Does the BJP have a problem of plenty? Legislators, office-bearers and workers of variegated political hues continue to stream in through its portals with the stated objective of ‘strengthening’ the ruling party. But expansion is not assimilation, and the BJP juggernaut may well encounter a bumpy road ahead.
The pros and cons of the expansion-by-induction strategy have not been empirically studied, but some of them are self-evident. There are three main problems in the indiscriminate absorption of dissidents from the Congress and regional parties. The first is ideological dilution, and cultural incompatibility. The second and more serious issue is that of expectation management, both with regard to the new entrants and the pre-existing cadre. Third is the weakening of intra-party lines of communication and the connect between workers and leaders.
In terms of the benefits, toppling a government is, of course, an immediate gain – such as the fall of the Congress government in Madhya Pradesh following the resignation of 22 MLAs loyal to dissident leader Jyotiraditya Scindia in 2020. In the case of Maharashtra, the dominant faction of the Shiv Sena which unseated the MVA retains its identity, but is now part of the NDA.
In the medium to long term, the prima facie benefit of welcoming dissidents from a rival party is decimating the rival. The steady attenuation of the Congress in Gujarat ahead of the assembly elections 2022 is a case in point. Patidar leader Hardik Patel, who had led a massive agitation against the ruling BJP in 2015 and later joined the Congress, did a U-turn to join the BJP last month. A few weeks earlier, senior tribal leader and three-time legislator Ashwin Kotwal quit to join the BJP. Since then, at least two rounds of defections at the district level have occurred.
Likewise, the Aam Aadmi Party has seen multiple desertions in election-bound Himachal Pradesh – including that of its state unit chief – to the point that it was forced to dissolve its working committee. In Uttarakhand, where it belied expectations of a spectacular debut by failing to open its account earlier this year, both its chief ministerial face and state unit chief have joined the BJP. For the moment, Arvind Kejriwal’s hill yatra appears to have hit a rockfall.
In Karnataka, the JD(S), which had allied with the Congress to form a government in 2018, has suffered a steady depletion. Lingayat leader Basavaraj Horatti joined the BJP, followed by former minister Sandesh Nagaraj. Several Congress leaders have also switched loyalties.
Absorption, like alliances, can also be a means of creating a base in a region where one is weak. The strategy has served the BJP well in the north-east and south. Himanta Biswa Sarma, CM of Assam, is the poster boy of the induction strategy. After he quit the Congress and joined the BJP in 2015, the latter won two successive assembly elections in Assam, a state where its voteshare had never breached 12 per cent.
The same logic doubtless applies to the recent entry of former Punjab Congress chief Sunil Jakhar into the BJP. He was followed by several key Congress leaders, including four former ministers, and two Akali Dal leaders. The defections have been at all levels, from municipal councillors, including a mayor, to former MLAs.
Likewise in Telangana, where the BJP is hoping for a breakthrough in the next year’s assembly election, former MP Konda Vishweshwar Reddy, one of the richest politicians in the country, has been a big ‘catch’. Previously, former MLA Bhikshamaiah Goud had switched to the BJP.
From the early 1990s, the BJP began to make the transition from a cadre-based to a mass-based party. The steady growth of the BJP continued until it reached hegemonistic proportions in 2019. Even so, it was a weak hegemony, given that it was significantly less successful in assembly elections. Delhi was a classic instance, with the BJP winning all 7 Lok Sabha seats in 2019, only to be wiped out in the assembly elections in 2020. The party has now set its sights on the states, particularly those where it is still a marginal player.
BJP cadres, most of whom emerge from the shakha culture, are disturbed when ‘outsiders’ in the party are indifferent to its ideology. Nor are the recent entrants accustomed to the BJP culture of discipline and according respect to senior leaders and RSS office-bearers. The new-found trend of sycophancy and personality cults in the BJP are attributed to outsiders.
Resentment is amplified when the outsiders’ claims to party tickets or ministerial berths are prioritised. Naturally, those who join the BJP expect ‘lollipops’, because that is the whole premise of switching loyalties. And when the newly saffronised turncoats are given positions of power, they do not accommodate BJP office-bearers or the rank-and-file, because they have no connect with them. From the expectation management point of view, outsiders are more a liability than an advantage.
Further, there is always the risk that ayarams can become gayarams, as was the case in West Bengal after the Trinamool Congress swept back to power in 2021 with a thumping majority. Then there’s the fact that some of the new entrants to the BJP are clearly influence-seekers with tainted reputations. This naturally upsets the cadres, who feel doubly let down. And if there’s one thing the Congress trajectory of the last decade indicates, it is the heavy cost of ignoring the cadre.
The writer is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now an independent writer and author. She tweets at @BhavKang