On Saturday, the influential Trinamool Congress (TMC) leader Suvendu Adhikari joined the BJP along with eight other MLAs, two of them from the Left and one from the Congress, and an MP, during a rally addressed by Union Home Minister Amit Shah in Midnapore. Shah described the arrival of turncoat legislators to the BJP as “just the beginning” and warned West Bengal Chief Minister and TMC chief Mamata Banerjee that she will be alone by the time of the upcoming Assembly elections. Of course, Didi is the supreme leader of the TMC, her charisma defines the party top down, but the fact is Adhikari was no mere minion. He was the chief mobiliser of protests at Nandigram which helped catapult Banerjee to the chief minister’s office and when he asks questions of her and the party, there are many who listen. In a way, his desertion shows how ill-equipped the TMC is to handle and address internal dissent and how centralised power in the party is.
The crisis in TMC is not unique. It stems from a structural flaw, common to a lot of regional parties that revolve around one leader or a family. The TMC, for instance, had a movement character to it in the beginning, which enabled the party to successfully challenge the electoral hegemony of the CPM that lasted 35 years. However, it failed to reconstitute itself as a party of government, the way the CPM had done after winning office for the first time in 1977. The TMC has maintained total domination on the ground because it inducted local leaders, enforcers and cadres from other parties, who were attracted by the privileges of office and threat of violence. Allegiance to the leader was the glue that held the party together — and the leader bought loyalty by offering patronage, looking the other way as local corruption flourished, or threatening retribution. In a federal polity that lacked a powerful centre, this model of regional power politics was successful. However, it has started to unravel following the rise of the BJP in 2014. An ambitious BJP wants to establish itself as the premier party across regions and has the resources to match regional outfits in power. This has created a strange dichotomy wherein allies are leaving the BJP even as the latter inducts leaders and cadres from rival parties and in regions where it had a limited presence. This pattern has been visible in recent times in Karnataka, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Goa, Gujarat and Telangana, besides West Bengal. It has enabled the BJP to expand its footprint and even overturn electoral verdicts in its favour.
The unchallenged predatory politics of the BJP is deeply problematic as it ends up squeezing the Opposition space and challenging all institutions meant to check and balance. Every election — local bodies onwards, as we saw in the recent Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation — is turned into a war-like spectacle, with the party’s national leadership using polarising rhetoric. Such a winner-takes-all approach may help the BJP win elections but these unequal battles undermine electoral democracy in the long run. It has surely influenced the BJP, which, of course, has a majority in the Lok Sabha, to rule through executive fiat than govern by building consensus on contentious national issues. The art of speaking and listening that Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently emphasised is lost in the noise of the BJP’s election machine. Which is what Shah, on stage in Midnapore, was cranking up.