After their first significant electoral victories in 1967, the then Jan Sangh, BJP’s precursor, embarked on a series of informal alliances with princely notables in Madhya Pradesh, who were not only deeply influential in central India, but were, until then, staunch supporters of the Congress Party.
Much later, in the 1980s and 1990s, LK Advani and others in the BJP, continued this policy, broad basing it to include a vast spectrum of people and celebrities, who were not in any way related to the RSS or traditional Sangh politics.
Cut to 2019, when BJP is in a pole position in Indian politics, particularly after Narendra Modi’s second emphatic victory, obviously there is a queue to join the party. In many ways, the contrast could not have been starker. Since the 1960s, when the Jan Sangh was a pariah, seeking reluctant allies, to 2019 when political leaders of all hues are making a beeline to get into the party, is a long-distance travelled.
However, the BJP needs to exercise caution with rampant poaching — read defection exercises — that has led to politicians of various shapes and sizes, lining up to join the party in power. These days, not a week goes without someone or the other, in many cases even political heavyweights, joining the BJP. To be sure, party-hopping in not a new phenomenon in this country, and well precedes the advent of Narendra Modi. Every general election or Assembly poll is invariably accompanied by individual politicians, mostly local notables, transferring their loyalties from one party to another.
This switch is usually based on the ‘winnability’ factor. If an anticipated swing in favour of one party is complemented by a person’s local appeal, success is more or less guaranteed. On their part, political parties aren’t exactly selective about admitting turncoats, who may have been attacking them just the other day!
The pre-election switches may be uneven, but not exactly unethical, because if the electorate decides to back rank defectors, there is nothing that anyone can say or do.
This process of aya Rams and gaya Rams merely reinforce — if indeed any reinforcement was needed — that political parties, given the extreme diversity and vastness of Indian society, can scarcely be ideological at all, even loosely.
It would, therefore, be a mistake to describe the BJP as an ideological party, not the least by its own supporters, let alone critiques on the Left-Liberal end of the spectrum. To propose therefore that the BJP is entirely controlled by the RSS, is inaccurate. This may have held true for the early Jana Sangh, but over the decades the BJP has evolved into something far bigger than just the Sangh Parivar. There is little doubt that the RSS’s inputs to the BJP’s ultimate execution of its programmes are very significant, but the party’s stalwarts like Advani believed long ago that to expand its footprints, the BJP would have to move beyond a strictly regimented existence, something that the Left in India was unable to do.
A look at the BJP’s leadership today, particularly in states where it has come to establish a presence only recently, will help to elucidate this point. Local BJP units, many of them set up newly, have to factor in local issues and deal with new entrants into the party fold, who do not come from the traditional saffron fold. They could belong to the Congress or even a regional party. To be sure, the RSS does provide the cohesion needed, but BJP’s horizontal, nationwide expansion, is its own doing.
Typically of India, the situation varies from one state to the other. In West Bengal and Tripura, the BJP was a very small party until quite recently. It constituted individuals associated with the Sangh Parivar, not all of them familiar with the ways of conducting electoral politics.
Many individuals from the Trinamool Congress and Congress who joined the BJP after 2014 or even just before the 2019 election, were better equipped to fight elections than the old-timers.
It would be fair to say that the remarkably good performance of the BJP in these two states, is thanks in the main to these new inductees, who skillfully harnessed the larger popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi for electoral gains.
Such political integration is, however, not without its downside. In West Bengal, after the BJP’s electoral triumph in the Lok Sabha elections, there have been tensions in the local party unit on differing perceptions of Sangh old-timers and recent entrants.
A look at recent defections to the BJP in Karnataka, Goa and Maharashtra, presents a different side of the problem. The implications of destabilising the HD Kumara Swamy government in Bangalore is being attributed to a lack of political ethics, because the provocation was triggered by Modi’s resounding mandate.
Yet, it would be instructive to remember that the Congress — Janata Dal (S) coalition that came into existence after the Assembly election in Karnataka last year, was itself steeped in rank opportunism. Both the parties had contested the polls bitterly against each other. Under the circumstances, replacing one unprincipled combination with another may hardly be deemed unethical.
Having said that, the BJP would be well-advised not to lose its original hallmark — party with a difference. The 2019 victory was prompted by peoples’expectations and coming so soon after that mandate, the murky games in Karnataka, Goa and poll-bound Maharashtra could make the party lose its moral sheen.