For the first time since Narendra Modi swept to power as prime minister in 2014, the Bharatiya Janata Party is seeing disorganisation and chaos in its usually disciplined party structure.
Without a doubt, the starkest example here is West Bengal. After three years of rapid growth between 2018 and 2021, the BJP faced a significant setback in the Assembly elections as it threw all its energies behind unseating Mamata Banerjee – only to see her sweep the elections. The shock of going from Union home minister and chief strategist Amit Shah predicting more than 200 seats to the party winning only 77 shook up the party structure.
On Friday, no less than the party’s national vice president Mukul Roy drove over to the Trinamool office in Kolkata in order to be reinducted back in a public ceremony. Roy had defected to the BJP in 2017.
This is on top of second-rung BJP leaders, also poached from the Trinamool, who have released multiple public statements denouncing the BJP and entreating Mamata Banerjee to take them back. Trinamool sources now claim that a fourth of the BJP’s MLAs are ready to desert the party. And this is just big leaders: at the grassroots, The Wire reports that there has been a “mass exodus” of workers.
Defections are bad news for the BJP – but they are hardly surprising. The party has little to offer to its members at the moment in the state. As a result, the two MPs who won assembly elections have chosen to resign from the MLA post and stay on in New Delhi rather than serve as legislators in Bengal.
However, Bengal isn’t the only state in which the BJP party machine is seeing turbulence. In Uttar Pradesh, where the BJP is the ruling party, its chief minister Adityanath is facing widespread dissent from his own party with, in some cases, even BJP MLAs attacking him for mismanaging the Covid-19 outbreak in the state. This in turn has created deep concern in the party high command in Delhi, NDTV reported.
Attacking your own
A similar situation is being seen in Karnataka where the chief minister is openly attacked by party MLAs. Senior MLA Basanagouda Yatnal has for months now delivered public allegations around chief minister Yediyurappa’s alleged corruption along with claims of an imminent rebellion in BJP ranks. In April, rural development minister KS Eshwarappa wrote to the governor alleging that the chief minister was interfering in the work of his ministry – possibly the first time such an event has happened in India’s history.
On June 6, Yediyurappa was directly asked if he would resign at a press conference. As indicative as the question was, maybe even more so was the answer: “As long as the Delhi high command has confidence in me, I will continue as the chief minister”. Writing in the Business Standard, Aditi Phadnis reports that the continued chaos is a sign of a how in the Karnataka BJP “there is more than one high command”.
In neighbouring Kerala, the situation is maybe the most embarrassing party where it faces allegations of transporting illegal election funds and even whispers that those funds were stolen by its party members as part of an inside job. The fallout: while the BJP high command is backing the state president, the Indian Express reports that large sections of the party in Kerala are now demanding he be sacked.
Bad to worse
Why is the BJP facing so much internal dissension now? The two proximate causes: electoral setbacks and the Covid-19 pandemic. While the BJP was swept back to power in New Delhi in 2019, since then its record in state elections has been lacklustre. In Haryana, it only managed to retain power by entering into a hurried post-poll alliance with Jannayak Janata Party. In Bihar too, its win was by a slim margin (the state is also seeing high levels of political ferment). On the other hand, it lost power in Maharashtra and Jharkhand while also seeing high-voltage defeats in Delhi and Bengal.
The BJP lost further sheen during the pandemic as the Union government was widely criticised for mismanagement. In Delhi, the capital itself, with the complete absence of government machinery, it was the otherwise moribund Congress that was widely praised for its relief work.
How has the BJP responded to this? It’s first response has been to strengthen the high command in Delhi as a way to discipline recalcitrant state leaders. The Business Line reported that Uttar Pradesh might see a cabinet reshuffle with Modi’s trusted former bureaucrat AK Sharma being inducted into the government as a check on Adityanath. Nirmal Pathak, editor of PTI Bhasha was more blunt. “Central rule has been imposed in UP,” he tweeted, quoting a source. “Amit Shah and JP Nadda will be running affairs with the help of Sunil Bansal and Yogi Adiyanath today onwards.”
It has also depended to an inordinate extent on arms of the Union government. In Bengal, just days after the new government was sworn in, the Central Bureau of Investigation arrested senior ministers – widely seen as a warning to its cadre to not defect. Given the moribund state of the Bengal BJP, the party largely depends on the governor to carry out the role of a political leader, with Raj Bhawan cornering the media space usually reserved for the opposition.
Ironically, both these tactics might only end up exacerbating the core issue: the lack of leadership in the states. The BJP now depends almost entirely on its high command in Delhi. Even in places where it does have genuinely popular state leaders – such as Yediyurappa in Karnataka – they have to work, wings clipped, in clear subservience to Delhi. In Bengal, the party ignored its own organic cadre base, which had weathered years of being in the opposition, to try and poach politicians from the Trinamool. As a result, the party today stares down the barrel with reports of “ghar wapsi” or leaders returning home to the Trinamool.
As a warning, the BJP should look to the Indira Congress. Like Modi’s BJP now, the Congress rode the wave of Indira Gandhi’s popularity even as she simultaneously undercut her party’s own roots in the states in order to build up a powerful high command. Eventually this ended up weakening the party. Is the BJP going down the same path?