Back in 1967, Gaya Lal, a legislator in the Haryana state assembly, changed his political party twice in a day, and then a third a time within the fortnight—all because he wanted to be part of the governing party, and things were in a bit of a flux after elections. He succeeded in his short-term mission, but at the rather hefty cost of seeing his name associated forevermore with the practice of “defections" in Indian politics. Aya ram, gaya ram (come and go men) became the derisive Hindi phrase used to describe politicians who switch parties for money and government office, including the sought-after job of a minister.
Gaya Lal was not alone in his political exploits. Between 1967 and 1971, there were 142 defections in Parliament and 1,969 in state assemblies, according to PRS Legislative Research, a think tank. Gaya Lal’s Haryana was only the first among a series of states that saw governments topple during the period, and 212 defectors were rewarded with ministerial positions. Between 1967 and 1983, there were approximately 2,700 defections at the state level, with 15 defectors becoming chief ministers.
Regional politics was becoming increasingly influential in India’s federated structure and in 1985, when the Congress led by Rajiv Gandhi stormed to power with the largest mandate in Indian history, the new prime minster’s first legislative act was to follow up on a campaign pledge for an anti-defection law. The law amended the Constitution and added the 10th schedule to the Constitution, from which the quote above has been taken.
In the nearly 35 years since then, the spirit and letter of this piece of landmark legislation, which aims to discourage defections and violations of the party whip, has been violated time and again by politicians. And in the run-up to the general election beginning 11 April, such violations have assumed epic proportions.
In assembly elections in state after state, from Arunachal Pradesh in the furthest eastern corner (it borders China) to Goa in the western tip, voters have made it abundantly clear that they have no strong, single-party preference, a testimony to the influence of the multiplicity of parties that crowd the Indian political stage. Such verdicts have led to protracted periods of uncertainty and negotiations between leaders of national political parties, those of regional parties, and winning candidates.
Winners can be spirited away to luxury hotels located miles from the capital city and kept under heavy guard in what is known as “resort politics", candidates feign illness or go on “vacation", bargains are struck, candidates switch sides, governments are toppled and governments are formed. One of the main reasons this practice has been able to flourish is that the anti-defection law is allowed to be violated by the ruling party. The law says a defector can be disqualified by the Speaker on the basis of a petition by any other member of the House. However, the practice of naming Speakers from the ruling party (which immediately compromises the independence bestowed on this office in democracies, but that’s another story) means defections are allowed in nearly all circumstances, with no regard for the motive behind defections.
In the southern states of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, this has led to a farcical situation, where dozens of opposition legislators have switched sides to strengthen the ruling party while the Speakers have looked the other way. Some were made ministers even before they officially changed their party tag, thus becoming “opposition party ministers in the government".
The Speaker’s decision on defections is subject to judicial review. But judicial reviews of the enforcement of the anti-defection law are a developing arena. In 2016, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government imposed President’s Rule in Uttarakhand, dismissing the state’s Congress government amid a rebellion by some Congress legislators. The chief justice of the Uttarakhand high court, K.M. Joseph, quashed President’s rule, thus restoring the popular mandate. Two years later, his promotion to the Supreme Court was sought to be held back by the central government despite a strong recommendation for elevation by other senior judges, who eventually had their way.
The story of defections in India is interesting if for no other reason than the anomaly presented by the near-constant presence of defections in electoral politics and the absence of a public debate around it. There are deeper, related issues around the nature of political representation and electoral politics that, too, need urgent debating in public. For instance, it can be presumed that the whole notion on which the anti-defection law is predicated—that elections are won by political parties rather than individuals—is indisputable. Yet, this idea is also problematic in Indian society, where deeply entrenched traditional cultural values may mean an election candidate is also judged, defeated or elected for a raft of reasons other than their politics alone. These may include broader factors such as gender, class, religion, caste and kinship as well as more local and tangible ones such as whether the candidate can deliver on a promise to, say, get you a specific job that’s going.
That such local considerations can be important even in national elections finds resonance, for instance, in the jobs versus nationalism debate in the current hustings.
It would take a pretty large leap of faith to describe Indian election candidates as individuals (independents) rather than representatives of political parties with well-defined and –recognized ideologies. Yet, from the prism of the voter, the candidate often is a well-recognized individual rather than someone necessarily identified with a political party.
Within a scenario where all major political parties (except those on the Left) appear to have found a positive consensus around economic liberalization (including its need and impact), such locally based identities and considerations come into even sharper focus. “A plague on all your houses, but can you get us a job", could be one way of describing a common voter perception in election time.
“A criticism of the anti-defection law is that the penalty for defection comes into play after the defecting legislators have destabilized a government. It is also an example of implementing a legal solution to solve a political problem," says an analysis by PRS Legislative Research.
Of all the pending legislative reforms before the next Indian government, tightening and cleaning up the anti-defection law is among the most urgent—if only to tend to the health of the world’s largest democracy.
Dipankar’s Twitter handle is @Ddesarkar1