A market for defectors: National lessons from Mukul Roy’s high-profile Bengal switch


Bringing Mukul Roy back to Trinamool Congress is not just Mamata Banerjee paying back BJP in its own coin. There are broader and deeper insights from the marketplace of political defectors and re-defectors.

First, defections often tell a bigger story. A series of high-profile departures from TMC followed Roy’s exit in 2017. They tested TMC’s resilience. Each defection had allowed BJP to stoke the narrative of a regime change – until, of course, it all came crashing down on May 2. Roy’s homecoming is therefore also indicative of a bigger story in reverse.

Second, those who switch parties are often important for the act of switching, not important in themselves. Roy probably knows his best days are behind him after Mamata’s hard fought victory without him at her side, and with the rise of Suvendu Adhikari in BJP. Roy, the strategist of TMC’s 2011 ouster of CPM from Bengal, is now a pawn in Mamata’s political chess against BJP. Once the star defector, he felt sidelined in BJP and will most likely be a symbol in TMC.

Third, don’t make the mistake of thinking that Bengal redefections mean BJP is becoming like other parties on this score. Roy or even Mamata’s other catch, Yashwant Sinha, aren’t BJP thoroughbreds. Unlike other parties that regularly lose leaders after a lifetime of investment in them, BJP has rarely worried on this score. Few errant BJP warhorses who had left, like BS Yediyurappa, Kalyan Singh and Keshubhai Patel, had all promptly returned. BJP, even when it was out of power for 10 years between 2004 and 2014, hasn’t had too many veterans jumping ship.

Fourth, despite this, Bengal shows BJP’s strategy of poaching may present some organisational challenges there and elsewhere. Reports indicate that even old, loyal cadres are unhappy in Bengal. The state is BJP’s first loss anywhere after betting big on defectors. Poaching had paid rich dividends in Assam, MP, Karnataka, Gujarat, Manipur, Goa, Tripura and Uttarakhand.

However, if power is the only glue, as Bengal indicates, the going could get tougher. In MP, Jyotiraditya Scindia’s inclusion helped put Shivraj Singh Chouhan in Kamal Nath’s place. But Scindia’s followers have upset MP BJP’s internal dynamics. In Karnataka, unrest has simmered ever since Yediyurappa’s ministerial bounty for Congress-JD(S) defectors.

Recent assembly elections haven’t been one-sided affairs like 2014 or 2019 Lok Sabha polls. So these defectors could be BJP’s weak link if anti-incumbency grows. Today’s regional parties like TMC, AAP, NCP, RJD, Shiv Sena, AIADMK, YSRCP and SP have also shown a strong tendency to band together when under pressure.

Fifth, like in so many other things and despite potential problems, BJP does a better job of poaching than Congress. Defections became an integral part of the Indian political landscape after Congress’s setback in the 1967 elections, when it failed to get a simple majority in nearly half the 16 state assemblies that went to polls.

But though the initiator of this trend, Congress has, especially recently, botched up in the marketplace of defectors. Himanta Biswa Sarma left Congress after losing hope in gaining Rahul Gandhi’s trust, Scindia felt cornered by Kamal Nath and Digvijaya Singh. Jitin Prasada, a Brahmin leader in UP, was obviously seen as more of an asset by BJP, which is probably apprehensive of Brahmin disaffection in the state.

BJP’s success has been to give potential defectors a glimpse of the opportunities for the taking. Congress, in contrast, appears to be taking special pride in precipitating defections. Sachin Pilot was a rare exception.

Last, defections, and re-defections, are here to stay. Any moral sting associated with switching parties is long gone. From the infamous Gaya Lal in 1967 to Jitin Prasada and Mukul Roy in 2021, only the urge to stay in the reckoning, and stay near power, is permanent.

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Disclaimer

Views expressed above are the author’s own.



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