The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is still winning control of state legislatures even without holding elections. Recently, the chief minister of Bihar, Nitish Kumar, who took office as the head of a coalition formed to stop the BJP in 2015, jumped ship to join his erstwhile enemies in a new coalition. A proverbial phenomenon has been observed for centuries that “Rats abandon a sinking ship first.” But here, the captain himself jumped the ship, obviously because of his selfish motives. Following his footstep, some members of the feckless Congress party, which dominated Indian politics until a decade ago, have also become turncoats to join the BJP.
In the recent past 44 members of the Congress legislature of Gujarat, fled an attempt by the BJP to coerce them into changing sides by means of “muscle power” and hid in the Eagleton Golf Village, a posh resort near Bangalore. In fact, they were protected from “money power” intended to induce them to defect, as five of their colleagues did earlier. Even in Karnataka, the Congress’s Gujarati contingent felt the long arm of the Union government. On August 2 income-tax agents raided the Eagleton, keen to catch a Congress man with undeclared assets.
After Kumar won Bihar in 2015 in an alliance with the Congress, he looked like the one leader who could conceivably beat Narendra Modi in a national contest. At any rate, the BJP’s defeat in Bihar was by far its biggest electoral setback since Modi became prime minister in 2014. Kumar enjoys a reputation for probity, an appealingly humble caste background and a record of getting things done. But leaving the Opposition in the lurch, Kumar, who has castigated Modi for his Hindu-supremacist bigotry, has thrown his lot in with the BJP.
What prompted Kumar to join the BJP is not revealed so far, but he might have thought the prime minister is bound to win another five-year term in 2019. With the landslide victory of the Uttar Pradesh state election in March, and now Bihar, almost all the biggest states are under the party’s control. The BJP has also managed to form coalition governments in smaller states, such as Goa and Manipur, where the Congress actually won more seats than it did. Just five of the 29 states are under the Congress’s control now, three of them specks on the map.
Anti-incumbency had been considered the norm in Indian politics. Yet the BJP seems to be marching towards single-party dominance. Control of national agencies, including the federal police and taxmen, comes in handy. So does money. Despite its avowed desire to reduce the role of cash in politics, Modi’s government recently relaxed restrictions on corporate donations to parties, which may now collect them without limit and without public disclosure. There is an anti-defection law intended to prevent a rich party from buying the support of members of the opposition, but it is woefully ineffective in this country.
The BJP is eyeing other states. It was the legal troubles of a senior member of Kumar’s coalition in Bihar that gave him an excuse to switch sides; an investigation of Naveen Patnaik, the chief minister of the state of Odisha for 17 years, may present a similar opportunity. Even some members of Naveen Patnaik’s party in Odisha may be itching for a better offer from the BJP. There is even talk of the BJP broking peace between the warring factions of the party that runs Tamil Nadu.