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Opinion

Why dropouts continue to cast a shadow over politics: analysis

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It is election season again, this time to fill 55 seats of Rajya Sabha (RS). These elections are generally not interesting as they come from the results of past assembly elections. It is the strength of the parties in the states involved that determines how many seats they can fill. Therefore, the results are known in advance. But in recent times, the RS polls have been marked by uncertainty, as some parties are engaged in the horse trade to change the composition of the assemblies in their favor.

As I write this column, Congress in Gujarat is busy rounding up its members of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) in a resort, as eight MLAs have succumbed to the charms of induced retirement, jeopardizing their party’s second seat in RS. It is a troubling trend in Indian politics that parties can induce legislators to abandon ship so easily and without consequence, which is equivalent to altering the verdict of the people.

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 so many years that Congress lost a state due to defections.

In February of last year, in Karnataka, 14 Congress and three (secular) Janata Dal MLAs resigned, precipitating the downfall of the 14-month HD Kumaraswamy coalition. In July, 10 of the remaining 15 MLAs in Congress announced their resignation at the Goa assembly and merged with the BJP. A similar scenario took place in Manipur in 2017. Despite having emerged as the largest party, the BJP surpassed Congress, which formed a coalition, backed by defectors from Congress who had joined before the elections.

This is not a recent phenomenon. In a book published in 1974, Subhash Kashyap, former secretary-general of the seventh Lok Sabha and an expert in constitutional law, recalled that in the 1967-71 period, 142 defections occurred in Parliament. Until 1,969 desertions took place in assemblies, causing the fall of 32 state governments. It further noted that 212 of these defectors had subsequently been rewarded with ministerial positions. In Karnataka last year, 10 of the 11 defectors who won their partial election with a BJP ticket were offered cabinet positions.

In recent years, the BJP has benefited most from such defections. But the data shows that the dominant party is not always the preferred destination for defectors. In the late 1960s, most defectors were from Congress. In the 1977 general election, the Bharatiya Lok Dal ran 94 cabinet candidates, including 21 from Congress. Many of them returned to Congress once it became clear that Indira Gandhi was prepared to win the 1980 elections. Those large-scale political migrations, according to Kashyap, were the reason why Rajiv Gandhi passed the anti-defection law in 1985.

It is not difficult to guess the motivation behind these defections and the role of the parties to induce them. But all these defections are not simply the sum of opportunism and individual ambitions of legislators. They also reveal the problems that arise within political parties. Contrary to what one might expect, defectors are not necessarily newcomers or professional weather vanes competing under multiple party labels. At least half of recent congressional defectors were seasoned politicians, some former party chiefs or ministers.

The fact that Congress loses veterans is a powerful sign of its organizational mess. Despite winning state elections, the party remains vulnerable to poaching by the BJP, which remains uncontested at the national level. In recent years, political parties in India have undergone at least two transformations. The first is the professionalization of the campaign. The parties use data platforms that allow them to communicate directly with their village-level workers. The second is an increase in the concentration of power in the upper ranks of the parties. This has been a process fueled by increasing personalization of politics and increased reliance on direct modes of communication. As a result, MLAs that used to play an important mediating role inside and outside your organization have become almost redundant. This causes a lot of frustration and discontent. And when the party they belong to suffers a leadership vacancy and offers little prospect of future electoral gains, it’s not surprising that many MLAs jump off the ship.

While this may seem like a problem that Congress has to deal with, the tendency to undo governments through defections is problematic for two reasons. First, it shows that the law against desertion no longer fulfills its primary objective of preventing government instability when a dominant party, which loses an election, seeks to make it a victory. And second, the practice of bringing down duly elected governments through the horse trade makes a complete joke of any remaining legitimacy or meaning of electoral mandates. Accepting defeat and respecting the people’s choice is a strong marker of a healthy democracy. Helping to reverse the election result undermines it.

Gilles Verniers is an assistant professor of political science, Ashoka University and a senior visiting fellow at
The Policy Research Center

The opinions expressed are personal.

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