Party loyalty in the shifting sand of Indian politics
When RPN Singh quit the Congress and joined the BJP on January 25, 2022, he joined a growing list of politicians switching sides ahead of the coming assembly elections in five Indian states: Uttar Pradesh, Goa, Uttarakhand, Punjab, and Manipur. The polls have set off a riveting—many say sordid—drama of defection. Several politicians, particularly elected representatives, have changed sides—in some cases, after giving up long associations with one party, while in some other instances, after five years. The common thread in all the defections is the urge to look for what these party-hoppers think are greener pastures that will help them be on the right side of political power.
Each of the five states has witnessed change of party loyalty, but none more so than India's smallest state: Goa. For more than a decade, politics in Goa has earned the dubious distinction of being the most slippery place as far as party loyalty is concerned. A number of public representatives in Goa have gone back and forth—first joining one party, and then returning to the one they left a few weeks later. The politics of poaching cost the Congress its chance to grab power in Goa in 2017. This time around, Rahul Gandhi ensured that all Congress candidates sign a "loyalty pledge" post polls. Only time will tell if the "loyalty pledges" are legally binding or if they will stop defection.
What has made the Goa politics more competitive and fragmented this time is the entry of two regional parties, Trinamool Congress (TMC) and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). Both the TMC and the AAP have poached into the ranks of Congress and small regional parties in Goa to grow in the state. The spurt in party-hopping has extended to Uttar Pradesh and Manipur, where defections are equally as routine as in Goa, and to a lesser degree in Punjab and Uttarakhand.
The two most important reasons for defections are: 1) The defecting lawmakers have either been told by the parties they left that they would not be renominated; or 2) They assess their electoral prospects to be better in the new outfit. But do defectors get rewarded or punished by the people? In India, it is a mixed bag. In some states, turncoats manage to win fresh elections. On the other hand, last year's assembly polls in West Bengal showed that switching party allegiance does not pay off.
A debate over political defections invariably raises legal and moral issues. India's anti-defection law of 1985 stipulates that if two-thirds of legislators switch sides in a group, it is not a defection. In Goa, the Congress emerged as the single largest party in the previous assembly elections in 2017, but the BJP outwitted the former politically by luring the legislators and cobbling a majority, and then cementing that position by poaching 10 Congress legislators. The Goa assembly speaker dismissed Congress' plea seeking disqualification of its 10 legislators, and the party challenged it in the Goa bench of the Bombay High Court. As the High Court is yet to deliver its verdict on the speaker's ruling, the whole issue is set to become infructuous with the fresh Goa assembly polls round the corner.
It is argued that defectors go unpunished mainly due to loopholes in the anti-defection law, and the feet-dragging by a partisan speaker (who belongs to the ruling party) of the legislative forum in giving his or her decision on pleas seeking disqualification of the defecting lawmakers. The speakers often prolong the disqualification proceedings to a point where the tenure of the existing House ends, making the whole exercise meaningless.
Legal experts have suggested some changes and abolition of certain provisions in the anti-defection law in order to discourage defection. One proposal that legal luminary Kapil Sibal, in a newspaper article, makes is that a legislator who defects should go through a "cooling off" period before he or she can join any political party. The senior Congress leader also suggests that a disqualified lawmaker be barred from contesting elections or holding public office for five years from the date of his or her disqualification, and that a timeline of three months be set for the speaker to decide on a disqualification petition. The question is: Will the parties want to push for the changes, as almost all of them have benefited or suffered due to the lacunae in the anti-defection law?
The ills of the free market economy seem to be infecting the body polity. Are we set for a scenario where an elected public representative is turned into a product and, like a commercial item, traded in a free political marketplace?
Pallab Bhattacharya is a special correspondent for The Daily Star. He writes from New Delhi, India