Congress and Defections: Made for each other?

NEW DELHI, INDIA - JULY 11: A Member of Parliament holds a placard during a 'Save Democracy' protest over Karnataka and Goa issues, in front of the statue of Mahatma Gandhi at Parliament on July 11, 2019 in New Delhi, India. In Karnataka, legislators of the ruling Congress-JD(S) alliance have resigned plunging the state government into crisis. In Goa, 10 Congress MLAs have joined the ruling BJP.(Photo by Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

First there was Karnataka. Then came Goa. There’s already been a few from the Rajya Sabha. And in two out of the three cases where elected legislatures decided to cross the aisle, the Congress has been at the receiving end. This, for a party that has a history of engineering defections on the one hand and on the other of framing India’s first anti-defection law.

What’s going wrong for India’s grand old party? Is the BJP’s promise of a Congress-mukt Bharat coming true earlier than it dreamt of? Has the bubble around the secular credentials of the party burst? Or is it that the ruling party’s anti-secular pitch is getting diluted?

Possibly all three of them and not necessarily in that order. However, there’s a fourth aspect that has been ignored by the Congress, as it unwaveringly pins hopes of an electoral resurgence upon the Gandhi surname, even as the BJP quietly and systematically usurps that very surname through symbolic gestures and targeted tokenism.

Before we get to the reasons in detail, let’s look at how the defections have affected the party in recent times. Senior leaders with a strong mass base like Jawahar Chawda in Gujarat have shifted allegiance, as have Kunwarji Bavaliya and OBC leader Alpesh Thakor. In neighboring Maharashtra, the party’s leader in the assembly Radhakrishna Vikhe Patil has crossed over.

In Telangana 12 of the 18 Congress legislators shifted to the ruling TDP causing the party further embarrassment as Asaduddin Owaisi’s All India MIM became the main opposition party in the assembly. Many would recall that last year, the party’s state chief Ashok Chaudhury joined the Janata Dal (United).

Closer to the day, we’ve seen a 12 of the 17 legislators in Goa switch over to the ruling party and getting ministerial positions in the cabinet. The split was on the cards when the Congress lost three of the four bye-elections held along with the Lok Sabha polls. What’s ironic is that a majority of the defectors are from the Christian community, considered close to Congress.

The situation in Karnataka is much the same. In order to circumvent the provisions of anti-defections, the legislators, both from the Congress and its alliance partner JDS, preferred to resign so that the BJP could then stake claim to form the government based on the reduced count of MLAs in the assembly. The situation there continues to be on a razor’s edge.

A cursory look at the list of defections indicates one single trait, that of the legislators seeking administrative positions with many of them getting the rewards for jumping ship. In other words, it suggests that the Congress’s biggest challenge is to stay away from power. Not surprising, given that the party has stayed in power for the longest in this country.

With the BJP in no mood to go slow with their defection engineering, the chances are that many more such theatres of the absurd may play out in the near future. Remember, the BJP hasn’t even started the process in Kerala, considered by many to be the final frontier that the saffron brigade would look to conquer before the 2024 general elections.

The Congress, which appeared aggressive in the run-up to the general elections, has completely gone off the boil since Rahul Gandhi’s decision to quit the leadership, with other state leaders following suit. However, instead of quickly following up on their intent, the party has been lethargic in following up, having not managed to even find a leader to replace Rahul.

Worse still, the party has allowed the BJP to steal their century-old icon right from under their noses. When Narendra Modi came to power in 2014, he appropriated a major piece of Mahatma Gandhi’s legacy with Swachh Bharat. Five years later, he has taken another big chunk by announcing padayatras to commemorate Gandhi’s 150th birth centenary later this year.

With neither power nor the lure of it appearing to be within the grasp of the Congress, it is hardly surprising that its rank and file are a confused lot and its leaders, high on self-preservation instincts, are looking for greener pastures.

Was it the Congress party’s own indifference to its icons that led to the BJP’s taking them over? Maybe so, but that’s the subject matter for another story at another time.