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Dhaka Tribune

Indian election

Why are opposition members defecting to BJP?

  • The Congress party is losing rank and file to Narendra Modi’s block as elections near
  • With ideology fading into the background, switching sides seems to be easier than ever
Update : 18 Apr 2024, 09:27 AM

Bipin Das had worked for the Indian National Congress party (INC) for over two decades before switching to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) two months ago.

He told DW that he was left with no choice a recent redrawing of the borders of electoral constituencies in the northeast state of Assam.

“The Congress is never going to come to power here, we are 100% sure,” Das said.

The centrist and secular INC, often known simply as the Congress, is the primary opposition to Narendra Modi’s BJP. But with the  general election starting on Friday, the party is facing a murky future and struggling with a crisis of confidence in its leader Rahul Gandhi.

Das and many other ex-INC members now believe they are better off with the BJP, the Hindu nationalist party of Prime Minister Modi. Last week, 800 Congress members in Gujarat switched allegiance to the BJP.

Why are Congress members leaving?

The party’s issues go beyond the grassroots-level — defectors include senior INC members such as the Union Minister Jyotiraditya Scindia, former Member of Parliament Naveen Jindal, former Maharashtra Chief Minister Ashok Chavan, and the Chief Minister of Assam Himanta Biswa Sarma.

There are many reasons for the defections. For some, it was the appeal of Modi as a charismatic leader, putting him in stark contrast against the Congress leadership.

“When people listen to Rahul Gandhi they remember his words for the next 10 minutes,” Das told DW. “But the way Modi influences people’s minds, the listeners go on to preach on his behalf.”

For others, it was reading the writing on the wall.

“Many Congressmen feel that they may not come to power for a long time,” said journalist Neerja Chowdhury.

Experts say it would take the Congress party years to fill their ranks and regain relevance. Personal ambitions or aspirations would be on hold for a long while in the opposition camp, while greener pastures lie just across the political divide.

New era of ‘no ideology’

An ideological factor, or rather the lack of it, is also influencing the defectors. Chowdhury notes that some politicians have always switched sides ahead of elections.

“But of late we’re seeing is a slightly different phenomenon in addition to this, and that is politics becoming de-ideologized,” she said.

Without the burden of an ideology, politicians now are able to change alliances more freely.

A recent example includes Gourav Vallabh, a former Congress spokesperson who joined the BJP. Addressing the media, he said he cannot stand for criticism or negative rhetoric towards Hindu traditions — a somewhat surprising stance after Vallabh spent years attacking the BJP’s core ideas.

“Nowadays, there is no ideology,” said Omair Khan, the national coordinator of the Congress’ minority department.

Gandhi wearing out his welcome

Chowdhury says the current state of the Congress party is a result of its own actions. Rather than innovating or seeking new strategies, the party persisted in its traditional approach, consistently relying on the Gandhi family for leadership.

The party could have projected Mallikarjun Kharge, the Congress president, as the new face of the Indian opposition, according to Chowdhury. Kharge is Dalit, a member of a discriminated caste and India “has never had a Dalit Prime Minister,” says Chowdhury. Promoting Kharge could tilt Dalit votes in favor of Congress.

Instead, the party still focuses on Rahul Gandhi — the great-grandson of India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, the grandson of the nation’s first female Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, and son of another former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.

Rahul Gandhi leading the Congress “suits the BJP to the hilt,” said Chowdhury, as Gandhi “maybe saying the right thing… but he is not seen as a counter to Modi at the bigger level.”

Another mistake the Congress made, according to the veteran journalist, was not carving out a bigger role for its young leaders. Now those young leaders have gone on to join the BJP, with those such as Scindia taking on roles in Modi’s cabinet.

“And I’m not saying the Gandhi family should not play a role [in the Congress]. But it has to go beyond the Gandhi family being at the center of it.”

Chowdhury says the party finds itself on the backfoot because it is “not able to get their act together” to “counter either the narrative of the BJP or the personality of Narendra Modi or the humongous machinery that the BJP has become.”

State pressure to join BJP

Experts also claim the BJP is pressuring the opposition through state bodies. The Enforcement Directorate (ED), the Income Tax Department (I-T), and the Central Bureau of Investigations (CBI) have all been used to target opposition leaders, they say.

Those issues often go away if the targeted individuals decide to join the ruling bloc.  An investigation by The Indian Express highlighted that, since 2014, 23 out of 25 notable opposition politicians have seen investigations against them either closed or put on hold after joining the BJP. Additionally, an earlier report by the same newspaper revealed that 95% of individuals scrutinized by the ED and the CBI belonged to opposition parties.

“No statutory bodies or investigative agencies have ever been truly independent but in recent years the boundaries have been completely blurred to serve the party interests of ruling regime,” a Bengaluru-based political anthropologist said.

“Hence, defections or desertions from one party to BJP is even more common. It has been incentivized to join BJP to get a clean chit for all corruption or other criminal charges.”

No response from INC

It would appear that the Congress does not know how to stop the defections.

“If the Congress knew what to do, it would be doing it,” said Chowdhury.

At the same time, she says it’s imperative for the Congress party to act as a counterweight to the ruling party, upholding one of the most basic principles of a democracy.

“For the Congress to lose, to slump, to not be able to revive is not a good thing for India’s democracy,” she said.

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