Day of the turncoats

No party is averse to welcoming political migratory birds. But the Congress takes the cake

Written by Inder Malhotra | Published:April 8, 2013 12:51 am

No party is averse to welcoming political migratory birds. But the Congress takes the cake

In the unending wordy duel between Beni Prasad Verma,Union steel minister and Congress member of Parliament,and his one time “Netaji” Mulayam Singh Yadav,supreme leader of the Samajwadi Party that rules the country’s most populous state,Uttar Pradesh,the latest is that the Congress leadership has reined in the recalcitrant steel minister from continuing his war of words with Yadav. At a meeting with Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s trouble-shooter,Janardan Dwivedi,the aggressive Verma has reportedly agreed not to malign Yadav,provided the latter “also observes restraint”.

How this ugly episode pans out is of little concern to me. The event is important because it underscores a widespread feature of the Indian political scene about which the political class and even the public opinion appear unconcerned: the great power of the turncoats,deserters from one party that are welcomed by its rival with open arms. Verma is a classic example of this phenomenon.

For long years,he was Yadav’s acknowledged number two,both in the SP and in the state government whenever the party was in power in Lucknow. Yadav’s fondness for him had two reasons. First,in an era when the OBCs were rising to power,Verma was the most important leader of the Kurmis,and thus supplemented Yadav’s enormous following among the Yadavs. Secondly,he never looked upon himself as “Netaji’s” eventual successor. Yet,the breach between the two came when Yadav discerned that Verma was losing his hold on the Kurmis and started downgrading the now steel minister. After a stint in the wilderness,the ambitious Verma joined the Congress party and has since been a member of the Union council of ministers.

In this context,especially because the Congress-led UPA government cannot afford to lose the Samajwadi Party’s “support from outside”,despite Yadav’s incorrigible habit to blow hot and cold in the same breath,the intriguing question that arises is: how can the steel minister afford to disregard the high command’s directives?

After all,following his intemperate tirade against Yadav,Sonia Gandhi had walked up to Yadav with “folded hands” to apologise. The Congress party publicly apologised to the SP boss separately. But Verma refused to follow their lead. To express “regret” was as far as he would go. He didn’t utter the word apology,and indeed launched another attack on Yadav,who is repeating his demand that the steel minister must be sacked. Could there be a more vivid display of the turncoat’s clout to the point that even his new mentors are reluctant to push him beyond a point?

When asked why the Congress was treating Verma with kid gloves,a party leader replied,strictly on condition of anonymity,“We have no Kurmi leader worth the name in UP. We don’t want him to turn his back on us,too”. Interestingly,there are rumours that the steel minister wants to malign Yadav and team up with Mayawati. He emphatically denies this,of course. But who knows what kind of realignments might take place before the 2014 general election.

No party is averse to welcoming political migratory birds,but the Congress takes the cake in this respect. Verma is only one of a horde of defectors from other parties now flourishing in the Congress ranks. In the state of Maharashtra,where the Congress is in an uneasy coalition with the Nationalist Congress Party led by Sharad Pawar,all the stormtroopers of the Congress are former leaders of the Shiv Sena,two of them former chief ministers of the state. All of them are holding high office. One of them,Narayan Rane,has staked his claim to be chief minister more than once. In Gujarat,the Congress has only two pillars to support its crumbling structure — Shankersinh Vaghela and Keshubhai Patel — who are both stalwarts of the RSS and the BJP. The list is illustrative,not exhaustive.

However,the case of Rashid Alvi deserves a mention. At one stage he had left the party in a huff to explore fresh pastures,first in the SP and then in Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party. Then he came back and was promptly made a party spokesman.

Probably the case of the redoubtable Pawar sums up the state of the Indian polity. Originally a staunch Congressman,he jettisoned his party in 1978 to become chief minister of Maharashtra with the support of the Janata Party then ruling in New Delhi. Rajiv Gandhi brought him back into the Congress in 1987. Later,he revolted against Sonia Gandhi’s leadership with the slogan “Raj karega hindustani (An Indian will be in charge)”. Since 2004,he and the Congress have been coalition partners in both Delhi and Mumbai.

The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator

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