In a span of 72 hours, between January 11 and January 13, January, 10 Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) legislators in Uttar Pradesh — including three ministers in the Yogi Adityanath cabinet — quit the party. There was one common thread linking them: none of them had had any ideological grooming in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), or cut their political teeth with the BJP. They were all political turncoats—nine of them coming from the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and one from Congress.
Their decision to switch their loyalty again, weeks before the crucial assembly elections, could be explained by both pull and push factors: The pull being Akhilesh Yadav’s relative success in projecting the Samajwadi Party (SP) as a challenger that wants to shed its image as a Yadav-Muslim party and embrace non-Yadav Other Backward Classes (OBCs); and the push being the centralised power structure in both the government and the party, disincentivising ambitious leaders.
But what’s hurting BJP leaders is another validation of the thought that it’s easier to import leaders from other parties in good times, but they can’t rely on them when the going gets tough.
The exodus started with the exit of influential OBC leader and minister Swami Prasad Maurya, followed by three MLAs close to him on the same day — Bhagwati Sagar, Roshan Lal Verma, and Brijesh Prajapati. This was followed by the resignation of another state minister, Dara Singh Chauhan, and MLA, Awtar Singh Bhadana. On Thursday, another UP minister, Dharam Singh Saini, and three other BJP MLAs — Vinay Shakya, Mukesh Verma, and Bala Awasthi — also left the party.
A senior BJP functionary in Delhi told ThePrint that while there are many leaders who joined from other parties and did not face any issues in adjusting, there are some who face problems as they come from a "leader-based party". One of the major reasons behind such leaders quitting the party after such a short interval is the fact that they don’t come from an RSS background, which many in the BJP do, and hence are more "ideologically driven".
"Those who come from other parties are looking at greener pastures. They come with a focus on gaining power. The moment they see any shift in that power equation or if they are able to get a better deal, they are willing to desert the party. All these leaders from UP who have announced they’re quitting the party are largely from the BSP. They are only focused on getting power and tickets for their relatives. The BJP doesn’t subscribe to such a viewpoint. This is exactly what happened in West Bengal too, "the functionary said."
For instance, labor minister SP Maurya, whose resignation Monday triggered the exodus, allegedly wanted a ticket for his son—who has denied this—although his daughter, Sanghmitra, is already a BJP MP from Badaun. Another minister, Dara Singh Chauhan, who resigned Tuesday, was already a known party-hopper, having started his political career with the BSP before joining the SP and then returning to the BSP, before joining the BJP in 2015. That was about a month after the BSP had expelled him for anti-party activities.
"A number of leaders who join the BJP find it difficult to gel because they are used to a different style of functioning where they are the main leaders," said a second BJP functionary, adding, "The BJP is a cadre-based party and not a leader-based party, so naturally, these leaders who are imported find it difficult to adjust." The BJP is like a joint family where everyone is given importance; these people come from nuclear families where the individual is more important. "
Meanwhile, BJP national spokesperson Guru Prakash Paswan dismissed the exiting leaders’ allegations. "We have seen leaders like Swami Prasad Maurya and Dara Singh Chauhan leaving the party on the premise that the BJP is not giving fair representation to OBCs and Dalits, which is far from correct. We don’t view OBCs, SCs, and STs as vote banks but as thought banks. Our PM himself comes from the OBC community. The BJP has undertaken a number of welfare measures for them, "he said.
"If anyone is leaving after serving as a minister, then people understand it is out of political opportunity. As far as leaders from other parties joining the BJP is concerned, there is no constitutional bar for any individual to join any political party, " added.
The phenomenon of political turncoats imported into the BJP deserting the party isn’t limited to Uttar Pradesh. A number of leaders who had quit the Trinamool Congress (TMC) in West Bengal to join the BJP in the run-up to the 2021 assembly elections were quick to return to their old party after its victory.
Mukul Roy, who had joined the BJP in 2017, contested from the Krishnanagar North seat and won on a BJP ticket. The BJP had made him a party vice-president, too. However, in June 2021, Roy, along with his son and former MLA Subhranshu, returned to the TMC fold.
