Former member of parliament, general secretary of the Congress and the billionaire heir to the one-time house of Gwalior, Jyotiraditya Scindia, decided to switch parties and join the Bhartiya Janata Party, causing a mini earthquake across the political landscape.
‘Experts’ on 24×7 television media and Twitter went into a frenzy, latching on to every piece of gossip and second-hand information in their attempt to come to grips with the fast-unfolding events.
Much of the ‘liberal’ media tried to paint an all too familiar picture of Scindia as a young and upcoming leader who was ‘lost’ to the inept leadership of Rahul Gandhi and hard done by the machinations of crooked party veterans Digvijaya Singh and the Madhya Pradesh chief minister Kamal Nath.
On the other hand, a section of the Congress party’s support base and its leaders labelled him a traitor and reconjured the memories of the betrayal of Rani Laxmibai by the House of Scindias. Incidentally the invocation of this betrayal was a recurrent trope in former BJP chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s speeches, who ran an entire campaign in the last election with the slogan, “Maaf Karo Maharaj, Hamara Neta Shivraj”. Now, of course, all was forgiven by the BJP.
The reasons for Scindia’s desertion, however, lies outside both these paradigms of emotive knee-jerk reactions and needs to be reconsidered.
The flawed marginalisation thesis
If we try and go by what we know definitely, and not by conjecture, a very different picture of the entire episode emerges. The first theory is about the central leadership of Congress being unresponsive. However, in his resignation letter, he revealed that he had been considering this switch for the last year and therefore, the supposed inaccessibility of Rahul Gandhi also does not hold water. Gandhi, who has maintained a stoic silence through the entire episode, but broke it momentarily, to make it be known to the public that, of all people, Scindia could have called upon him at all times.
The other complaint in the media is about the supposed political marginalisation of Scindia within Congress owing to Digvijaya Singh and Kamal Nath. In truth, however, Scindia has had an extraordinary career for such a young man in Indian politics. At just 49, he was a four-term MP, a two-time Union minister, a CWC member, in-charge of Western UP and a power centre in Madhya Pradesh. He could have chosen to be the deputy chief minister like Sachin Pilot, if he so wished, when the Congress rode back to power after 15 long years, which strangely, he did not. Here is another aspect to consider: a close friend of Rahul Gandhi’s can never be marginalised within Congress.
The theory is about him being the ‘face’ of the party; which in plainspeak means that the media likes him. This cannot be contested. He was the most telegenic leader in Congress. However, there’s a universe of politics outside television studios. This is the reason why, when he decided to switch parties, an overwhelming majority of MLAs decided not to jump ship with him, starkly exposing his limited regional influence in the state.
Given this fact, it would be fair to assume that he wielded power commensurate with his influence. In any case, the answer to ending marginalisation in Congress can never be to join the BJP, which is an ideologically committed, cadre-based party with a whole galaxy of heavyweights entrenched in the Gwalior-Chambal region which is Scindia’s area of influence.
Scindia’s model of power
The alternative explanation then would have to factor in the other big development that took place about a year ago – namely his electoral defeat in the general elections, at the hands of his own workers, in his family fiefdom of Guna. Scindia’s political clout is entirely based on his electoral invincibility and massive inherited wealth which guaranteed him the position of the perpetual disburser of power and patronage to his loyalists.
In the wake of his 2019 election defeat, that aura of invincibility was shattered. Immediately after that, he broke ranks with his party, to support the scrapping of Article 370 while three democratically elected former chief ministers were summarily thrown in jail. This was followed by his support of the CAA-NRC, which is the most profound attack on the constitutional ideals of our republic.
Two visions of politics
Scindia’s switch to the BJP, then, is the result of his inability to imagine a politics outside of power. Given his model of politics, this is therefore a canny move on his part. For the foreseeable future, the BJP will be the dominant force in national politics, which will ensure that he will once again be elevated to the position where he can be a patron and secure his other interests within a predictable matrix of power in Delhi and the state. If we look at politics as a career, this move makes perfect sense, for he will be relatively insulated by the uncertainties of democracy.
The other vision of politics looks at it as a movement. This is a period of great churning in the country’s politics. The entire opposition, not only the Congress, would do well to reinvent itself as a movement for a new constitutional compact by engaging in dialogue with the emergent forces and most importantly, remembering who stood with them in these testing times. Perhaps then, the image of Congress as the revolving door of the elites would give way to its professed ideal as the custodian of the values of the freedom struggle.
Anshul Trivedi completed his MPhil from the Centre for Political Studies, JNU. He is an activist and a freelance journalist. He tweets @anshultrivedi47.