Long before Puducherry, there was Goa. In 1994, riding on the Ram Janmabhoomi wave, the BJP won four seats for the first time in the 40 member Goa assembly. It caused a ripple in Goa’s turbulent political waters, a breakthrough moment that prompted the late Pramod Mahajan, then the party’s chief strategist for Goa, to remark, “Don’t worry, this is only the start, we will form a government in Panaji within ten years.” Mahajan was spot on: aided by Goa’s infamous tradition of brazen defections, a BJP government led by Manohar Parikkar was formed in 2002. By 2012, Parikkar 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 relatively 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 hardnosed Amit Shah. Where the BJP was emerging as a competitor for power in the previous era, it is now the dominant party at the Centre, possessing the resources, both men and material, to topple any opposition state government it possibly can, the tiny union territory being only the latest.
Why Puducherry one might ask when assembly elections are just a few months away and the BJP it seems has little at stake in a region which has traditionally been dominated by the Congress and local parties. First, to borrow the words of the union home minister made in another context, ‘Chronology samajhiye’ (understand the chronology). The V Narayanswamy-led Congress government was elected in Puducherry in May 2016. Almost immediately, Dr Bedi, the pugnacious IPS officer who had lost out as the BJP’s Delhi chief ministerial face, was sent as Lieutenant Governor (LG). For five years, there was a constant and bruising face off between the chief minister and the LG that only undermined an elected government. Dr Bedi was only recalled last week after it became apparent that she had antagonized almost the entire political class. She was replaced by the more pliable former Tamil Nadu BJP president, Tamilsai Soundarajan who as Telangana governor was given additional charge of Puducherry to assuage local concerns. Simultaneously, the BJP fast forwarded a plan to engineer defections from the ruling Congress-DMK alliance and ensured that with the help of three nominated MLAs and a compliant speaker, the Narayanswamy government was voted out. Incidentally, at least four of the six defecting MLAs have either income tax queries or links to the lucrative real estate sector, making them particularly vulnerable to inducements or pressure.
Moreover, by toppling a Congress government in Puducherry, the BJP has also sent a message to neighbouring Tamil Nadu where elections are also due shortly. The aim is to create a certain momentum for the AIADMK-BJP alliance in the bigger state by creating a perception that the Congress is a greatly diminished force that can be vanquished at any time. While the local Congress hopes to garner sympathy for the fallen government, a domineering Centre can now call the shots on the ground.
In a sense, Puducherry is now part of a pattern of Machiavellian scheming that has been repeated from Arunachal and Manipur in the north-east to Goa in the west to Karnataka in the south and Madhya Pradesh in the heart of the country where a ruthlessly expansionist BJP seeks to consolidate its ascendancy by wangling either wholesale or retail defections. That the Congress claims to have been taken by surprise by the latest BJP act of poaching its MLAs reveals just how the original party of realpolitik is floundering to counter the BJP’s vaulting ambitions. The ‘new’ BJP under Modi-Shah is a bit like the ‘old’ Congress in the Indira era: ethically compromised but politically uncompromising in its actions. If a Congress government in Madhya Pradesh could be toppled even amidst a Covid 19 pandemic, why would a Puducherry government feel secure ahead of elections?
Truth is, no opposition government is safe: not one in a high stakes state like Madhya Pradesh or even one in a relatively insignificant union territory like Puducherry. India’s oppositional non-BJP governments can now be broadly bracketed in three categories. The Congress led governments, of which only three are left in the country, are high up on the BJP’s radar. Punjab is an exception where the comfort level for the Congress is the highest for now in the aftermath of the farm protests while the sheer numbers in Chattisgarh may offer a sense of security too. A bid to capture Rajasthan failed last year but the Modi-Shah model doesn’t delve on failure for too long: more attempts at divide and rule on Jaipur’s uneasy political turf cant be ruled out.
The second category are regional party ruled states that have made their peace with the Centre, by striking either overt or covert patron-client relationships. Telangana, Andhra, Odisha all fall into this category: these are states where the regional parties have made ‘deal-making’ with the Centre part of their survival toolkit. In all these states, the ruling parties are essentially one man shows, making it easier for the BJP to bide their time before swooping to conquer in due course.
The third category comprise the opposition alliance ruled states like 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.
Which leaves just two states – Bengal and Kerala — that are determinedly holding out in the face of the BJP juggernaut and both go to assembly polls in April-May. In Kerala, the BJP is resolutely widening its vote base even while remaining a fair distance away from power. In Bengal, on the other hand, the gloves are clearly off in a ‘Mother of all battles’. Should Didi’s Kolkata fortress also 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 maybe purely symbolic but only confirms that even ‘Marg-darshak mandal’ rules are selectively applied in the BJP’s cold blooded powerplay.