‘Resort politics’: Narendra Modi’s BJP targets opposition in Indian states

The man who runs India’s eastern, mineral-rich Jharkhand state survived a confidence vote after an unusually stormy legislative session this month.

In an impassioned speech to the assembly shortly before the vote, chief minister Hemant Soren accused Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata party of “nibbling away” at his state government “like mice”. 

“When they cannot take us on politically, the BJP has been trying to destabilise popularly elected opposition-ruled states, one by one,” he claimed. “They are trying to topple the state government by threatening and buying up legislators.”

Soren provided no evidence of bribery. But politicians and analysts say the scenes that played out in Ranchi, Jharkhand’s capital, were part of an intensifying struggle over who controls India’s regions. And while Soren won the “trust vote”, other state governments have been toppled in the past two years after legislators from other parties switched to the BJP.

Politicians and analysts say that seeking to poach rival parties’ assembly members (MLAs) with money or favours is a longstanding feature of Indian regional politics, and also practised by opposition groups.

But Asim Ali, a political analyst and columnist, said the current drive was part of an “ideological project” to “paint the country orange” — a reference to the BJP’s official saffron colour.

Modi’s BJP has a firm majority in the parliament in New Delhi and the attempts to topple regional governments come two years ahead of national elections, where the party will seek re-election to a third term against an increasingly divided opposition.

“In India, MLAs and MPs are not very ideologically bound,” Ali said. “If you give them a lot of money, they can easily shift — and voters don’t punish MLAs who shift.”

BJP officials did not respond to requests for comment. However, party figures have denied paying off legislators and dismissed as smears opposition party suggestions they have done so.

At the Jharkhand assembly session, Nilkanth Singh Munda, a senior BJP leader in the state, hit back. The ruling United Progressive Alliance, a coalition that includes Soren’s party, was keeping its members of the legislative assembly on side by taking them on paid trips because of “its own lack of faith in them”, Munda said.

A few days before the crucial September 5 “trust vote”, the UPA sought to prevent MLAs from the coalition from defecting by flying 32 of them on a chartered jet to neighbouring Chhattisgarh state.

Indians have coined the phrase “resort politics” to describe the increasingly common practice of flying MLAs on junkets to other parts of India in order to keep them out of reach of rival parties.

In June, the government of Maharashtra state, slipped from the grasp of the Shiv Sena party and was replaced by a BJP-led coalition. This came after a 10-day odyssey in which breakaway MLAs criss-crossed the country.

Eknath Shinde, a Shiv Sena MLA who switched his loyalty to the BJP, led “rebel legislators” first to BJP-governed Gujarat, then to two other states controlled by the ruling party: Assam in India’s north-east and Goa in the west. The journey, followed closely by Indian media, ended on July 1, when a SpiceJet plane brought the rebels back to Maharashtra and a new BJP-led state government was installed with their support.

Since 2019, the BJP has also won control of Karnataka state, home of India’s tech capital Bangalore, and the central state of Madhya Pradesh. Modi’s opponents describe the state takeovers as part of a broader drive to consolidate BJP dominance of politics, media and other areas of public life.

In New Delhi’s national capital region, deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia claimed last month that the BJP had promised to drop cases against him stemming from an excise duty scandal if he agreed to defect.

In Jharkhand, many of whose inhabitants are members of India’s indigenous tribal minority, some say the struggle for control of state governments is not just about amassing political power, but also resources.

“Coal, bauxite, gold, diamonds — we have everything here,” said Supriyo Bhattacharya, a spokesman for Jharkhand’s governing UPA coalition, adding that business interests get mixed up in state power struggles.

“In smaller states, it is very easy to destabilise governments by corporate lobbying,” said Sudhir Pal, an analyst who runs youth NGO Yuva Manthan Sangthan. “You just have to buy 15 MLAs to destabilise a government now.”

Soren, the Jharkhand chief minister, has himself been investigated by the Election Commission over alleged misuse of his post because he obtained a mining licence last year. He has denied any wrongdoing.

Bhattacharya defended the UPA’s flying of MLAs across state lines, saying it was essential that the coalition protect its majority in the Jharkhand assembly from the BJP. “If you spoil and finish the opposition, democracy will not survive,” he said. “Autocracy will come.”

Twitter: @JohnReedwrites, @jyots43

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