In Indian politics, where you stand depends on where you sit. The latest instance of this truism is provided by the chubby faced, genial Rajasthan governor Kalraj Mishra. In 1998, Mishra was part of the BJP delegation that went on a dharna to protest the dismissal of the Kalyan Singh government in UP by then governor Romesh Bhandari. Now, it’s the Congress MLas who have staged in a sit-in protest on the lawns of the Jaipur Raj Bhavan against Mishra’s refusal to call an urgent assembly session as demanded by Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot. While the governor has finally acceded to the request, he has insisted on a 21 day notice period for convening the house, enough time for horse-trading of MLAs to take place and another Congress-ruled government to be toppled. Clearly, Mishra’s primary allegiance seems to be to the Centre and not the constitution.
Mishra is not the only governor in recent times to court controversy. In 2017, Mridula Sinha in Goa and Najma Heptullah in Manipur hurriedly swore in BJP-led governments even though the party was not the single largest in the assembly. In 2018 in Karnataka, Vajubhai Vala, a former Gujarat BJP president, invited BS Yeddyurappa to form a government even though he clearly didn’t have the numbers: the government fell in 48 hours after Supreme Court intervention. In 2019 in Maharashtra, BS Koshiyari had a cloak and dagger crack of dawn swearing in for Devendra Fadnavis: the chief minister resigned in a week. What unites this governors roll of (dis)honour is their status as veteran 75-plus BJP ‘marg-darshak’ mandal politicians for whom the Raj Bhavan is a luxurious retirement home.
The best defence offered for the partisan actions of these constitutional authorities is to engage in brazen ‘what-aboutery’ by claiming that they are only following the hoary traditions set by the Congress party which routinely misused the governor’s office. In a sense, this is further proof of the ‘Congressification’ of the BJP, of how a self-proclaimed party with a difference is now a party of absolute power. The much-hyped tagline of being different was not just about providing a political alternative to the Congress but also an alternative political culture. The ‘value-based’ politics that the BJP politicians of the Vajpayee-Advani era claimed to represent has now been replaced by the politics of high value where political machinations have a price tag attached.
Take for example the Enforcement Directorate (ED) summons to Gehlot’s brother in a fertilizer scam case that dates back to 2007. The ED has often been accused in recent times of being the BJP’s closest ally, a preferred weapon of political vendetta, used to harass and intimidate rivals. That a decade old case is revived in the midst of political turmoil in Rajasthan is no coincidence: it is designed to frighten and bully opponents into submission. Here too the counter-argument rests on the Congress’s deeply flawed track record of exploiting state agencies. But then if the CBI was a caged parrot in Congress ruled times, does the ED become a rottweiler in a BJP regime? What again happened to the party with a difference assertion?
Examine also at the allegations being made of large amounts of money being offered to switch sides in Rajasthan. Even if the amounts being cited are largely conjecture, the lure of ministerial perks is an undeniable cause for defections: be it in Goa, Manipur, Karnataka or Madhya Pradesh, those who switched sides have been amply rewarded. The addiction to money power was seen to be at the root of the Congress’s decline and a contrast was sought to be drawn with the more austere lifestyle of BJP leaders. Now, as the BJP induces defections, whatever happened to the party with a difference affirmation?
Truth is, as the BJP has journeyed from being a party of opposition to becoming a party of power, any vestige of idealism lies compromised in the quest for total supremacy. Be it in parliament or state assemblies or even municipal corporations, a growing number of BJP ‘conquests’ are actually of former Congresspersons who have gone with the saffron wind. The Manipur chief minister N Biren Singh was a Congressman for over a decade before joining the BJP. The Goa deputy chief minister, Chandrakant Kavlekar won four consecutive terms as a Congress MLA before joining the BJP. The Karnataka cabinet has at least 10 ministers who were once in the Congress. Half the ministers in the Shivraj Singh Chauhan government in Madhya Pradesh were formerly with the Congress. Assam’s all-powerful minister, Himanta Biswa Sarma was a long-serving Congressman. Arunachal’s chief minister Pema Khandu is another Congressman who has found sanctuary in the BJP. The list is a long one.
At one level, this suggests an implosion within the Congress, a stark reflection of a party in disarray with a weakened leadership unable to stem the outflow. But at another level it exposes a predatory, immoral instinct within the ‘new’ BJP that seeks to use every conceivable opportunity to completely decimate its opponents. In the process, the BJP’s once highly disciplined party structure is now at risk as is its ideological coherence: when you reward opportunism and downgrade ethical behavior, you create potential flashpoints for the future. The murmurs of disagreement on the ground are growing even though the rank and file appears too fearful to express their concern openly.
The RSS may still project Hindutva nationalism as its ideological badge of distinctiveness but its supervisory control over its political wing is increasingly tempered by the harsh reality of power politics. Where once considerable moral authority vested in the RSS sarsanghchalak, now he is clearly a secondary player to the dominance of the political executive in the Modi-Shah era.
Moreover, the institutional takeover is now almost complete. An election commissioner who dissents is packed off to an insignificant posting in Manila. A Supreme Court chief justice is nominated to the Rajya Sabha within months of retirement while a sitting judge who hails the prime minister as a ‘versatile genius’ presides over politically contentious cases. Parliament is reduced to a notice board as exemplified during the scrapping of Article 370. And a large section of the media performs the role of unabashed cheerleader. Meanwhile, the BJP’s footprint continues to expand: MP only yesterday, Rajasthan today, who knows which opposition ruled state tomorrow. Is there any space left for contrarian voices?
Post-script: The opulent Raj Bhavans across the country are mostly colonial relics, grand buildings that are maintained at great expense with tax payers money. Do we really need this imperial grandeur when governors are simply rubber stamps to be used by the Centre to engage in blatant powerplay? Here is a better idea: why not convert these majestic mansions into Covid care centres?