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Dissenting Congressmen flock powerful regional parties

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Leaders are switching to the TMC and the Samajwadi Party because they saw little or no future in the Congress.

By SANJEEB KUMAR SAHOO


Leaders exiting or ditching the parties they have been associated for years in favour of winnable alternatives is not an unusual feature in Indian politics. Even as the act of sudden abandonment of the party is largely perceived as an act of political opportunism, there has been proliferation of such practices. After all, ‘Aaya Ram, Gaya Ram’ (party-switching) — associated with leaders who jump ship often — is not a new term that defines defections with its own splendor. To stem such party hopping, an anti-defection law was brought in 1985. 

As voters propelled the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to a dominant force, it is the politically weaker Congress which is witnessing a series of defections. At state level, the powerful regional outfits across the country also managed to recruit leaders from the beleaguered Congress. Ever since the Congress was swept out of power by the BJP in the 2014 general elections and its strength further diminished in the 2019 general elections, the party saw desertions in droves. A few can deny that it is the leadership crisis that is corroding its influence. Unabated power struggle within the Congress between the party’s “old guard,” and its new generation of young leaders has also made matters difficult. Disgruntled young leaders are moving to greener pasture to sustain and survive politically.

Unabated Dissension in the Congress

The number of its dissenters in the party are growing every day. It is the Congress’ internecine strife that has led many leaders to join Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress (TMC). There are several reports that suggest that West Bengal Chief Minister has reached out to the members of Congress’s dissenting leaders. 

Latterly, there has been disagreement between the Congress and the TMC over the latter embracing Congress defectors such as Assam’s Sushmita Dev and Goa’s Luizinho Faleiro. Not long ago, Sushmita, former President of All India Mahila Congress and daughter of former Union Minister and seven-time MP Santosh Mohan Dev, resigned from Congress and joined TMC. Faleiro, who served two terms of a few months each as the Congress chief minister of Goa in 1998-99, joined the TMC recently. The seven-time MLA is still influential in South Goa with a sizable following among South Goa Christians. It had been clear for some time that he was unhappy in the Goa Congress, and there has been speculation that he is looking to enter Rajya Sabha on a TMC ticket. Sources in the TMC say that party is hoping to use his experience as AICC General Secretary in charge of the Northeast for its own campaign in Tripura.

Under national General Secretary and Banerjee’s nephew Abhishek Banerjee, the TMC has, over the past few months, worked to strengthen its organization in Tripura, and to find a foothold in Assam and Uttar Pradesh. TMC leaders, however, maintain that their party is only trying to retain its national status, and not attempting to weaken the Congress. “Two very senior members of the G-23 group of Congress leaders are working closely with us. They were ministers in UPA. Both of them are in touch with Mamata Banerjee,” a senior minister in the West Bengal cabinet told. Needless to say, TMC has been looking to consolidate its position, particularly in smaller states such as Tripura, Meghalaya and Goa but this expansion is primarily coming at the cost of Congress. 

TMC’s Move to Defend National Party Status

Last week, Abhishek Banerjee, accused the Congress of doing little to take on the BJP. The number two in the party attacked the Congress calling it an “ineffective” party that “does not work” and “likes to stay in its comfort zone”. However, several TMC leaders maintain that their party is only trying to expand to states to retain its national status. “To retain national party status, Trinamool needs to have elected members in some states. We are trying to get that,” said a senior TMC leader. “As far as the Congress-Trinamool equation for 2024 is concerned, it will only be determined by how the upcoming state election results go. We have to find space in the states, where regional parties are not very strong,” he added.

In September 2016, TMC was declared as a national party by the Election Commission of India after being recognized as a state party in four states — West Bengal, Manipur, Tripura and Arunachal Pradesh. It got five MLAs in Arunachal in 2009, and seven MLAs in Manipur in 2012. It fought elections in Tripura in 2018, but drew a blank. TMC became a state party in these three northeastern states. It, however, lost state party status in these states as it won in one seat in Manipur, which took its vote share from 17 per cent in 2012 to 1.4 per cent in 2017 in the state. It did not fight elections in Arunachal. After the 2019 general elections, Election Commission served a notice to TMC, asking why its national party status should not be revoked because it did not secure at least six per cent of the votes polled in four states. 

Claiming that it should get two consecutive general elections to meet the criteria of staying a national party, the TMC sought time until the 2024 elections. It now needs representation in three more states and accordingly, it has targeted Assam, Tripura, Meghalaya and Goa. After inducting Sushmita, and Faleiro, it is now in talks with Congress MLA and former Meghalaya Chief Minister Mukul Sangma. “The Trinamool is on an expansion mode. We need to occupy national space and we are doing that. I know it will take time, but we have to start from somewhere,” TMC MP Saugata Roy added. 

However, barring a few senior leaders, Congress veterans remained tight-lipped on the issue. “The Trinamool Congress is left with the only option of getting some people from the Congress, and starting branch offices in some smaller states, where Congress units were mishandled,” a senior AICC member said. “So, Mamata Banerjee, with help and assistance of Prashant Kishor, is targeting states like Tripura, Goa and Meghalaya. Our senior leaders are not bothered about them.” West Bengal Congress chief Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, however, told that Banerjee is working as an “RSS agent” who hurts Congress and the Opposition unity to aid the BJP. 

Queuing up to Join Samajwadi Party

Apart from losing several leaders to TMC, ahead of next year’s assembly elections, the Congress is now losing its senior leaders in Uttar Pradesh to Samajwadi Party (SP) — the main opposition party headed by former chief minister Akhilesh Yadav. Just a few days back, Gayadeen Anuragi and Vinod Chaturvedi, Congress’ prominent Bundelkhand leaders and former MLAs, joined the SP. Speculation is also rife that Imran Masood, leader from the party’s western region, could also shift to the SP. Many political observers say that in the coming days, several former MPs or MLAs may switch sides. 

In the last one year, at least eight Congress leaders have joined the SP. Salim Sherwani, a former five-time MP from Badaun, was among the first to switch sides. He is now an important Muslim face for the SP in western UP. In November 2020, Annu Tandon, a former MP from Unnao, joined the SP. All India Congress Committee joint secretary Shashank Shukla and former Youth Congress state president Ankit Parihar, from Unnao, also joined the SP. Former MPs Kaisar Jahan and Bal Kumar Patel also switched to SP though both had joined the Congress just ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. 

This year, R.K. Chaudhary, Congress’ Lok Sabha candidate from Mohanlal Ganj seat in Lucknow, joined the SP. Last month, Lalitesh Pati Tripathi, a prominent Brahmin face of the Congress in the state and the great-grandson of ex-UP Chief Minister Kamalapati Tripathi, also quit the party. While Tripathi has said that he isn’t joining any party as of now, sources close to him told that SP has approached him. No doubt, they switched sides because they saw little or no future in the Congress.

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