As the Congress party was crying hoarse over the lack of preparedness of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government to combat the coronavirus epidemic, it was shaken—once again—by a malady that had, unlike COVID-19, not come unannounced. Over the past six years, the Congress had been afflicted by the defection bug, but its failure to take precautionary measures had now ensured the walkout by a frontline leader Jyotiraditya Scindia—into the arms of the BJP.
Not unlike a bug that lies dormant before a virulent relapse, the pandemic of turncoats too has its crests and troughs. The Congress’s early brush with defections began with heavyweight Himanta Biswa Sarma moving to the BJP but it seemed to lose its sting by the time smaller leaders Tom Vadakkan, Bhubaneshwar Kalita and Sanjay Singh embraced saffron. Scindia’s rebellion comes as a potent relapse, with the threat of infecting the decaying Grand Old Party wholly.
The maharaja of Gwalior who, until recently, was a close confidant of Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, had given ample indications of his unease with the party over the past 15 months. He had lost out to Kamal Nath in the race to become chief minister of Madhya Pradesh in December 2018. Six months later came his shock defeat from the family fief of Guna in the Lok Sabha polls. His courtship with the BJP had begun by then, with ‘courtesy calls’ to former MP CM Shivraj Singh Chouhan and occasional outbursts against Nath and longtime Congress rival Digvijaya Singh. The Lok Sabha defeat against his former aide and BJP candidate K.P. Singh Yadav was the ultimate humiliation. The Congress’s characteristic dithering at appointing Scindia the state Congress president coupled with Nath regularly losing his cool at cabinet colleagues who owed allegiance to the Gwalior royal worsened matters. Scindia sent out an SOS to the BJP; talks began through emissaries –little-known BJP spokesperson Zafar Islam and Scindia’s in-laws from the erstwhile Baroda royal family who have deep bonds with Modi playing key roles. Talks with Union home minister Amit Shah (at least three meetings over the past six months, a close confidante of Scindia told Outlook) sealed the deal.
Scindia with Rahul Gandhi and Kamal Nath at a road show in Rewa in September 2018.
Scindia’s ghar wapsi to the BJP, a party co-founded by his grandmother Vijayaraje Scindia and whose earlier avatar—the Jana Sangh—his father, Madhavrao Scindia, had quit in 1980 to join the Congress, marks the first time in nearly four decades that all political faces of the electorally influential family are within the saffron fold. Scindia’s aunts Vasundhara Raje and Yashodhara Raje have been prominent BJP faces and so is Maya Singh, another member who has served as a cabinet minister in MP and a Rajya Sabha member. Vasundhara’s son, Dushyant Singh, is also a BJP Lok Sabha MP.
There are other, significant factors in Scindia’s saffron waltz. The most obvious is the imminent collapse of Nath’s government, which now risks losing at least 20 of its 114 legislators in the 230-member assembly who have pledged fealty to ‘Maharaj’. The fall of the government, more a matter of when than if, will bring the BJP back to power in MP. Shivraj Singh Chouhan, now hopeful of returning as chief minister, tells Outlook that “the BJP is confident of forming a government…we will seek a floor test as soon as the Vidhan Sabha convenes for its budget session on March 16”. Scindia’s ideological somersault is expected to plunge the state into a period of political instability. His loyalist MLAs, if they follow him into the BJP, will have to vacate their seats; the bypolls that will follow give no guarantee of a saffron sweep, particularly since well-entrenched local BJP leaders may feel slighted by Congress rebels para-dropped in their midst.
For the Congress, there are real fears of a larger unraveling of the party than Scindia’s defection portends. Scindia personified the youthful Congress leaders who got important responsibilities when Rahul Gandhi took an active interest in the party’s affairs, particularly during the 18 months that he was party chief. “After Rahul stepped down and Sonia Gandhi returned as interim chief, the Old Guard began sidelining these leaders. Rahul has shown little interest in safeguarding interests of those he had handpicked, making them feel suffocated in the Congress,” a Rahul loyalist tells Outlook.
