Use and abuse of vote cutters at elections

Smaller parties are often blamed for spoiling the prospects of bigger parties. They may not be the unwilling pawns others accuse them of being.
Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express illustration | Soumyadip Sinha)
Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express illustration | Soumyadip Sinha)

The term is of obscure extraction but the catchy phrase ‘vote katua’ is a coinage that’s now embedded in India’s political wordbook. Like ‘bumper votes’ (record vote harvest), vote bank (sourced to sociologist M N Srinivas) and ‘labharthi’, signifying a new era of welfare politics. Vote katua or vote cutters possibly originated in Bihar or Uttar Pradesh; it is a pejorative term alluding to the players who allegedly let themselves be used by the larger parties to scupper the prospects of a discernible winner at an election.

However, vote cutters are not necessarily captives of the so-called mainstream parties. At times, they are rebels who broke ranks with a parent party and approach a contest with a resolve stemming from anger and hurt pride. Vote cutters are actors who derive their salience from community identities and are local influencers with enough clout to damage bigger competitors in a few seats that matter in closely fought binary elections.

The idiomatic expression was in currency during the 2020 Bihar and 2021 West Bengal elections. In Bihar, both the BJP-helmed NDA and the Mahagatbandhan or MGB, led by the Janata Dal (United) and the Rashtriya Janata Dal with the Congress and CPI(M-L) as the other constituents, alleged they were “victims” of vote cutters. The NDA claimed that the Chirag Paswan faction of the Lok Janshakti Party (Ram Vilas) denied the coalition its victory, while the MGB maintained that Asaduddin Owaisi’s All India Majlis-E-Ittehadul Muslimeen or AIMIM snatched away a certain majority; eventually, the MGB squeaked past to the post.

Chirag Paswan is the political heir to Ram Vilas Paswan, his father and founder of the undivided LJP, a powerful force representing a large section of Bihar’s Dalits. The young Chirag has been drawing crowds in public meetings and is perceived in Bihar as Paswan senior’s rightful legatee. He has also made peace with the BJP, which thinks it can get Dalit votes to buttress its upper caste base.

Bihar is a gigantic pond for a party to fish for growth. The BJP has been more adept than its rival in big game hunting, having failed to enlarge its base on its own. It spirited away Dalit leader Jitan Ram Manjhi’s Hindustan Awam Morcha from the MGB despite Manjhi’s son being a minister in the Nitish Kumar government who quit once his father’s mind was made up.

Indeed, the BJP, drawing upon Kautilya’s repertoire of wisdom and strategies, is known to actively create and patronise vote katuas to damage its principal opponent, but not always successfully. If people are determined to vote out an incumbent, they are focussed only on the chief protagonist’s failings.

In the last West Bengal polls, the TMC alleged that a newbie, Indian Secular Front, birthed to target Muslim votes, was a BJP “creation”. However, the ISF joined hands with the Left Front and Congress and picked up just one seat. Now on its own, the ISF is fixated on splitting the TMC’s Muslim votes, a trend that Mamata Banerjee took note of. The point is, even if the speculation that entities such as the ISF have a tangential BJP connection is true, does it serve the purpose of targeting minority votes?

Owaisi was accused time and again of being a pawn in the BJP’s hands to upset the so-called secular parties. In the last Bihar polls, when the AIMIM unexpectedly won five of the 20 seats it fought on in Muslim-dominated Seemanchal, the Congress cried foul and accused the party of being a vote cutter. This prompted Owaisi to retaliate and ask if the MGB had reflected on its own failure to take up minority-specific issues such as the Citizenship Amendment bill. Evidently the coalition did not.

The fundamental question is if a party fulfils the prerequisites for recognition by the Election Commission, does it take away its right to contest an election, secure a vote percentage and aspire to qualify as a national party just because it does not suit the interests of the “mainstream” parties? What if the Congress, BJP or the Left Front slip into a state of complacency and unwittingly allow the others to chip away at their political capital? Politics seldom brooks a vacuum, a truism the established forces will have to acknowledge.

The ongoing elections in five states make for a crowded canvas—a potpourri of acronyms in an alphabet soup. Are the brews simmering meant to benefit or harm the BJP and the Congress, which notionally face each other off in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh? The answer is more complex that a facile attribution of the presence of a multitude of “third” players.

Chhattisgarh has at least four parties besides the BJP and Congress spoiling for a share of the 90 assembly seats. Two were floated by breakaway heavyweights from the Congress after they felt “neglected” by the party’s brass. Former Congress veteran Arvind Netam floated the Hamar Raj Party to “send a message to Congress and BJP that they cannot take the tribal community lightly any longer”. Netam’s words reflected the fact that Chhattisgarh has not had an Adivasi CM since its inception. The late Ajit Jogi’s son Amit leads the Janata Congress Chhattisgarh (Jogi) formed by his father after a split in the Congress. The BSP and the Gondwana Gantantra Party (GGP) are in alliance, hoping to net a chunk of the Dalit (15 percent) and Adivasi (32 percent) votes.

The BSP and the GGP came together in MP where the Adivasi-Dalit math accounts for over 30 percent of the votes. The GGP, founded in 1991, works for the rights of the Gonds and asked for a separate Gondwana state carved out of MP and Chhattisgarh, although it is geographically untenable.

In Rajasthan, Hanuman Beniwal’s Rashtriya Loktantrik Party tied up with Uttar Pradesh Dalit activist Chandrashekhar Azad Ravan’s Azad Samaj Party to coalesce the Jat-Dalit votes, a contradiction in terms given the mutual antagonism between the castes. The Congress steadfastly refused to do business with the Bharat Adivasi Party and the Gramin Kisan Mazdoor Samiti when approached, and grudgingly left one seat to UP’s Rashtriya Lok Dal, purportedly to keep the INDIA bloc together.

Ironically, these elections demonstrate the futility of replicating the INDIA coalition in the states. Its major constituents such as the Samajwadi Party, the JD(U) and the Aam Aadmi Party are contesting MP on their own. Are these vote cutters or overly ambitious? No one label sticks.

Radhika Ramaseshan

Columnist and political commentator

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