Managing intra-party dissent—the contrasting tale of the BJP and the Congress

Updated on Jun 07, 2021 03:11 PM IST

Hindustan Times speaks to leaders in both parties and dissident camps to understand how the tools may be different in both camps, but the fallout could often end up being the same

Representational image. (HT Archive) PREMIUM
Representational image. (HT Archive)

In the last 10 days, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress have been busy with a curiously co-incidental exercise — controlling rebellion in states and general party housekeeping.

If the Congress’s chief minister (CM) in Punjab, Captain Amarinder Singh, is facing calls for introspection just eight months ahead of elections in his state, the BJP has also been looking into complaints about Karnataka CM BS Yeddyurappa and sent a team sent to Uttar Pradesh, which stressed on “unity” ahead of elections. As the two national parties set up committees or sent observers, there was a striking difference is in the method used by both — with each claiming that their mechanism was more democratic and more representative.

Also Read | Will resign if high command asks: Yediyurappa

But is the effective handling of dissent related to just the measures that the party bosses take? Or could it be a deeper reflection of how strong the individual party is, in terms of electoral strength at a particular moment? Hindustan Times spoke to leaders in both parties and dissident camps to understand how the tools may be different in both camps, but the fallout could often end up being the same.

For the Congress, trouble in the north

The most visible trouble at present for a CM can be seen in Punjab. Till just six weeks ago, Amarinder Singh, the 79-year-old army veteran turned politician, looked invincible. The farm agitation after the Centre brought in the three farm laws eroded the standing of the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) due to their association with their former allies, the BJP, even though the party walked out of the government last year. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) was not displaying the same energy or appeared to command the same appeal as they had in 2017, and was witnessing an exodus of leaders and activists to the Congress.

And yet, in just a matter of weeks, there is a three-member committee headed by Rajya Sabha member of Parliament (MP) and leader of the opposition in the upper house, Mallikarjun Kharge, sitting in Delhi, listening to state legislators talk about why they are unhappy. Casual observers put it down to Singh’s squabble with former cricketer-turned television personality-turned politician Navjot Singh Sidhu.

But HT has learnt that many of the 77 Congress members of legislative assembly (MLAs) in the state have a different problem — they don’t get enough facetime with their Captain. While one person told the committee that the CM wasn’t even available in his official residence, preferring to spend time in a farmhouse outside Chandigarh, others complained that the CM had left everything to bureaucrats.

“The Captain not being accessible is an old problem,” said a senior Punjab Congress leader. “What’s new is that a lot of work has been delegated to the bureaucrats. This then leaves the MLAs at their mercy and that’s what the MLAs resent.” The particular bureaucrat who is seen as the CM’s right hand is Punjab principal secretary Suresh Kumar. Kumar and his team, if the CM’s critics are to be believed, take most of the decisions and the politicians resent asking them for help.

Congress MLAs have also spoken of more generic issues — why there wasn’t any incremental movement in the 2015 sacrilege case which involved desecration of the holy Sikh text and led to police firing and was attributed as one of the factors why the Akalis lost? Why wasn’t Punjab’s drug problem solved? Why weren’t all the 2017 poll promises delivered? Even loyal Congressmen such as Rahul Gandhi favourite Ravneet Singh Bittu echo high-profile dissenters like Sidhu in voicing concern about these issues.

“This happens before an election in every party. It’s a very good thing to hear everyone and I can promise you that Punjab will the springboard for the Congress’s revival in the rest of the country,” said state finance minister Manpreet Badal.

For the BJP, trouble in the south

The problem in Karnataka is similar for the BJP, with an important caveat — elections are still two years away. BS Yeddyurappa at 78 may be younger than the Captain, but in BJP, he is far beyond their unsaid retirement age of 75.

Yeddyurappa is the tallest Lingayat leader in the state and he was also the man who opened up the south for the BJP. But when municipal election results came out at the end of April, revealing losses in his own area, it started off a quiet bout of rebellion in the ranks. Just like in Punjab, MLAs in Karnataka started talking about the CM’s unilateral style of taking decisions.

“A BJP MP is called for a meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi every year. He is called at about 7pm to his home along with other MPs of the state and for the next couple of hours, we get to give him honest feedback — for instance, which schemes are working, which aren’t. We feel heard. There is no such mechanism to give feedback to the CM, to ask him to help with our development works,’’ said one of the BJP MPs.

