New Delhi: Switching loyalties to join the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) may not perforce be a ticket to power, but those who quit the saffron party find the going tougher outside, a study of the career trajectory of prominent BJP defectors shows.
Cricketer-turned-politician Navjot Singh Sidhu is the prime example of that, say BJP leaders, pointing out how he has been struggling to gain primacy in the Punjab Congress.
Sidhu’s rebellion against Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh is seen in political circles as the former’s desperate attempt to emerge as the Congress party’s face in the next assembly election.
In 2017, Sidhu had quit the BJP after a 13-year association and joined the Congress. He had wanted the BJP to sever ties with the Shiromani Akali Dal. With the BJP getting to contest just 23 seats in Punjab as part of seat-sharing in the alliance then, the party offered no hope for an ambitious Sidhu.
The cricketer-turned-politician went on to become a minister in the Amarinder Singh government but resigned later to project himself as the CM’s challenger. Though Rahul Gandhi is said to be backing Sidhu’s cause, Capt Amarinder Singh is too much of a heavyweight for Sidhu to push him aside easily.
Whatever be the outcome of this tussle, Sidhu, as a BJP defector, is still better off. If nothing else, he has the backing of the Gandhis. Other BJP defectors are finding themselves sidelined in other parties or chose to return to the parent party after making unsuccessful attempts to chart out their own path.
The likes of Jaswant Singh, Shatrughan Sinha, Kirti Azad, Manvendra Singh and Yashwant Sinha quit the party, only to be left in the political wilderness.
Others such as Kalyan Singh and the firebrand Uma Bharti quit the party, then returned, and now find themselves sidelined.
The few who were able to somewhat buck the trend include former Gujarat CM Shankersinh Vaghela, Maharashtra Congress president Nana Patole and B.S. Yediyurappa, who returned to the BJP to become the Karnataka chief minister.
“See, this is a complex issue and our understanding on this front is limited. There are many who left the BJP and tried to launch their own parties — Kalyan Singh, Babulal Marandi, Uma Bharti and Yediyurappa among others — but returned after their unsuccessful forays. The only former BJP leader who had some success outside the party was Shankersinh Vaghela,” said Rahul Verma, fellow at the Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research.
“One of the reasons for this could be (something that might be happening in Communist parties too) that in ideological parties, it is difficult for leaders to create their own political base. The BJP is a cadre-based party, so both workers and voters are tied to the party rather than the leaders,” he added.
“In most cases, when these leaders leave they fail to create a split in the party. This reduces the political leverage of these defectors when joining another party. Similarly, floating a new party requires adequate resources both in terms of manpower and finances. The leaders from cadre-based organised parties such as the BJP, thus, find it difficult to sustain (outside).”
Those who returned
Among the BJP leaders who returned to the party but are still struggling for survival is Uma Bharti, the former Madhya Pradesh chief minister.
Bharti had been expelled for six years from the party for indiscipline and anti-party activities in December 2005. She had attacked then party president L.K. Advani after the party’s parliamentary board chose Shivraj Singh Chouhan as MP chief minister, ignoring her claim.
Bharti formed her own political party, the Bharatiya Janshakti Party, but it did not enjoy political success. She even lost at the Bada Malhera constituency, in her home turf of Tikamgarh, in the 2007 assembly election.
She returned to the BJP in 2011, after six years, at the behest of the RSS. The party leadership asked her to focus on Uttar Pradesh and she was also inducted into the first Modi government cabinet. She was, however, left out of the cabinet after PM Modi secured a renewed mandate in 2019.
Another Hindutva icon in a similar state is Kalyan Singh, who was the Uttar Pradesh chief minister when the Babri Masjid was demolished.
Singh served as the chief minister of the BJP government twice — 1991-92 and 1997-99.
Singh was sacked as chief minister after he rebelled against then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 1999, and was replaced by the low-profile Ram Prakash Gupta. In that year, Singh was served a show-cause notice for his public statements made in Delhi and Aligarh, which were termed anti-party and denigrated the image of the party. Singh, however, had claimed that he was being sidelined in the BJP.
Singh was finally expelled from the party, but he returned before the 2004 Lok Sabha elections.
“The chemistry between Vajpayee and Kalyan Singh was not good at all. When the then PM visited Uttar Pradesh, he found that Singh had not been campaigning in a number of constituencies,” a senior BJP leader recalled. “But Singh had claimed he was being sidelined and Vajpayee was promoting sycophants.”
R.P. Singh, the national BJP spokesperson, however, told ThePrint that those who return are not sidelined, but added that had Singh could have become the prime minister had he stayed in the BJP.
“I will give you three examples — Uma Bharti, Madan Lal Khurana, and Kalyan Singh. All three had left the BJP and upon their joining back were given important positions,” Singh said. “Even after coming back, Khurana was made the CM candidate. Both Kalyan Singh and Uma Bharti were accommodated in the government. BJP follows an ideology-based system. But had Kalyan Singh stayed back, he could even have been the PM.”
The BJP spokesperson too cited the ideological argument.
