Gujarat is probably the Indian state where turncoats play structurally the most significant part, quantitatively as well as qualitatively. There are few states where not only Congressmen and women defect to the BJP in such large numbers, but the party’s prominent leaders too, as is evident from the recent shift of the Leader of Opposition in the state assembly, Shankersinh Vaghela. Certainly, Vaghela has not rejoined the BJP yet, but he voted for the BJP candidate against Ahmed Patel during the last Rajya Sabha elections. In fact, the movements of Vaghela reflect the porosity between the Congress and BJP in Gujarat.

Christophe Jaffrelot
Jaffrelot’s core research focuses on theories of nationalism and democracy, mobilization of the lower castes and Dalits (ex-untouchables) in India, the Hindu nationalist movement, and ethnic conflicts in Pakistan.
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Indeed, Vaghela defected first to the Congress. After the BJP’s 1995 electoral success, Keshubhai Patel and Vaghela were locked in a fierce rivalry for the post of chief minister. Suresh Mehta eventually got the job as a compromise candidate, but Vaghela formed a separate party, the Rashtriya Janata Party, which his supporters in the Gujarat Assembly joined in 1996. Vaghela then became chief minister with the support of Congress in October 1996. He lost his job one year later, but joined the Congress and even became president of the Pradesh Committee, in spite of his long association with the RSS. This time, Vaghela has not shifted from the Congress to the BJP, instead he has created a “third front” party, Jan Vikalpa. But he had done the same thing after leaving the BJP, before joining the Congress.

Vaghela’s trajectory is revealing of the traditional affinities between the Congress and Hindu nationalism in Gujarat. K.M. Munshi, a lieutenant of Vallabhbhai Patel, who had himself sympathised with the RSS before Gandhi’s assassination, joined the Vishva Hindu Parishad the year it was founded in 1964. Gulzarilal Nanda, who established a personal equation with RSS leaders as early as the 1960s, did the same in 1982. And of course, Gujarat was the stronghold of Morarji Desai’s Congress(O) which joined hands in a Grand Alliance with the Jana Sangh in 1971.

From the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, under the guidance of Madhavsinh Solanki, the Congress articulated a secular and pro-poor agenda in the name of its new socio-political coalition known as KHAM (which stood for Kshatriyas — who are OBCs in Gujarat — Harijans, Adivasis and Muslims). But when the Patels protested against Solanki’s reservation policy and shifted to the BJP, Solanki had to resign for mysterious reasons and the Congress withdrew into its shell.

During Modi’s chief ministership, the national Congress leaders and the state Congress leaders were not on the same wavelength. In 2007, Sonia Gandhi came to canvass in Gujarat and lambasted Modi as a “merchant of death” because of the 2002 communal violence, a formula that the Congress state leaders found embarrassing, fearing it could alienate Hindu voters. In 2012, the Delhi MP Sandeep Dikshit described Modi as “a blot on the nation” and mentioned riots as well as fake encounters, but to the relief of the state leaders, he focussed more on the child mortality rate in Gujarat.

As a rule, the Congress barely nominates members from Gujarat’s largest minority at the time of elections. In 2012, the party had only seven Muslim candidates (two of whom won), and seven in 2007 (four won) as well. Those numbers were hardly higher in the past, the peak being in 1980, when the Congress distributed 6 per cent of its tickets to Muslim candidates.

This unwillingness of the Congress to give tickets to Muslims reflects its reluctance to distinguish itself from the BJP in ideological terms. In the 2000s, the Hindutva discourse had become hegemonic in Gujarat and the party did not try to find any alternative to it, either in its Gandhian antecedents or in the repertoires explored under Madhavsinh Solanki, including quota politics. In fact, the anti-reservation discourse has become part of the hegemonic discourse of Hindutva-oriented savarnas and the Congress seemed to be shy of fighting these groups. It therefore canvassed on the same basis as the BJP. In 2007, it published newspaper ads featuring a terrorist covering his face and denounced the alleged complacency of Vajpayee’s government vis-à-vis Islamists.

The Congress difficulty in asserting a distinctive identity was related to its welcoming of BJP renegades like Vaghela. The Aya Ram-Gaya Ram syndrome was especially clear at the time of elections, when members of the Congress who had been denied tickets decided to join the BJP. The turncoat phenomenon in Gujarat is further accentuated by the fact that parties have the tendency of discarding their incumbent MLAs. Since 1990, about 40 per cent of incumbent MLAs on average do not get to re-run. And nearly half of those who do fail to get re-elected. The Congress and the BJP have traditionally been heavily factionalised parties in Gujarat and the rapid turnover of MLAs also reflects the intensity of their internal divisions.

Within the BJP, the phenomenon intensified under Modi. Discarding nearly half the incumbent MLAs was a convenient way to keep the other half disciplined. He also found an interest in organising a high turnover of cadre to prevent anyone from rising within the ranks or from building an independent support base.

Another specific feature lies in the grasp of the faction leaders over their supporters. Vaghela is a case in point. Among the 13 MLAs who have just followed him out of the Congress, one-third had already shifted with him from the BJP to the Congress 20 years ago. Another third is made of first time MLAs and two are relatives — including his son.

The lack of ideological or programmatic differentiation between parties plays to the advantage of the BJP, who can distinguish itself by projecting a strong leadership. It has been years since the Congress was able to field a strong candidate against the BJP for the post of chief minister, not least because some of its more popular figures have been absorbed by the BJP.

The coming election may tell a different story because of the low key personality of the CM and the revolt of the Patels as well as Dalits. But one constant may remain: Revolving-door practices between the Congress and the BJP undermine the very idea of a principled opposition and sap the Congress ability to make its already muffled voice heard.

This article was originally published in Indian Express.