While Scindia was the most prominent member of this elite ‘baba lobby’, other notable faces included dynasts Sachin Pilot, Milind Deora, Jitin Prasada, Deepender Hooda, Gaurav Gogoi and R.P.N. Singh. Of them, only Gogoi, a Lok Sabha member and son of former Assam CM Tarun Gogoi, has publicly chided Scindia for his betrayal. That Pilot, Rajasthan’s deputy CM, has been unhappy playing second fiddle to his boss Ashok Gehlot is common knowledge and reports of his toying with the idea of quitting the Congress have surfaced on and off. After Scindia quit, Pilot put out a cryptic tweet, saying it was “unfortunate” to see Scindia parting ways and that he wished “things could have been resolved collaboratively within the party”.
Milind Deora, Sachin Pilot and Jitin Prasada.
Prasada, say sources, had decided to quit the Congress in the run-up to the LS polls last year when the party did not consult him on ticket distribution in central UP. Though he was persuaded to stay, rumours about his unhappiness with the party haven’t abated. Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra has taken Prasada along for every key political event in UP which, sources say, “is to ensure that he doesn’t feel sidelined”. Congress leaders admit that merely being seen with Priyanka or Rahul is “no guarantee of loyalty to the party”. As a senior Congressman says, “Jyotiraditya was made a CWC member and general secretary in-charge of western UP, meaning he worked closely with Priyanka (in-charge for eastern UP). At every CWC meet, the two sat next to each other. Yet, Scindia drifted away.”
Commenting on Scindia’s exit, Rahul too conceded that the Gwalior royal was “the only chap in the Congress who could walk into my home anytime”. The Wayanad MP also claimed, “Scindia joined the BJP because he was scared about his political future”. Rahul’s refrain of “vichardhara ki ladai” (ideological fight) with the BJP is not new but the fact is that many in his party, particularly the younger lot, do not see ideological rigidity as a viable substitute for power. Though a leader of no electoral consequence, actor-turned-Congress leader Nagma Morarji perhaps best summed up the turmoil within. “There is a lot of discontentment among many of us…after a time it’s not about ideology anymore, it’s about recognition of one’s efforts and given appropriate due (sic),” Nagma tweeted.
Besides Scindia and Pilot, especially the latter, other members of Rahul’s coterie don’t have any electoral heft. Yet, their open disillusionment and the likelihood of other younger leaders following in Scindia’s footsteps would make for poor optics for the Congress, particularly at a time when the Centre’s policies are being fought by ordinary citizens. Besides, for a party known for its deadwood, the exodus of its younger leaders—irrespective of their actual efficacy—would give the BJP an advantage in the long run.
“The Congress is rudderless. Sonia’s return was supposed to be a temporary arrangement till Rahul or Priyanka could be convinced to take over as party chief. During this period, it was expected that the party would brainstorm and put forth a political vision to fight the BJP. A balance between aspirational young leaders and egoistic veterans was to be struck. None of this happened. Scindia’s departure is only the beginning of another round of exodus; several more will quit soon if the status quo doesn’t change,” says a party leader.
With Scindia being rewarded with a Rajya Sabha nomination and possibly a cabinet berth, the Congress hopes that a ticket to the Upper House could pacify some of its sulking leaders too. However, with its strength in state assemblies depleted and factional feuds among satraps bitter as ever, Sonia knows that she can’t offer this dole to every leader who throws a tantrum. While Bhupinder Hooda’s threat of rebellion in Haryana ensured his son Deepender Hooda’s election to the Rajya Sabha from Haryana, with Rahul loyalists like Rajeev Satav and K.C. Venugopal making the cut too, the party could not afford to slight veterans Digvijaya Singh and Bharatsinh Solanki. A rumoured reshuffle of the AICC in April is to give prominent responsibilities to other disaffected leaders, while efforts to bring Rahul back at the helm have once again picked momentum, despite his continuing reluctance.
The question, however, remains whether, in the absence of any electoral revival, the lure of party positions or a Rajya Sabha nomination can be enough inducement to stem an exodus. In states bound for elections—starting with Bihar and Bengal—the Congress is a fringe player, unlikely to make any gains that could perk up the morale of its ranks. In a darkening gloom, it is perhaps a matter of time that defections stalk the Congress again.