BJP's unravelling in Bengal and politics of defections

BJP's unravelling in Bengal and politics of defections

Political parties appear like clones of private corporations, where their employees are ready to explore lucrative options in other entities at the first whiff of misfortune

In the last three months, Babul Supriyo (L) and Mukul Roy have defected to the TMC from BJP. Credit: PTI File Photos

One can reasonably say that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is being paid back in its own coin in Bengal. Former Union minister Babul Supriyo is the fifth BJP leader to have recently defected to the Trinamool Congress (TMC) after Mamata Banerjee scored a triumphant victory in the assembly elections earlier this year. The TMC’s third consecutive win set off the BJP’s unravelling in Bengal.

Riding high on its 2019 Lok Sabha gains in the state — not to mention hubris — the BJP had expected to vote the TMC government out of power. The TMC’s assembly landslide not only put paid to the BJP’s aspirations. The defeat revealed glaring fault lines in the party’s campaign strategy as well. Most importantly, the result foregrounded the cultural hiatus between the BJP’s Hindi-speaking central leaders and Bengal’s homespun chief minister, who successfully used Bangla nationalism against those she described as “bohiragoto” (outsiders).

Since the results, Bengal’s BJP leaders have been deserting the party one after another. The spate of defections brings home an important truth: that like other parts of the country, Bengal is susceptible to random switches in party loyalty. The process began in 2011 when the TMC defeated the Left Front government of 34 years, and large sections of Left cadres, even elected representatives, crossed over to the winning side.

Next, when the BJP replaced the Communist Party of India-Marxists (CPI-M) as the TMC’s principal adversary, TMC cadres and leaders flocked to the new party on the block. Mamata Banerjee’s trusted aide Mukul Roy quit the TMC and joined the BJP in 2017. Following their defeat three years on, Roy rejoined the TMC in 2021.

On a broader, national level, the BJP is no stranger to defections in electoral politics. The party’s own role in engineering defections from Congress-led governments has come in for some hard-hitting criticism. There are half a dozen states where, after coming to power at the Centre in 2014, the BJP transformed its minority status to a majority. To turn losses into gain, the BJP adopted a range of dubious tactics, destabilising and toppling elected Congress governments.

Take the case of Madhya Pradesh, for instance, where a 22-member strong contingent of legislators loyal to Jyotiraditya Scindia quit the Congress last year. Scindia himself joined the BJP. The depletion in the ruling Congress ranks resulted in the BJP forming government. Given the backroom machinations preceding the takeover, the party’s feeble defence that it had nothing to do with the rebellion, and it was all Congress’s doing, cut little ice.

A similar pattern of outmanoeuvring the Congress and grabbing power was seen in Karnataka (2018-19), Meghalaya (2018), Goa (2017) and Manipur (2017). In all these states, despite not having the numbers to form a government, the BJP edged the ruling Congress out and grabbed power.

It’s not just the BJP that finds itself in the dock in this context. All political parties are busy playing the defection game. The practice has come to acquire such legitimacy that political parties appear like clones of private corporations. At the first whiff of misfortune, their employees are ready to explore lucrative options in other corporations/political entities. The attractiveness of financial and career mobility (read as the fruits of power) are what matter. The fundamentals of politics (or at least what they used to be)-ideology, principles, values-were thrown out the window a long time ago.

Commenting on defection, media anchors and commentators usually talk about the professional dexterity of ‘Chanakyas’ in dominant parties, waxing eloquent about the skills of manipulators, driven by killer instinct and the will to dominate the political turf. The manoeuvres to whittle down and queer the pitch for competing rival parties are praised as evidence of animal spirits and the success of the art of realpolitik.

Though electoral democracy intrinsically hinges on power, perhaps never before has the process been held hostage to such fecklessness. Elections now take place without the guarantee that the party voted in will endure the next five years. Representative politics has become subsumed in post-electoral manipulations. As long as voters continue to indulge mushrooming party-hoppers, the trend is unlikely to reverse. The public does not seem to care about the absence of integrity in the representatives they elect. Popular cynicism about politicians is at an all-time high.

There was a time career politicians were looked down upon. Politics, it was innocently believed, was a higher calling, beckoning those who wished to serve the public, not themselves. That naivete has long been replaced by a different sensibility, by the creed of ‘politics for me and myself’. Public service be damned. In recent years, such charlatanism has come to be accepted, even rationalised, if not appreciated, as a means of toppling legitimately elected governments.

It’s not that Indian democracy is suddenly bedevilled by defection or infiltrated by the Aaya Ram Gaya Ram culture. Indian politics, in the past, has been a narrative of a great many party hoppers. The lure of power and not conviction in one or another kind of politics has time and again shown up the vulnerability of electoral democracy.

It must, however, be pointed out that the idea of defection is not a bad thing in itself. Leaving a political party and choosing another is not always negative. Blind obedience to political masters, regardless of principles, is not a virtue. The crucial question is: what motivates defections? Can power be the sole motivation behind quitting a party and moving to the side of the victor? If that is the case, elected governments will continue to remain vulnerable to the wiles of unscrupulous political players. And elections will become increasingly redundant.

(Monobina Gupta is the author of 'Left Politics in Bengal' and 'Didi: A Political Biography')

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author's own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH

Get a round-up of the day's top stories in your inbox

Check out all newsletters

Get a round-up of the day's top stories in your inbox