Tatsat Chronicle Magazine

Has The BJP Become The Last Refuge Of Congress’ Status Quoists?

As the grand old party reorients its political compass towards social and economic justice to remain politically relevant, many of its old guard, who remained ambivalent about affirmative action, are leaving to find shelter in the BJP
April 19, 2024
Imaging: Tatsat Chronicle

No significant change has ever come through without facing resistance. As India heads into a long-drawn 2024 General Election, this axiom holds truer for the Congress than the ruling BJP. In the run-up to the election, hordes of Congress members have migrated to the BJP. Some of those who left the grand old party to be seamlessly assimilated into the world’s richest party, faced serious allegations of corruption from none other than Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Every time such political migration takes place during election season, political commentators and analysts are confronted with two questions: what does it imply or state about the two main national parties? What does it mean for the polity and voters? The ramifications of the answers to these two questions in the context of the 2024 General Election might extend well beyond the declaration of results on June 4 and will impact the country’s future and society.

The Congress, of late, has been toying with Mandal-type social justice to catch voters’ fancy once again. But in doing this the party is ending up losing some of its leaders to either the BJP or the NDA (National Democratic Alliance) led by it. This has most recently been the case with Mumbai Congress strongman Sanjay Nirupam. He is said to be headed to the Maharashtra Chief Minister Eknath Shinde-led faction of the Shiv Sena.

So far, such vault-overs have been variously interpreted, including being attributed to the scare or the heat of use of government investigative agencies to target Opposition party satraps. Some of them may well have been motivated by their own reasons to switch over.

Gourav Vallabh and boxer Vijender Singh abruptly left the Congress to land up in the BJP. Of the two, Vallabh has not been touched by the tar of corruption yet. But in the case of Singh, there is a link to an old case from 2013 under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act pertaining to a seizure of 26 kg of heroin from a house in Zirakpur, Punjab.

The exodus from the Congress stables is also taking place at a time when the party’s top leadership is trying to hop onto yesteryear’s Mandal bandwagon in order to resurrect the party from the depths it has been lapsing into for the past three and a half decades. So much so, that the ongoing makeover of the Congress can well be called Mandal 2.0.

After Prime Minister V.P. Singh opted for reservations for backward castes in government jobs, as recommended by the Mandal Commission report, it was Congress leader Arjun Singh as the Minister for Human Resource Development who had implemented the quota reservation for backward caste students in colleges and universities in 2006. This was under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s first United Progressive Alliance government.

But, in UPA-II, Arjun Singh was sidelined. He never became a minister during Manmohan Singh’s second term that began in 2009. Acceptance within the Congress for Arjun Singh’s move to implement the quota in institutions of higher learning for underprivileged classes was thin. He lived in virtual anonymity for two years until his death in 2011. He faced such resistance from within the Congress ranks that he ceased to be consequential in his own party. The Congress always had a section of leaders, whose ideological ambivalence on the issue of caste-based reservations matched the BJP’s bias towards diluting the affirmative action by setting out economic criteria, which amounted to a partial rollback of the Mandal formula.

Now, the Congress’ top leadership, which is significantly influenced by Rahul Gandhi, believes that by adopting the plank of social justice it can counter the enormous political heft of Modi’s BJP that derives its strength mainly from a projection of muscular Hindu identity — a potent cocktail of abstract nationalism and deep religion.

The Congress seems to have embarked upon revisiting, revising, and updating its basic political agenda. The clearest indication of the Congress reorienting its political compass came in February 2022 when the party adopted the Social Justice and Empowerment Resolution at the 85th Plenary in Raipur. But the irony of the party belatedly embracing Arjun Singh’s successful experiment with social justice to reap political dividend is not lost on Congress observers.

Much like Arjun Singh, the current top leadership of the Congress, including Gandhi, is facing a pushback from those who are ambivalent about this shift in the party’s internal political paradigm regarding social justice. The idea of conducting a caste-based census and to map job distribution of various oppressed caste groups in the bureaucracy and government employment has unnerved a section of the Congress’ leadership that was visibly anti-Mandal. It is this pack that is leading the exodus to the BJP.

