Opportunism and Discontent: Party Hoppers in UP Politics

Three prominent OBC ministers resigned on three consecutive days from the Yogi Adityanath government. On January 11, Swami Prasad Maurya, Minister of Labour, tendered his resignation and promptly joined SP. On January 12, Dara Singh Chauhan, Minister for Forest and the Environment followed suit. On January 13, it was Dr. Dharam Singh Saini’s turn to resign and join Samajwadi Party.

By Gilles Verniers, 14 Jan 2022

These are the three most prominent names in a series of 15 departures from BJP in less than a week, raising questions about the confidence that these officeholders have in their (ex-) party’s fate in the upcoming election.

While we must wait for confirmed lists of candidates to see how many of these disgruntled ministers and MLAs will find a home in a different party, we can look at turncoat data to see how prevalent the phenomenon is in Uttar Pradesh.

Using the Trivedi Centre for Political Data’s Individual Incumbency Dataset, we can measure how many candidates and MLAs have switched party affiliations between elections. This data only includes MLAs contesting on different party tickets across time and does not include non-elected party officials who join a different party to contest for the first time. It also does not include officeholders from local self-governing bodies (panchayats, zilla parishads, municipalities) who may also switch party affiliation.

A practice that cuts across parties

The following charts shows that in 2017, the five main parties in Uttar Pradesh fielded 153 turncoat candidates.

Unsurprisingly, BJP fielded the largest number of turncoats (65), followed by BSP (29) and SP (26). Parties that are expected to perform well in an election usually attract defectors. The chart also shows that only 60 of these 200 turncoat candidates won their bid and got elected in 2017, mostly on BJP tickets (52). Among the 312 BJP MLAs elected in 2017, 25 came from BSP, 14 from Congress, 7 from SP, 3 from RLD and 3 from minor parties.

This list of defectors includes veteran politicians, such as Bihari Lal Arya, a five-time Congress MLA from Mauranipur (and before that Kannauj), who ran and won on a BJP ticket after having lost the last three elections; Shivpratap Singh, a four-time BJP MLA, who unsuccessfully ran in Jasrana on an SP ticket; Ambika Chaudhary, a three-time BSP MLA from Kopachit who contested on an SP ticket (incidentally, only 18 of these 200 turncoats were women). The list also includes seven of the thirteen BJP MLAs who recently resigned, six of them having defected before from BSP.

Turncoat peaked in the 2000s

Historical data since 1993 shows that the turncoat phenomenon peaked during the 2000’s. In 2007, 276 turncoats contested the election, against 255 in 2002. The data also shows that before 2017, BJP fielded fewer turncoats than any of its main competitors in Uttar Pradesh (barring in 1993).

The data on winning turncoats show that between 1993 and 2007, 30% of turncoats contesting on major party tickets have on average won their election. With the exception of 2017, the fate of turncoats is not necessarily linked to the fate of the party they join, since a number of turncoats won even when they party lost the election.


A reflection of parties’ recruitment strategies

The lower number of turncoats recruited by the BJP before 2017 reflects a time when the party floated most of its candidates among its affiliated members: local office holders, RSS pracharaks, local notables associated with BJP and so on. During the 2000s, SP and BSP were more inclined to poach candidates from other parties, as their approach to candidate recruitment was essentially opportunistic, if not transactional.

As documented in my doctoral work on Uttar Pradesh, BSP and SP rose politically in the late 1990s and 2000s by nominating candidates drawn from local elite groups. BSP in particular – which needed to recruit non-Dalit candidates from outside its organization – would engineer defections from other parties as a means to find strong candidates with political experience.

The SP too recruited its candidates unabashedly from local dominant groups, adapting local caste equations from one election to the next. This created incentives for parties to co-opt candidates who met their winnability criteria (muscle, money, caste, etc.), including individuals who belonged to other parties.

This practice contributed to creating a class of political entrepreneurs unbound by party loyalty and not effectively required to adhere to their party’s official ideology. Recruiting turncoats was also a means to check caste boxes – part of a larger diversification strategy of parties on the basis of caste.

The fact that BJP in 2017 recruited so many turncoats from the parties it competed against shows an element of its transformation in Uttar Pradesh: more pragmatic, placing caste calculations at the core of its recruitment strategy, emulating in fact the tactics adopted earlier by regional parties to beat them at their own game.

The turncoat phenomenon is reinforced by the fact that MLAs in Uttar Pradesh tend to have short political careers. As detailed in another column, most MLAs do not serve a consecutive term and often do not even get a chance to re-run. Given the fact that political parties in Uttar Pradesh, including BJP, regularly give the boot to half of their sitting MLAs, it is not surprising to see some of them taking anticipatory measures.

Of course, the fact that Chauhan, Maurya and Saini were prominent OBC ministers in a party still poised to win the election gives another dimension to an otherwise commonplace practice. Small numeric variations can have large political consequences and these departures may have somewhat upset BJP’s electoral calculations. These exits are also significant since the relation between the BJP leadership in Uttar Pradesh and many of its imported OBC figures have been uneasy since 2017.

In 2019, the BJP lost its alliance with Om Prakash Rajbhar’s Suheldev Bharatiya Samaj Party. The induction of many prominent OBC leaders from various political origins has also created a form of competition among them within the party. The BJP’s opposition to the caste census has also been an irritant.

The real question today is whether these movements reflect ground-level discontent and can create a churn amongst OBC voters. What we know about electoral behavior in Uttar Pradesh is that voters rarely make their decision on a single variable. Non-Yadav OBCs may have voted massively for BJP in the last two elections, but they still do not form a cohesive social ensemble that can be mobilized solely on the basis of caste. Religious mobilization, the key plank of BJP in this election, also plays a role. So do development and welfare policies.