Game of renegades

Game of renegades

elected defectors

Rebel MLAs Ramesh Jarkiholi, Mahesh Kumtahalli, H Vishwanath, Narayana Gowda and Shivaram Hebbar offer prayers at the Saibaba temple at Shirdi in Maharashtra on Saturday. PTI

It has been interesting yet familiar times in Karnataka politics. The time has come to take stock of defection politics and its implications legally and ethically. All the mainstream political parties in India have at different points of time been accused of abetting defections. The article does not intend to point fingers at any particular political party.

Rather the attempt is to address the extent to which defection politics is posing a threat to the very foundations of Indian democracy. In fact, the statement of objects and reasons of the 52nd amendment points out that “The evil of political defections has been a matter of national concern. If it is not combated, it is likely to undermine the very foundations of our democracy and the principles which sustain it.”

Initially, floor crossing was considered to be a phenomenon only in a few states. But now it seems to have reached all-India proportions. The question is why politicians bounce between political parties. The citizens deserve more than this. Defections seem to have become the norm in spite of the Anti-Defection Act having been passed. 

The 1985 Anti-Defection Act passed during Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure as prime minister brought in the 52nd Amendment and added the 10th Schedule to the Constitution. Unfortunately since then, because of the allurement of money, ministerships and plum posts in the government, they have all contributed to exposing the loopholes in the Anti-Defection Act, which has assumed cancerous proportions. 

The question is what can be and needs to be done about this. Often, when the ruling party instigates defections, the Speaker has often looked the other way. Similarly, when the opposition party ventures to capitalise on the wafer thin majority of the government, it offers allurements to instigate defections.

The time has come to take cudgels against the menace of political defections. The debate over splits and mergers in the Anti-Defection Act are relatively well known. 

The Tenth Schedule, which recognised a ‘split’, was done away with by the 91st amendment in 2003. Instead, it recognised a ‘merger’ that requires at least two-thirds of the members of a legislature party to join a political formation or join a new one without the wrath of the Anti-Defection law.

The time has come to impose a penalty for political defections. The elected representatives need to respect the people’s verdict which needs to be legally enforced. There is clearly a breakdown of trust between the citizens and the representative, and this can be taken to absurd levels. 

Over the years, the Anti-defection Act has come to be violated several times. All a party needs to do is to try and reduce a ruling party to a minority by whatever means or allurements.  Let us not blatantly make a sham of the law.

The loopholes in the law have to be plugged and a price has to be paid by the legislators who betray the mandate.  Though it may be difficult to abolish defections entirely, its propensity can be minimised.

Many civil society groups have take out public campaigns to shame politicians who defect in a manner that reduces democracy to a mockery and sham. In many local communities, voter’s crusade against such unethical practices has been gaining momentum. No party seems to be free of ideological promiscuity in the present context. Anybody can be a partner. It is like a marriage of convenience both for the predator and the hunted. Ideology plays no role when the end justifies the means. These trends have diluted the public notion and perception of political parties.

Given the fragmented nature and working of the political system, the major political platforms of the past are being questioned as a result of rampant defections. The corrosion of party loyalties seems to be the new normal now. When this increasingly happens because of political defections, it poses a threat to the political system and the democratic credentials of the country. 

Defections have reduced politics to a road show wherein the relationship between the politician and the voter is like between theatre actors and the audience. It has turned out to be a game of calculated strategic pay-offs.

Often we believed that the legislator’s ability to defect is strongest among those with very strong constituency support. This meant they are relatively sure of being reelected, regardless of whether they switch parties, with the high bargaining power they possess. 

Bargaining chip

Often in such cases the threat of defections can be used as a bargaining chip.  Defections take place in many democracies, both developed and developing. However, the motives may differ and this makes all the difference. State responses have varied. South Africa for example abolished defections in 2009.

The challenge is that ‘party switching’ is fast characterising or democratic experience. Hence, the yawing gap between political expectations and political delivery seems to be widening. 

The time has come to rethink the true meaning, rationale and logic of what constitutes party loyalty. The legislator ought to be an advocate of a wide-ranging democratic political culture, without making a mockery of what is considered to be a vibrant democracy.

Politics should not be reduced to a game of gains accretion and self-aggrandisement irrespective of the cost.  The tragedy is when party membership is no longer considered as a commitment with a social and political cost.

(The writer is Professor and Dean (Faculty of Arts ), Department of Political Science, Bangalore University)

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