These defections have made the contest tighter than before, but the BJP might still be able to cross the finishing line in a tightly contested election
There are two contesting claims about recent defections of ministers in the Yogi Adityanath cabinet and other leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to the Samajwadi Party (SP) in Uttar Pradesh. Claim: In India, defections before an election are a routine feature and these defections should not be taken seriously. Those who have defected from the BJP are habitual defectors, they switch parties only for their personal gains and they have no ideological commitment. These defections will hardly have any adverse impact on the BJP’s electoral prospects in the 2022 Assembly elections.
But there is a counter argument: True, defections are a routine thing in Indian politics, but these defections are significant as the SP has done what the BJP has done so far with other parties. Leaders from various parties have defected to the BJP and hardly vice-versa. A rough estimate indicates that during the last seven years, the BJP has attracted nearly 200 defectors from other parties, mainly the Congress. Noticing this change, it is important to understand how significant these defections are and how much it can damage the electoral prospects of the BJP.
Defections do not guarantee victory in elections! If that were the case, winning elections would have been much easier for parties as they would have focused only on defections to brighten their electoral prospects. There are several examples of party losing elections despite attracting defectors from other parties, most recent being the case of the 2021 West Bengal Assembly election when a large number of Trinamool Congress leaders defected to the BJP, which helped in building a perception that the wind is blowing in favour of it, but still the saffron party failed to the Bengal polls. Such large-scale defections do help in building a perception of wind blowing in favour of the party which is attracting the defectors. This helps the party in mobilsing the swing voters in its favour, but that is not enough to guarantee victory.
So, will the SP have the same fate as the BJP in West Bengal, or will these defections be able to create a much stronger wave in favour of Akhilesh Yadav? It is important to note that though BJP failed to win Bengal, but it managed to emerge as a strong Opposition party, increasing its vote share from 10.16 percent in previous election to 37.97 percent in 2021.
The BJP’s charges about Swami Prasad Maurya being unhappy on denial of ticket for his kin and him along with Dara Singh Chauhan being habitual defectors may be true, but such charges hardly hurt the image of such leaders. Popular leaders carry with them a substantial number of supporters, when they switch parties. Their supporters tend to vote for their leader irrespective of his party’s affiliation. In Madhya Pradesh, a large number of sitting MLAs who won their election on Congress ticket defected to the BJP along with Scindia and a large number of them won elections when they faced the same electorate asking for votes on BJP ticket. It was Scindia’s popularity amongst voters that helped most defectors in winning elections.
Before winning on a BJP ticket in 2017, Swami Prasad Maurya had won four Assembly elections on different party tickets — clearly a sign of his personal popularity. So these defections would certainly dent the support base of the BJP amongst lower OBC castes. One should not forget that these defections would help in building a positive narrative in favour of the SP being ahead in the electoral race as it is generally believed that leaders jump from the sinking ship to the one which is likely to sail high. Elections are often contested and won on perception, such a perception would certainly help the SP in mobilsing additional support especially amongst the floating voters.
These defections would certainly dent the BJP’s support amongst the lower OBC castes, which had voted for it in very large numbers during the last few elections. The findings of the Lokniti-CSDS survey data indicate that 61 percent of the non-Yadav OBC castes voted for the BJP during the 2017 Assembly elections which increased further to 74 percent during the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. It is important to note that during the 2012 Assembly elections, only 18 percent non-Yadav OBC voted for the BJP. Clearly, shift amongst the non-Yadav vote contributed to the BJP’s victory in a significant way during the 2017 Assembly and 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
A positive narrative built in favour of the SP might also help Akhilesh Yadav in connecting with people better, highlighting what should be the real issue in these elections — unemployment, price rise, Covid death due to mismanagement. A large number of people mentioned unemployment and price rise as their two biggest concerns. But, till recently, the BJP has been successful in keeping these “real issues” under wraps by focusing on the narrative of Hindutva by constantly invoking Ram Mandir at Ayodhya, Kashi and Mathura. But if momentum starts shifting in favour of the SP, people would find merit even in these issues and would connect with these issues as well.
These defections may help the SP in mobilising support amongst the non-Yadav OBC voters, which could play a crucial role in these elections, but one should not entirely dismiss the BJP. These defections may force the BJP to field new faces. There are reports about people being unhappy with their sitting MLAs. Since a large number of sitting MLAs are from the BJP, the party would be on a receiving end. Fielding new faces, by design or by default, might attract voters, mellow down the level of dissatisfaction with the BJP which by default would go to its advantage.
The BJP has benefited in many Assembly elections by its strategy of fielding new faces. Only recently it changed the entire ministry along with the Chief Minister in Gujarat as a strategic move of advance preparation for elections due later this year. Even during the 2017 Assembly elections, the BJP benefited from fielding many few faces in Gujarat.
It may be too early to dismiss the BJP entirely just because of these defections. These defections have made the contest tighter than before as BJP would suffer losses, but the party might still be able to cross the finishing line in a tightly contested election.
The author is a professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) and a Political Analyst. Views expressed are personal.
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