots level, particularly in states where the BJP registered a dramatic surge in the Lok Sabha polls. West Bengal is the best example of this pattern, and the political realignment has also been accompanied by violence. However, what has attracted notice - and raised eyebrows - are the defections from the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) in the Rajya Sabha, from the Congress in Goa, and from the Congress and Janata Dal (Secular) in Karnataka. These defections are strategic because they have either bolstered the BJP's legislative strength or could trigger the fall of a state government.
The misgivings are not merely on account of the possible subversion of the Constitution's 10th Schedule - although, strictly speaking, the rules have not been disregarded. Old-timers in the BJP have expressed their grave disappointment, and even anger, at the party accommodating those who, till the other day, were castigated, not merely as opponents, but for their dodgy reputations. The BJP's claim to be a "party with a difference" has come to haunt it. Certainly, the party appears to have come a long way since the mid-1990s when LK Advani lamented its lack of "killer instinct" in the quest for power.
Yet, it would be a folly to reduce the post-election churning to a mere question of ethics. Each situation has prompted its own distinct strategy. At the macro level, the BJP is naturally anxious to drive home its post-election advantage, and further weaken and demoralise an opposition that is yet to come to terms with its staggering defeat. In the Rajya Sabha, the Narendra Modi government has its eye on the passage of pending legislation and getting on with the process of governance. In Goa, the encouragement of defections has been prompted by a desire to avert the endemic instability that its governments have faced since the fractured verdict of 2017. In Karnataka, where the coming together of the JD(S) and Congress in 2018 was itself a function of political expediency, fishing in the waters of opportunism and venality is being seen as a way to force dissolution of the Assembly, and pave the way for fresh elections where the BJP can secure a clear mandate.
The case of West Bengal is a little different. In both Goa and Karnataka, the BJP is an established force. Bringing in defectors from other parties risks a large measure of contamination. However, in the battle against the Trinamool Congress (TMC), the BJP is confronted by a different set of problems. First, despite the 40% vote it polled in the general election, the party lacks organisational depth in the districts. It needs experienced political hands from both the TMC and the Left. Secondly, confronted with a political culture that is violent, it needs to acquire the capacity for both defence and offence. Finally, its ideological penetration in the state is as yet minimal.
Arguably, the BJP could have opted for a long-haul approach and looked beyond the assembly elections of 2021. That, however, does not correspond with the approach of the national leadership. In the past, the Vajpayee-Advani duo was soft and was often tripped up by an old establishment adept at wielding power ruthlessly. The Modi-Shah team seems determined to not repeat that mistake.
Swapan Dasgupta is Member of Parliament, Rajya Sabha
The views expressed are personal
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