After 26 months of middling to poor state election results, the Bharatiya Janata Party seems to have settled on a different approach to break the streak: engineering defections to come to power in a state, despite having lost it at the polls.

Former Congress leader Jyotiraditya Scindia’s decision to jump ship on Tuesday, coupled with the resignation of more than 20 members of the Madhya Pradesh legislative assembly put the saffron party in the driver’s seat in the state. It should now be in position to bring down Chief Minister Kamal Nath’s Congress government and take back power in the large Hindi-belt state.

The manoeuvres, carried out during the North Indian holiday of Holi no less, might also signal the end of a drift in BJP’s state election affairs, even as it stares at a relatively favourable calendar over the next two years.

2015 vs 2020

Electorally, 2015 was a difficult year for the BJP. Despite its massive victory in the Lok Sabha elections in 2014 and in state polls later that year, its momentum was severely blunted because of losses in both Delhi and Bihar the following year.

The party eventually managed to start winning again and even engineered a return to power in Bihar by breaking the ruling coalition, but the memory of the year still stings.

For the BJP, 2020 started on even more ominous note. This time too it had notched up a tremendous majority in the Lok Sabha polls in 2019. But its record in state elections had been poor since the second half of 2017, including the loss of three Hindi heartland states in 2018 and the surprise of having to give up Maharashtra after its long-term ally, the Shiv Sena, formed a new coalition.

The Delhi elections in February 2020 offered a sense of deja vu: Despite a politically and religiously charged campaign by the BJP, the Aam Aadmi Party still won a whopping 62 of 70 seats in the capital.

The Bihar elections loom ahead, later in the year. The BJP should begin those as front-runner along with its ally Janata Dal (United), but Chief Minister Nitish Kumar will be dealing with 15 years of anti-incumbency – and has been known to jump ship if he thinks there is safe harbour elsewhere.

Madhya Pradesh situation

So what better way to return to form than by winning a state without having to go through the messy process of an election? The Congress government in Madhya Pradesh was always precarious.

It was split between three factions: Kamal Nath, who ended up as chief minister and state president; former chief minister Digivijaya Singh, who had the ear of the High Command, and Jyotiraditya Scindia, a political dynast who had been promised a role by the top leadership but ended up being shunned by Nath.

The proximate cause for Scindia’s departure may have been Rajya Sabha elections, due later this month. After being kept out of both the state government and the party leadership – and dropping the word Congress from his Twitter bio late last year – Scindia had hoped to at least be offered a seat in the Upper House of Parliament. When this didn’t materialise, he decided it was time. He is expected to join the BJP shortly.

In retrospect Congress leader Rahul Gandhi's tweet from 2018 seems to have been dangerously complacent.

The Congress in the state has a paper-thin majority: of the 228 seats currently occupied in the assembly, the Congress has just 114 along with the support of five others. If the speaker accepts the resignations of the 20 or so Congress MLAs, the halfway mark in the assembly will come down to just 105 seats. The BJP has 109 MLAs.

Of course, things may yet change. Chief Minister Kamal Nath asked all of his ministers to resign on Monday in the hopes that Cabinet reshuffle may placate those MLAs that were threatening to cross the aisle. But Scindia’s departure from the Congress means holding on will be much harder, unlike the last few BJP efforts to destabilise the Madhya Pradesh government.

Key takeaways

The likely change of fortunes has a few implications:

  • The BJP looks set to win back a major Hindi-belt state after three embarrassing losses in 2018. Under Amit Shah, the party showed that it had no problem pulling in leaders from other parties or making deals to win power. Though Shah is no longer technically party president, the BJP still answers to him – and the current deal clearly has his mark on it.
  • Former Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan is likely to regain the top seat in the state. When Scindia joins the BJP, as he is expected to, he will have to be accommodated in the Union Cabinet and is likely to demand some say over state appointments.
  • The Madhya Pradesh Congress stares at a leadership crisis. From three factions, the Congress in the state is down to two – but both of those leaders are in their early 70s. While that is hardly an impediment in India politics, it does raise questions about the long-term prospects of the state unit.
  • The Congress High Command has some questions to answer. The party has not had a clear sense of its leadership since the 2019 loss. Then President Rahul Gandhi resigned, but never really went away. He was replaced by his mother, Sonia Gandhi, but that was never a long-term solution. In the mean time, state Congress units somehow managed victories – but few would credit those to the central leadership.

    Now the strategy of letting one state faction rule, in this case Kamal Nath’s, will have reached its expiry date. Will this be the jolt that pushes the Congress to address its central leadership question? Or will it be followed by yet another round of hand-wringing with no real progress?