The defection of 10 out of 15 Congress MLAs in Goa makes three things absolutely clear about the BJP’s Congress-Mukt Bharat mission:
- It shows that in its national decline, the Congress cannot even count on pockets where it is relatively strong. Remember, Goa was one of the few states where the Congress did well in the Lok Sabha elections – it won one out of two seats and increased its vote share by six percent.
- A majority of the MLAs who have defected happen to be Christians. They have defected to the BJP despite the fact that Christians in Goa voted for the Congress in sizeable numbers in the Lok Sabha polls. This could mean that in the long run, the Congress may not have the cushion of minority-dominated areas which helped it in this election.
- BJP is adamant that it won’t stop its efforts at wooing Congress leaders to its side. The Goa exodus happened at a time when the Congress was trying to keep its flock together in neighbouring Karnataka, besides its leadership crisis at the Centre.
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Defections Across India
Besides Goa and Karnataka, there have been defections from Congress ranks in several other states.
- Gujarat: Senior leaders with a strong local base like Kunwarji Bavaliya and Jawahar Chavda moved to the BJP. OBC leader Alpesh Thakor has also left the party, despite being given a prominent position in the party’s national leadership.
- Maharashtra: Leader of the Opposition Radhakrishna Vikhe Patil quit the party in April this year and is likely to join the BJP.
- Telangana: 12 out of 18 Congress MLAs quit and joined the ruling Telangana Rashtra Samithi. As a result, the Congress lost the main Opposition status to the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen.
- Bihar: the party’s former state chief Ashok Chaudhary joined the Janata Dal (United) last year.
This list is far from exhaustive, but it underlines an important fact that even giving leaders important positions – such as Vikhe Patil, Alpesh Thakor or Ashok Chaudhary – isn’t enough to keep them loyal to the party.
Therefore, the reason for the defection of such leaders doesn’t always stem from the Congress leadership’s inability to accommodate or appease them. It is equally simplistic to blame it on the leaders’ individual ambitions. The Congress’ vulnerability stems from the party’s structural weakness.
Party of Notables
Political scientists like Christophe Jaffrelot argue that political parties are largely dependent on one or all of these aspects:
- The existence of a popular mass leader
- The support of ‘notables’ who have pockets of influence at the local or regional level
- A machinery of committed party cadres
Worryingly for the Congress, the BJP as of now is strong on all three fronts and the Congress only on the second, and even that is weakening.
The Congress was never a cadre-based party. It was largely driven by the popularity of its top leader – Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and other members of the Gandhi family. But it also maintained its power with the help of “notables”.
According to Jaffrelot, “The hegemony that the Congress achieved after India’s independence was based on a party-building pattern typical of the ‘parties of notables’, to use political science jargon: This technique consists in amalgamating personalities who benefit from local influence as landowners, businessmen or money-lenders”.
The series of defections from the Congress can essentially be traced to the political compulsions of such ‘notables’.
These notables gained two things by becoming part of the Congress
First, as businessmen, heads of cooperatives, construction, education or mining barons, they benefitted immensely due to their proximity to political power. It also helps them to ‘get things done’ for their support base.
Second, the popularity of Congress leaders like Indira Gandhi and subsequent members of the Gandhi family helped boost their own support at the local level. It gave them a populist face for their essentially conservative politics.
Decline After 2014
However, in the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, it became clear that the Gandhi family’s popularity is nowhere near what it used to be and that the Congress is not going to come back to power. This led to an exodus of several leaders from the Congress such as Rao Inderjit Singh and Chaudhary Birender Singh in Haryana, Lal Singh in Jammu, Jagdambika Pal in Uttar Pradesh, to name a few.
After 2014, the slow exodus continued with leaders like Himanta Biswa Sarma, Rita Bahuguna Joshi, Vijay Bahuguna, almost the entire top leadership of the Tripura Congress, joining the BJP.
With the Congress being decimated in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, many notables who are dependent on access to power to maintain their businesses or to even sustain their support base, seem to have realised that they have no choice but to move to the BJP.
They also see the contrast that the elections threw up: well-established Congress leaders with a strong local base like Jyotiraditya Scindia or Deepender Hooda couldn’t retain their seats, but several lightweights and political novices got elected on BJP tickets just because of PM Modi’s popularity and the party’s cadre and financial strength.
Another key reason behind such defections is money. Given the party’s cash crunch, many Congress leaders have had to spend out of their own pockets to run their campaigns and maintain their patronage networks. This isn’t sustainable in the long run and that’s why the prospect of joining BJP is tempting.
These structural reasons are unlikely to change for the Congress in the near future. Cadre strength can’t be built overnight nor is the party likely to provide a leader who can dramatically become popular and take on Modi. Given this, the Congress may have to be prepared for more defections.