In fact, development is the underlying thread in all of the complaints. MPs or MLAs need to constantly work with CMs if they want to look good for their constituents, and if they want to ensure that some development work such as a railway line extension or any other constituency-specific project is to be completed. If the CM doesn’t give local clearances or if that’s delayed, MLAs or MPs of any state look inefficient.

Of course, for Yeddyurappa, what has become a major problem was the decision to sell 3,667 acres of land to Jindal Steel in Ballari. As four MLAs pointed out to the CM in a letter, how could Yeddyurappa’s cabinet clear a decision which the party had opposed when it was in the opposition during the Siddaramaiah-led Congress government?

Yeddyurappa’s critics point out that there are five-term MLAs in his cabinet and this kind of miscalculation can be avoided.

“Our high command has taken a serious view of giving away 3,666 acres of land at 1.2 lakh per acre. Also, the Centre is not happy with the Covid-19 management,’’ said Yeddyurappa’s detractor in chief and MLA, Basanagouda Patil Yatnal.

But the CM’s son and party MP BY Raghavendra says that these critics have never spoken openly, and these current problems were minor glitches.

“The Jindal issue is a state government land issue,” he said. “There has been a show of support for the CM from the Centre, and 30-40 MLAs have come out openly for him. And if you ask about his age, then anyone will tell you that he continues to be very active. Apart from that one exception (loss in civic polls), he has won all other elections.’’

The distinct management styles

Raghavendra’s brother, Vijayendra, hit the headlines last month when he accompanied the state home minister, Basavaraj Bommai, for a meeting with Amit Shah on the rising Covid cases, instead of the CM. The CM’s critics said that the central leadership was coming around to replacing Yeddyurappa, and the CM was willing to play along if his son was accommodated. This was all denied by the CM’s spokespersons but the key difference in the BJP and the Congress’s dealings lay with what was visible in both camps.

When Yeddyurappa’s detractors — tourism minister CP Yogeshwar and MLA Arvind Bellad — came to Delhi ostensibly with their list of complaints against the CM, they did not manage to get an appointment with either Amit Shah or PM Modi. There were no photo-ops with Delhi leaders, which meant that there was not going to be any dirty laundry washing in public. They both went back and while the detractors in Delhi and in Bengaluru didn’t stop their plotting, the issue failed to get traction and gave the liberty to the high command to take a call when the time was right.

Contrast that with what’s happening in Punjab. Just like the Karnataka CM is central to BJP’s fortunes, the Punjab CM is indispensable to the Congress’s future plans, but the central leadership chose to make a very public show of listening to his critics. Instead of sending an observer to Chandigarh to speak to individual MLAs, they summoned all, including the CM to Delhi. His bete noire, Navjot Sidhu’s timeline is full of his pictures with Priyanka and Rahul Gandhi to drive home the point that he drew his strength from them instead of the CM. This, even when his critics like Partap Singh Bajwa don’t demand his removal but ask for a change in his style of functioning.

The BJP says that it’s not like the party refuses to listen to dissenters but instead of only hearing from the disgruntled MLA, it also relies on different channels. They start getting feedback from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), and other sister organisations to understand if grievances against the CM are valid or not.

“The difference between us and the Congress is trust,” said BJP’s national general secretary Arun Singh, in charge of Karnataka. “People trust what the central leadership has to say because they listen to people on the ground and understand them. The Congress, meanwhile, is far removed from the ground and doesn’t understand regional leaders.’’

Not surprisingly, the Congress disagrees. The party says that the BJP only has a veneer of control and Congress’s processes are far more democratic. For instance, party leaders point out, instead of someone deciding and passing orders in Delhi, wasn’t the party doing the right thing by listening to all through the committee for Punjab?

“BJP is an expert at resort politics and Operation Kamal (a reference to efforts to install BJP-led governments even in states where it may not have a majority through defections). The Congress leadership listens to its elected representatives and party office bearers and takes decisions democratically. On the other hand, the BJP high command has no clue on how to solve the factionalism in Karnataka BJP,’’ said Karnataka Congress member, Srivatsa YB.

The role of troubleshooters and crisis managers

There are two views on these approaches to dealing with infighting, which as every politician knows, exists in every party and every state in varying degrees.

