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When BJP equals Congress

That a party can induct anyone, and that anyone can join any party, speaks of a crisis of the polity

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Both before and after the recent round of assembly elections, a steady stream of Congress stalwarts (of sorts) has been moving over to the BJP. While this is a not-so-new feature of competitive politics it nevertheless requires attention since it pertains to the way parties organise, mobilise and realise power. How does one understand, for instance, that a Goa MLA after elections says that he cannot stay in a Rahul-led party — when Rahul Gandhi has been vice president of the party for quite some time already? The latest “stalwart” to not just leave the Congress but to join the BJP is Karnataka’s veteran and semi-retired leader, S.M. Krishna.

The Congress is, of course, in decline mode, and with reported murmurs of anti-Rahul sentiments, it is understandable that some members may choose to leave the party. What still requires explanation is the choice of the party they go to. And if the emergence of the BJP as the preferred destination of ex-Congresspersons tells us something about the Congress, it should also make us ask questions about the BJP.

Given its current position of pre-eminence, what the BJP does would have greater acceptability and impact in the new India that is round the corner. In the past three years, the party has been inducting seasoned actors from other parties, notably the Congress, into its fold and often rewarding these new entrants handsomely. In the party’s good showing in Maharashtra in the 2014 assembly elections, the role of such newcomers was quite critical. Assam, Manipur and Goa are other instances. In UP, while it has won decisively, the party inducted no less that the one-time state Congress chief into its fold.

This is, indeed, not specific to the BJP. Poaching appears to be an easy strategy for almost all parties. Perhaps the Congress, being the oldest party, is most infamous for this. Like the BJP in UP, the Congress has won Punjab pretty handsomely. Yet, not very long ago, it absorbed the breakaway group led by Manpreet Badal, the People’s Party of Punjab, in 2016. The case of Navjot Singh Sidhu is even more entertaining. Not only did he supposedly bargain hard before making up his mind, he was for quite some time, doing window shopping, almost choosing the AAP and then backing out and joining the Congress. The Congress was not only happy to have him on board, but has also ensconced him in the state cabinet. This effectively reduces both the party and the worker to merchandise.

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The phenomenon is variously described as defections and splits. But irrespective of the label, it defies adequate understanding. The fact that leaders — sometimes with their committed followers — keep easily changing parties makes most parties quite porous in their composition, ideology and social constituency.

At one level, this open door policy of the parties ties up with their mass-based, rather than cadre-based, character. But even then, the ease with which parties induct leaders from other parties or the swiftness with which leaders can change parties requires an explanation. The dominance of a single party (for long the Congress, now the BJP) may give us some explanation. Because there is probably only one route to power, everyone is tempted to take that route. Two, this may represent the overall instability in India’s party competition. Because party competition has not stabilised, and because social alignments have remained considerably dynamic if not fluid, over the past quarter of a century (and even before that because of single party dominance), parties function in a tentative manner, do not have the confidence to draw clear membership boundaries and are unable to establish identities. The state parties, which have occupied considerable space in the past more than two decades, have also faced this challenge of identity and stability of their support base. That is why state parties often keep fluctuating their position from regionalism to caste platforms to broader governance platforms.

Perhaps one could say that parties in India have been undergoing a long-drawn crisis first shaped by the dominance of the Congress and later shaped by the vacuum created by its decline. This might appear paradoxical, but it seems that in the case of the former, the absence of enough space and in the latter a sudden vacating of a lot of space produced the crisis. On the one hand, there was the pressure to create “alternatives” to the Congress; on the other, there were challenges of linking up with broader processes of social movements that were obtaining in the non-electoral arena. This crisis means that party politics in India continues to face three critical challenges.

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First, the organisation of parties in India has always been more informal than formal. Therefore, routine protocols of power-sharing among factions and leaders have ordinarily been absent or non-functional. The closest we come to it is having a “high command”. Even the BJP has adopted the practice of sending “observers” to state legislature party meetings and getting the high command’s choice selected. This formalisation of an informal power arrangement is typical of the functioning of parties. Alternatively, parties become completely family-ruled and hence devoid of any meaningful organisational space to negotiate internal differences. So, the proverbial high command or the alleged ruling family are left with the task of mediating among contending aspirants within the party often leading to factions and leaders leaving the party or re-joining it in a seemingly arbitrary manner.

The tentative nature of party competition has also meant that parties shirk from taking ideological positions, except as crude rhetoric. Ideology here need not merely mean the standard left-right or the peculiarly Indian framework of secular/communal. What parties often are unable to do is to shape a programme that workers could relate to and voters could feel enthusiastic about. But in their anxiety about not having any durable social base, parties try to be catch-all in a very raw sense. In fact, they avoid taking distinctive positions programmatically and are content with platitudes. This ideological/programmatic porosity allows the parties to induct anyone and also allows anyone to join any party, irrespective of earlier political background.

But the organisational and ideological porousness also leads to a third and quite disturbing feature of the challenge. The fact that parties turn to each other’s more popular actors means that the pool of actors remains the same. Even if different parties emerge as influential at different points in time, it would be a very real possibility that the same core of the political elite would operate the political system.

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In this sense, the crisis of parties is also a crisis of the polity. To the extent parties are happy poaching into one another’s base of influential political actors, the chances that competitive politics would throw up new possibilities would become thin. Our usual approach to factionalism and defections is often moralistic and fails to comprehend the larger malaise. The issue is not so much about morality; the issue is that because parties are so porous, the democratic base of our polity is likely to be so narrow.

First published on: 31-03-2017 at 12:05:47 am
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