“When the trio decided to return, they were accepted by the ideological cadre. Those who join other political parties find it difficult to adjust there. Adjusting to a new system becomes difficult for them as they are rooted in a certain ideological DNA,” he added. “Look at Sidhu, he won’t have trouble leaving the Congress and even joining the AAP as he has no ideological bearings.”
Those who left
Then there are a number of other party leaders who left the BJP and are now struggling for relevance in the outfits they have joined.
Among them is Kirti Azad, another cricketer-turned-politician. Azad, who won the Darbhanga seat on a BJP ticket thrice, was suspended from the party after his open rebellion against Arun Jaitley in 2016. He then joined the Congress but lost the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, which he contested from Koderma in Jharkhand.
Actor-turned-politician Shatrughan Sinha has fared no better. A former minister in the Vajpayee government, Sinha joined the Congress in 2019 after the BJP denied him a ticket at his Lok Sabha constituency of Patna Sahib. He eventually contested on a Congress ticket and lost to Union minister Ravi Shankar Prasad. His wife Poonam Sinha took on Union minister Rajnath Singh in Lucknow on an SP ticket in the same elections, and lost.
Last year, Sinha’s son Luv Sinha lost the Bankipur assembly seat in the Bihar elections while contesting on a Congress ticket.
The presence of Jaswant Singh, one of the tallest BJP leaders and former external affairs minister, in the party shrunk over a period of time before he was finally expelled in 2009 over a book written by him.
He was also denied a ticket in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, which he contested as an independent candidate from Barmer and lost.
Experts claim the branding of the saffron party is such that most who leave it would not be able to survive in other opposition parties.
“Those who quit the BJP to join somewhere else are unlikely to flourish, unless they decide to join a Hindutva political outfit. They can still flourish in any Hindutva political outfit but they will not be able to sustain themselves if they join any other party. The image building of the BJP is such that for instance a firebrand leader like Uma Bharti can’t adjust anywhere else except being in the BJP,” said Badri Narayan.
Narayan, however, said former finance minister Yashwant Sinha could be an exception.
“As far as Yashwant Sinha is concerned, he belongs to the old Vajpayee-Advani school and hence has the socialism root. He still might be able to revive himself but it is a difficult task,” he added. “As far as others are concerned, I don’t see their future beyond the BJP. At the same time, those who are from the Congress can still establish themselves if they join any other party and adjust.”
Yashwant Sinha, a vocal critic of the party under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, quit the BJP in 2018. Sinha had joined politics as a member of the Janata Party after he resigned from the IAS in 1984. In 2020, vowing to save democracy, Sinha launched his own political platform and announced to contest the Bihar assembly election, but did not get any political success. He joined the TMC in March this year and has been made the party’s vice-president.
The few with relative success
Among the few to enjoy some semblance of success outside the BJP is the former Gujarat chief minister Shankersinh Vaghela, who served as a cabinet minister in 2004 in the then Manmohan Singh cabinet.
Vaghela, 80, quit the Congress in 2017 and now heads the little-known Praja Shakti Democratic Party. There is speculation now that he is looking to return to the Congress.
“In the 1995 Gujarat assembly election, when the BJP won 121 of the 182 seats in a landslide victory, Vaghela was eyeing the chief ministerial post in place of Keshubhai Patel,” a second senior BJP leader said.
“Vaghela sparked a rebellion while Keshubhai Patel was in America. He was miffed with the growing influence of Narendra Modi in the state,” he added.
“Vajpayeeji and Bhairon Singh Sekhawat had to fly to Gandhinagar to convince Vaghela. His conditions were that Modi should be kept out of the state and that BJP had to change Keshubhai Patel. Suresh Mehta was named as the compromise chief minister,” the leader added. “However, after he lost the 1996 Lok Sabha elections from Godhra, he again rebelled, blaming Keshubhai for his defeat. The BJP finally expelled him and he formed the Rashtriya Janta Party with the help of 48 rebel MLAs. He took oath as chief minister with the help of the Congress but in the next assembly election in 1998 his party got only four seats. By the end of 1998, he merged his party with the Congress.”
Among the few BJP leaders who left the party and still enjoy political significance is Nana Patole, who comes from the OBC Kunbi community in Vidarbha region.
He was among the first BJP MPs to rebel against the party during the Modi government’s first term between 2014 and 2019.
He had joined the BJP ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha polls and later rebelled, to join the Congress. He contested against Union minister Nitin Gadkari in 2019 and lost. He is currently the president of the Congress’ Maharashtra unit.
Then there is Karnataka Chief Minister B.S. Yediyurappa, who is credited for the BJP’s ascent to power in the state in 2008.
He had severed his ties with the BJP when he formed the Karnataka Janata Paksha (KJP) in 2012. The KJP damaged the poll prospects of the BJP in the 2013 assembly elections in Karnataka as it split the party’s Lingayat vote-bank and secured around 10 per cent of the vote.
The KJP was later merged with the BJP in 2014 and Yediyurappa was appointed the party president.
(Edited by Arun Prashanth)
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