The first is the view that the Congress, by its very nature, is more fluid and encompasses varying and sometimes widely differing points of view. There is a severe erosion of the ideological bind that kept the party united, with a common purpose, despite differing views, at different moments in Indian history. In contrast, the BJP is peopled by cadres schooled in a common pro-Hindutva ideology and the culture of cadres has an inbuilt discipline which stays with BJP leaders for life.

“However much there may be rumblings and discontent within, there is the discipline that comes from a culture of totalitarianism,” said Sunil Jakhar, the Congress’s chief in Punjab about the BJP. “We believe in conciliation but yes, I agree, some amount of discipline may be good for the party in the long run.”

This may be a philosophical view of the problem but there is also a more real challenge that the Congress is facing in recent times — the lack of experienced crisis managers. Leaders such as Pranab Mukherjee, Ahmed Patel, Margaret Alva and Ambika Soni were usually deployed to broker truce when those in states were at loggerheads. They had the heft and authority that regional leaders found difficult to ignore.

“They appointed Ajay Maken to deal with the fight between Ashok Gehlot and Sachin Pilot in Rajasthan but do you think Gehlot will listen to him?’’ said one party leader.

The BJP may like to believe that they are better equipped to deal with dissent but just a decade ago, things were totally different. Then, just like now, Yeddyurappa was CM, and he faced corruption charges and the rebellion against him lingered for three long years from 2008 to 2011 till he stepped down. The only difference was that the BJP was not in power at the Centre then.

“It’s simple- if you come from a position of strength at the Centre, then you can deal with dissenters in the state. But when Delhi is weak for either party, then it is the regional satraps who rule,’’ said Rasheed Kidwai, author and fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.

The BJP’s challenge

The BJP may be all powerful in Delhi, but Karnataka isn’t their only problem. Next door in Uttar Pradesh, a range of MLAs, Union Minister Santosh Gangwar and other party functionaries criticising the state’s Covid-19 management in public letters to CM Yogi Adityanath. This has the leadership worried about what it means for the elections next year — elections that may well define the contours of the next national battle in 2024. The party and the RSS had extensive meetings in the state, and for now, the central leadership has decided to back Adityanath as the CM face — but is keen on ensuring correctives. This may well result in some enhanced rifts both within the state unit, and between the CM and the central leadership as elections draw closer — though, to be sure, all leaders have kept up an appearance of cordiality.

The Congress also has a problem in Rajasthan where they brokered peace between CM Ashok Gehlot and his deputy Sachin Pilot ten months ago, but that was contingent upon certain promises being fulfilled. Pilot is now reminding the party of these promises.

Pilot said, “I was given to understand that there would be swift action by the committee, but now half of the term is done, and those issues haven’t been resolved. It is unfortunate that so many of the party workers who worked and gave their all for getting us the mandate are not being heard.” One of his supporters (an MLA) has already resigned, and Delhi is aware that the issue could blow up any time soon.

But back to the immediate crises in the north and the south for the two national parties, the problems are not resolved for either.

Yeddyurappa may have bought some time but senior BJP leaders know that they must address atleast some of the concerns — if the Congress’s former CM Siddarammaiah, and powerful state leader, DK Shivakumar, bury the hatchet, the BJP is aware it will be a formidable combine for Yeddyurappa to tackle on his own. But the time the next elections come around, the CM will also be 81. If the high command wants to effect a change, it will need to do so with enough time before polls so that a new CM has some time to adjust. Could there be a transition like in Gujarat where Vijay Rupani took over from Anandiben Patel midway? Observers don’t rule it out — except for one crucial caveat. Patel faded quietly into gubernatorial positions; Yeddyurappa may not play along as quietly.

As for the Captain and the Congress, the Congress’s internal assessment has concluded that Singh is their best bet as the CM face but he also needs to do more. Sidhu, according to the party’s calculation, draws in crowds and attracts a certain set of voters which the Congress cannot afford to lose. And this will require the leadership to keep them both happy. Given the acrimony, this is not going to be an easy task.

On paper, both the BJP and the Congress now say the situation vis a vis intra party dissent, in all states, is under control and things are going according to plan. That is, till they don’t.

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    Sunetra Choudhury is the National Political Editor of the Hindustan Times. With over two decades of experience in print and television, she has authored Black Warrant (Roli,2019), Behind Bars: Prison Tales of India’s Most Famous (Roli,2017) and Braking News (Hachette, 2010). Sunetra is the recipient of the Red Ink award in journalism in 2016 and Mary Morgan Hewett award in 2018.

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