Why defections continue to cast a shadow on politics | Opinion
Campaign professionalisation and power centralisation in parties have reduced the role, and loyalty, of legislators
It’s election season again, this time to fill 55 Rajya Sabha (RS) seats. These elections are usually not interesting as they proceed from the results of past assembly elections. It is the parties’ strength in the states concerned that determine how many seats they get to fill. So the results are known in advance. But in recent times, RS polls have been marked by uncertainty, as some parties engage in horse-trading to change the composition of assemblies in their favour.
As I write this column, the Congress in Gujarat is busy corralling its Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) in a resort, as eight MLAs have succumbed to the charms of induced retirement, putting their party’s second seat in RS in jeopardy. It is a worrying trend in Indian politics that parties can induce legislators to abandon ship so easily and without consequence, which amounts to altering the people’s verdict.
On March 20, the Kamal Nath-led government in Madhya Pradesh fell, having lost its majority after 22 of its MLAs resigned, following Jyotiraditya Scindia’s decision to join the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). This was the fourth time in as many years that the Congress lost a state due to defections.
In February last year, in Karnataka, 14 Congress and three Janata Dal (Secular) MLAs resigned, precipitating the downfall of the 14-month-old coalition led by HD Kumaraswamy. In July, 10 of the 15 remaining Congress MLAs announced their resignation in the Goa assembly and merged with the BJP. A similar scenario took place in Manipur in 2017. Despite having emerged as the single-largest party, the Congress was outmanoeuvered by the BJP which cobbled together a coalition, backed by Congress defectors who had joined it ahead of the election.
This is not a recent phenomenon. In a book published in 1974, Subhash Kashyap recalled that in the 1967-71 four-year period, 142 defections took place in Parliament, and as many as 1969 defections took place in state assemblies across the country, causing the downfall of 32 state governments (statistics available on a PRS report). He further observed that 212 of these defectors had been subsequently rewarded with ministerial positions. In Karnataka, last year, ten of the eleven defectors who won their by-election on a BJP ticket were offered cabinet positions.
In recent years, the BJP has benefited the most from such defections. But data shows that the dominant party is not always the favoured destination of choice for defectors. In the late 1960s, most defectors were from the Congress. In the general election of 1977, the Bharatiya Lok Dal ran 94 turncoat candidates, including 21 from the Congress. Many of them migrated back to the Congress once it became clear that Indira Gandhi was set to win the 1980 elections. Those large-scale political migrations, according to Kashyap, were the reason the anti-defection law was passed in 1985 by Rajiv Gandhi.
It is not hard to guess the motivation behind these defections and the role of parties in inducing them. But all these defections are not merely the sum of the opportunism and individual ambitions of legislators. They also reveal the troubles that brew within political parties. Contrary to what one may expect, defectors are not necessarily newcomers or professional weathercocks who contest under multiple party labels. At least half of the recent Congress defectors were seasoned politicians, some former party heads or ministers.
The fact that the Congress loses old-timers is a powerful signal of its organisational disarray. Despite winning state elections, the party remains vulnerable to poaching by the BJP, which remains unchallenged at the national level. In recent years, political parties in India have undergone at least two transformations. The first is campaign professionalisation. Parties use data platforms that enable them to reach out directly to their workers at the village level. The second is an increase in the concentration of power in the high commands of parties. This has been a process nurtured by the growing personalisation of politics and the increased reliance on direct modes of communication. As a result, MLAs who used to play an important role of mediation in and outside their organisation have been made almost redundant. This causes a great deal of frustration and discontent. And when the party they belong to suffers from a vacancy of leadership and offer little prospects of future electoral gains, it is not surprising that many MLAs jump ship.
While this might seem a problem that the Congress has to grapple with, the trend of undoing governments through defections is problematic for two reasons. First, it shows that the anti-defection law no longer serves its main purpose of preventing government instability when a dominant party, which loses an election, seeks to convert it into a victory. And second, the practice of bringing duly-elected governments down through horse-trading makes a complete joke of whatever legitimacy or meaning is left of electoral mandates. Accepting defeat and respecting the people’s choice is a strong marker of a healthy democracy. Contriving to reverse the outcome of elections undermines it.