The BJP’s ruthless expansion drive
Puducherry is only the latest instance of the Modi-Shah playbook of expanding political power. In a sense, Puducherry is now part of a pattern of Machiavellian intrigue that has been repeated from Arunachal and Manipur to Goa, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh where a ruthlessly expansionist BJP seeks to consolidate its ascendancy by wangling either wholesale or retail defections.
Long before Puducherry, there was Goa. In 1994, riding on the Ram Janmabhoomi wave, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won four seats for the first time in the 40-member Goa assembly. It caused a ripple in Goa’s turbulent political waters, prompting the late Pramod Mahajan, then the party’s chief strategist for Goa, to boast that the BJP would form a government in Panaji within 10 years. Mahajan was spot on — aided by Goa’s infamous tradition of brazen defections, a BJP government led by Manohar Parrikar was formed in 2002. By 2012, Parrikar headed the first BJP-majority government in the state.
What transpired in the erstwhile Portuguese colony on the west coast is now sought to be replicated on the south-east coast in the tranquil one-time French outpost of Puducherry. Where the smooth-talking Mahajan was a key BJP tactician in the 1990s, that role has now been taken over by the hard-nosed Amit Shah. Where the BJP was then emerging as a national player, it is now the dominant party at the Centre, possessing resources to topple any opposition state government it possibly can.
Why Puducherry, when assembly elections are a few months away and the BJP, it seems, has little at stake in a region traditionally dominated by the Congress and local parties? First, to borrow the words of the Union home minister, “chronology samajhiye” (understand the chronology). The V Narayanasamy-led Congress government was elected in Puducherry in May 2016. Almost immediately, Kiran Bedi, the pugnacious Indian Police Service officer who had lost out as the BJP’s Delhi chief ministerial face, was sent as Lieutenant- Governor (L-G). For five years, there was a constant and bruising face-off between the chief minister and L-G that only undermined an elected government. Bedi was recalled last week after it became apparent that she had antagonised almost the entire political class. She was replaced by the former Tamil Nadu BJP president, Tamilisai Soundararajan, to assuage local concerns.
Simultaneously, the BJP fast-forwarded a plan to engineer defections from the ruling Congress-Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam alliance and ensured that, with the help of three nominated legislators and a compliant Speaker, the Narayanasamy government was reduced to a minority. Incidentally, at least four of the six defecting legislators have either income-tax queries or links to the lucrative real estate sector. Moreover, by toppling a Congress government in Puducherry, the BJP has sent a message to neighbouring Tamil Nadu, where it is contesting the assembly elections with the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, that the Congress is a greatly diminished force, and the party can be vanquished at any time.
In a sense, Puducherry is now part of a pattern of Machiavellian intrigue that has been repeated from Arunachal and Manipur to Goa, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh where a ruthlessly expansionist BJP seeks to consolidate its ascendancy by wangling either wholesale or retail defections. That the Congress leadership appears to have been taken by surprise, yet again, reveals how the original party of realpolitik is floundering to counter the BJP’s vaulting ambitions. The “new” BJP under Narendra Modi-Amit Shah is a bit like the “old” Congress in the Indira Gandhi era — ethically compromised, but politically uncompromising in its actions.
The truth is no state government run by a non-BJP force is safe. India’s non-BJP governments can now be bracketed into three categories. The Congress-led governments, of which only three are left in the country, are squarely on the BJP’s radar. A bid to capture Rajasthan failed last year, but the Modi-Shah model doesn’t delve into failure for long: More attempts at divide-and-rule on Jaipur’s uneasy turf cannot be ruled out.
The second category includes regional party-ruled states that have made their peace with the Centre by striking friendly patron-client relationships. Telangana, Andhra Pradesh and Odisha fall into this category — these are states where “deal-making” with the Centre is part of a survival toolkit. In all these states, ruling parties are essentially one-man shows, making it easier for the BJP to bide its time before swooping to conquer in due course.
The third category comprises states ruled by an alliance of non-BJP forces, such as Maharashtra and Jharkhand. Of these, Maharashtra remains the big prize. That the three-party coalition government in Mumbai is headed by an ex-staunch Hindutva ally makes the battle to recapture the state for the BJP a prestige fight, one that could see more dramatic twists and turns in the months ahead.
This leaves just two states — Bengal and Kerala — that are determinedly holding out in the face of the BJP juggernaut and both go to polls in April-May. In Kerala, the BJP is resolutely widening its voter base, even while remaining a fair distance away from conquering it. In Bengal, on the other hand, the gloves are off. Should Didi’s Kolkata fortress fall to the sustained BJP assault, we could be pretty close to an “opposition-mukt” Bharat with serious implications for the future of an increasingly strained multi-party democracy.
Post-script: Another illustration of the BJP’s unwavering commitment to spreading its sphere of influence is provided by the choice of 88-year-old “Metro man” E Sreedharan as its star catch in Kerala. His induction may be symbolic but confirms that even margdarshak mandal retirement rules are selectively applied in the BJP’s cold-blooded powerplay.
Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and author
The views expressed are personal