Rajib Banerjee, who had defected to the BJP in January 2021, returned to the TMC in October with an apology to Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. The BJP had made him a national executive member. He had earlier served as a minister in the Mamata government. Similarly, Sabyasachi Dutta (former Kolkata mayor who joined the BJP in 2019), Biswajit Das (Bagdah MLA, joined the BJP in 2019), Soumen Roy (Kaliaganj MLA, joined the BJP in 2020), and Tanmay Ghosh (Bishnupur MLA, joined the BJP in 2020) have rejoined the TMC in the last few months.
Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, a writer and journalist based in Delhi, says the time has come for the BJP to assess what went "wrong."
"It is true that in 2017, the BJP was an attractive proposition in Uttar Pradesh. Similarly, in 2021, the BJP was again equally attractive as many flocked to it in West Bengal. However, the series of resignations indicates that this may no longer be the case. This also spells trouble for the BJP ahead of the elections, and it would want to assess what went wrong and how it can be rectified, "Mukhopadhyay told ThePrint.
"At the same time, in 2017, we must remember that it was the Modi-Shah duo that was responsible for party affairs. But in 2021, we have an addition to the top leadership in the state with Yogi Adityanath. Due to him, there is a different model of relationship between the state and the Centre when compared to other BJP-ruled states, "he explained.
"Prima facie, it appears that allegations of Yogi's not being faithful to the BJP’s social coalition, and the declining popularity of the party due to the state government’s COVID mismanagement, too, could be reasons behind the exodus, "he added.
Trouble is also brewing in BJP-ruled Uttarakhand, where minister Yashpal Arya resigned in October to return to the Congress fold along with his son, Sanjiv Arya. He had quit the Congress to join the BJP in January 2017.
On Rahul Gandhi's birthday in June 2021, former minister and BJP leader Sunil Deshmukh quit the party and rejoined the Congress. Last year, after a gap of seven years, former Nanded MP Bhaskar Patil Khatgaonkar quit the BJP and rejoined the Congress.
There have also been instances of MLAs joining the BJP and quitting it within days. In Punjab, just days after joining the BJP, Hargobindpur MLA Balwinder Singh Laddi went back to the Congress earlier this month, leaving the BJP embarrassed.
Sources in the RSS told ThePrint that while the Sangh "never interfered" in the BJP’s affairs, it did have reservations about the strategy of engineering defections in other parties or inducting defectors to gain power.
"But the fact is also that the BJP may no longer be the party with a difference, but it is the world’s biggest. "Nothing succeeds like success," a source said.
The source added that there are always sceptics in the BJP and the RSS, but they remain quiet as long as this strategy pays off in terms of expanding the party’s influence and installing governments.
Sanjay Kumar, professor at the Delhi-based think-tank Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), said it was too early to say that the BJP’s strategy of importing leaders from other parties is backfiring. "See, we can’t say that the move is backfiring. Yes, we know that people who have quit the BJP were imported from other parties. So in a limited manner, it doesn’t seem to be working, "he said.
"But we need to remember that the same strategy worked in their favour in 2017. Such defections have helped them form a government in Madhya Pradesh too. So I can’t say plainly that it is backfiring. It is too early to say that. Yes, if there is an exodus and, say, 10-15 leaders who were brought to the party from other parties quit, then it might be that the strategy is failing, "he added.
Rahul Verma, fellow at the Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research, claims the strategy of importing leaders has served its purpose and can’t bring benefits forever.
"See, any strategy is not going to bring you benefits forever. It had some purpose (getting defectors), and in 2014, 2017 and 2019, this served them well. So now the BJP has become the predominant electoral force in Uttar Pradesh after a period of slump in the 2000s, "Verma told ThePrint.
"Now, why are we seeing people like Dara Singh Chauhan and Swami Prasad Maurya quitting the party? You see, this is very common. It happens all the time, in all elections. People will leave parties, even those that are ruling, to find greener pastures. Of course, there could be some legitimate concerns, "he said.
"Can these leaders inflict some cost on the BJP? Will it prove detrimental to the BJP? I don’t think so. On the margins, yes, each of these politicians has some sort of influence in their districts, so they might inflict some cost, but in the BJP, the vote is largely driven by the party, its programmes, its agendas, and its top leadership at the state and national level, "Verma continued.
To beat anti-incumbency, local candidates don’t add weight to the party’s kitty as far as the BJP is concerned, which is why it adopts the strategy of shedding almost half their MLAs when it goes for the next polls, to beat anti-incumbency," he added.