The suggestion, widely circulated on the social media, that Amit Shah had quietly persuaded the New Zealand cricketers to abandon their black jersey for the blue and thereby ensured that India was there in the cricket World Cup final, was amusing. However, on a more serious vein, it pointed to an underlying unease with the poaching exercises that have led to large scale defections from different parties into the BJP after the elections.
Party hopping in India isn’t new and preceded the arrival of Narendra Modi appeared on the political scene. Every general election or even Assembly election is invariably accompanied by individual politicians — usually prominent local notables — transferring their loyalties from one party to another. This switch is usually based on assessments of winnability. If an anticipated swing in favour of one party is complemented by a person’s local appeal, success is usually guaranteed. On their part, the political parties aren’t excessively squeamish about admitting people who were only the other day speaking in a very different language.
The pre-election movements may be improper but they aren’t exactly unethical. The final choice of who will be the MLA or MP rests with the voters. If voters are inclined to condone these shifts based on plain opportunism, there is nothing more to be said. The exercise doesn’t violate the Anti-Defection Act even remotely.
The problems arise on two other counts.
First, in purely ascending order, is the larger question centred on the belief that political parties are governed by what is loosely called ideology. I believe this is an inappropriate description and a better way of describing Indian political parties is to focus on broadly common values and commitment to a broad political programme.
The BJP is mistakenly dubbed an ideological party, not least by its own supporters. This in turn is based on the assumption that the BJP is controlled by the RSS. This may have been true for the early Jana Sangh but over the years the BJP has evolved into something far bigger than just the Sangh parivar. The RSS matters but it is an input — albeit a very important one — in the BJP. Today’s BJP leadership, particularly in States where it has only recently established a presence, has to factor in elements bigger than the parivar, although the parivar remains a cohesive glue.
However, the coalition tends to be uneasy — at least in the initial stages. In West Bengal and Tripura, the BJP was a very small party till recently. It was primarily made up of individuals associated with the Sangh Parivar and not all of them were well clued into the challenges of electoral politics. Many of the individuals from the Trinamool Congress and Congress who joined the BJP after 2014 or even just prior to the 2019 election were better equipped to fight elections than the old-timers in the BJP. I would say that the remarkably good performance of the BJP in these two States owe considerably to the new inductees who were very successfully able to harness the larger popularity of Prime Minister Modi for electoral advantage. However, despite the success the larger problem of integration remains. There have been tensions in the West Bengal BJP over divergent perceptions of the old-timers and recent entrees. The political cultures of the two groups are very different and often contradictory.
The recent defections to the BJP in Karnataka and Goa raise a very different set of questions. First, there is the issue of the Anti-Defection Act — not merely the letter of the law but its underlying spirit. The implications of the existing Government in Karnataka being destabilised on account of defections appear to many people to be unethical, especially because the provocation for the shifts was nothing more than the resounding mandate for Modi in the general election. This is plain opportunism.
Yet, an absolute value judgment is unwarranted. It should not be forgotten that the Congress — Janata Dal (S) coalition that came into existence after the Assembly election in Karnataka was itself grounded in opportunism — the two parties having fought each other bitterly in the polls. Moreover, as the general election results amply demonstrated, the coming together of the Congress-JD(S) left their supporters cold and didn’t translate into electoral advantage. Under the circumstances, replacing one unprincipled combination with another may hardly be deemed unethical. Ethics and principles never figured on the radar in the first place.
A note of caution is, at the same time, warranted. The BJP won a renewed mandate in 2019 on the strength of expectations and some sense of rectitude. Coming so soon after that mandate, the murky games in Karnataka and Goa makes the BJP lose its moral sheen. Maybe morality doesn’t feature in a context of a larger game in which the BJP seeks to twist the knife inside an already bleeding Congress. But the continuing importance of the ‘party with a difference’ in popular perception should not be forgotten. In the quest for a New India, playing by a set of flexible rules are more the custom of the Old India.
Without passing moral strictures, the only suggestion to Modi and Shah is to blend political advance with a measure of restraint and caution.
Sunday, 14 July 2019 | Swapan Dasgupta | in Usual Suspects
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