Their other apprehension is that, in the party’s quest to capture the political plank of social justice, it might turn anti-Big Business. They interpret Gandhi’s attacks on Gautam Adani, who has emerged as the biggest gainer under the Modi regime, as an attack on free markets, which the BJP’s mighty propaganda apparatus is propagating. This section of the caste elite in the Congress party, both at national and state levels, is unnerved at the thought of empowerment of the underprivileged castes and classes, and believes, contrary to available evidence, that such empowerment will work against the economic growth of the country or Big Business monopoly. It is imperative to see the exodus of Congress leaders in this context — the rest is mere propaganda.

The Congress released its manifesto for the 2024 General Election on April 5, well before the BJP’s, listing several guarantees, including filling more than 30 lakh vacancies in government jobs.

But the caste elite in the Congress haven’t bought into it and have only grown more restive since then, with some quitting the party. As fresh Mandal vs Kamandal battlelines get drawn in the dust of India’s politics, Congress leaders belonging to the caste elite have preferred to seek a safe haven under the BJP’s umbrella.

According to Gandhi, the Congress manifesto has been distilled from the inputs provided by the people over the course of his two Bharat Jodo Yatras. But the 53-year-old clearly failed to impress quite a few of his party peers and more Congress hats left the party during his latest Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra. Twelve senior Congress leaders, including the president of the Gujarat unit, quit the party during Gandhi’s second mass contact programme.

List of Congress leaders who left party during Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra

1 14 January Milind Deora Maharashtra
2 19 January C.J. Chawra Gujarat
3 8 February Baba Siddiqi Maharashtra
4 12 February Ashok Chavan Maharashtra
5 27 February Sudhir Sharma, 5 other MLAs Himachal Pradesh
6 27 February Murari Gautam, Siddarth Saurav, MLAs Bihar
7 4 March Arjun Modwadia, Ambrish Dera Gujarat
8 7 March Padmaja Venugopal Kerala
9 9 March Suresh Pachouri Madhya Pradesh
10 10 March Lal Chand Kataria, 23 others Rajasthan
11 12 March Ajay Kapoor Uttar Pradesh
12 13 March Padmakar Valvi Maharashtra

Most of those who quit on the eve of crucial Lok Sabha elections stated ideological incompatibility after the party reoriented itself regarding social justice, while some left, according to Congress insiders, fearing crackdowns by the government’s investigative agencies.

With the two Yatras, the Gandhi scion signalled to his partymen that the ideological battle between the two competing narratives of Hindutva, championed by the BJP, and the Congress’ pitch for social and economic justice has to be fought on the streets of India.

But it seems a section of the Congress, hailing from the caste elite, did not buy into this. A Congress insider pointed this out by saying, “Nobody (in the party) is ready to face heat, dust and grime on the streets like Rahul.” Many of the old guard felt that with Gandhi challenging the status quo, their role in the party might be diminished.

The loss in three Assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Chhattisgarh in November 2023, which the party fought on the social and economic justice plank, didn’t help to inspire confidence in the status quoists. But the greater problem was that the state leadership in many states failed to take the message of social and economic justice to the ground level. In the Madhya Pradesh elections, for example, barring the major towns, the state unit headed by one of the stalwarts, Kamal Nath, failed to take the five guarantees of the Congress to the grassroots electorate.

On the other hand, the party’s reoriented political ideology yielded results in the southern state of Telangana. The state unit, headed by a next generation leader, Revanth Reddy, built the organisational structure from the ground up; Reddy also undertook a state-wide march for his mass contact programme with the focus firmly on social and economic justice and affirmative action. The result was that Reddy managed to dislodge a well-entrenched K. Chandrashekar Rao, who had ruled the state with an iron fist for 10 years.

With the BJP backing the Mandir 2.0 movement with frontline Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) organisations upping the ante for staking a claim to the Gyanvapi mosque in Varanasi and the Shahi Idgah in Mathura, the Congress and other Opposition parties have no option but to resurrect Mandal 2.0 in order to remain relevant in the country’s electoral politics. As this political churn gathers momentum, political observers predict more of the Congress old guard shifting allegiance to the BJP to preserve their ideological status quo. According to The Print, one out of four BJP candidates contesting in the 2024 General Election is a defector from Opposition parties, with the maximum number, 37, coming from the Congress.     

Abid Shah

He is a senior journalist, who has worked with the Statesman for many decades and reported on politics, social development, agriculture and political movements.