Assembly Elections 2021: Turncoat politicians sully India's democracy as institutions slip on ethics

The brazen shift in political loyalties playing out most recently in West Bengal and Puducherry is confirmation of the cancerous outreach of this phenomenon, writes a former Lt Governor of Puducherry

Lt Gen Bhopinder Singh March 01, 2021 14:13:53 IST
Assembly Elections 2021: Turncoat politicians sully India's democracy as institutions slip on ethics

Puducherry Assembly. Image courtesy News18 Tamil

There is a light-hearted truism in the ‘cow-belt’ politics of the ‘Aya Ram, Gaya Ram’ phenomenon, that neither spares nor distinguishes, any specific political party. The expression owes its genesis to a certain fleetfooted Haryana legislator, Gaya Ram, who in the 60’s who won first as an Independent, then joined the Congress and thereafter changed parties thrice again, within a fortnight!

The Haryana state politics then was particularly vulnerable and infamous for ‘horse trading’ (or ‘suitcase politics’). The Big-3 ‘Lals’ of the state kept the political excitement on the tenterhooks and the by-now legendary, Gaya Ram, kept hopping from one party to the other, even subsequently – a flighty feat and dubious distinction that was continued by his reasonably successful and equally jumpy son who too switched multiple loyalties, with much abandon.

Sadly, the spirit of ‘Aya Ram, Gaya Ram’ is not the exclusive preserve of Haryana politics anymore, but reflective of the larger political morass, across the country. Switching political parties, floor-crossing and defections are a vanilla matter of plain opportunity and not of any region or specific party (be it national or regional).

There is certainly no ‘party with a difference' on this count. Usually, the flow of traffic or mass exodus of politicians jumping ships tend to find succour in the dominant political party of the day, and the personal ideology or the awkward ‘mis-match’, given the historically hostile positions taken by any of the jumping candidates earlier, bears no consequence.

Though it must be said that the Leftist politicians, usually tend to be the honourable exceptions to this phenomenon. The time just before the poll season (before the announcement of official party candidatures) is also the peak ‘season on turncoats’. The brazen shift in political loyalties playing out most recently in West Bengal and Puducherry is confirmation of the cancerous outreach of this phenomenon - the ‘season of turncoats’, centripetal nature of exiting politicians, and a very forgiving electorate which usually makes light of the unembarrassed personal ambitions, ideology be damned!

Many political turncoats from across the party lines have gone on to respectable leadership positions within the new party, state and national governments. Our colonial past of having inherited the Westminster style of the political framework perhaps took a rather indulgent cue from the likes of Winston Churchill who was at a time Conservative, Liberal, Constitutionalist and then finally, Conservative again. He famously said, ‘Anyone can rat, but it takes a certain ingenuity to re-rat’!

Like most British things bettered since Independence, the art of shifting political alliances has been elevated to another level in modern-day India, whereas, current British politics tends to be more staid, stable and loyal. Beyond personal ambitions, the corrosive presence of money power, muscle power, ticket/ministry lure and even intimidation power (possible use of investigative agencies), is all-pervasive.

The collateral spectacle of the unprecedented diminishment, open partisanship and compromises of the supposedly independent-institutions and constitutional posts for the effective checks-and-balances in participative democracies, has further sullied the optics. While the unwanted liberties with the effective functioning of democracy cannot be attributable to a singular party or individual – fact is, India’s further slide to the 53rd rank in the global Democracy Index as a ‘flawed Democracy’, says it all.

Unfortunately, the relatively more stable and predictable politics of the southern states have also got afflicted with the worst ills, regressions and revisionism in its moorings. Picturesque Puducherry that was formed out of the four territories of the former French colonists in 1954 effectively, is at the centre of the latest political drama and intrigues, that was in the making, for some time.

As a Union Territory or a ‘half-state’ like Delhi, it was given to natural tussles and one-upmanship between the elected chief minister and the constitutional post of the Lieutenant Governor, who is appointed by the President of India, at the behest of the Central Government. In cases like now, where the ruling parties at the Centre and in the State (till recently) were rivals, the bitterness is doubly magnified.

Adding to the implosive situation were the inordinately assertive and ‘visible’ incumbents to the two high offices, who routinely played to their respective galleries, even if it tantamount to hitting new lows in personalised barbs and insinuations. There was virtually no pretence of any apolitical anchorage that is necessarily mandated in the constitutional office, and the free for all was clearly, basis of partisan divide.

The once-impregnable bastion of the southern states was conquered in Karnataka for the ruling national party in 2008, and thereafter, Puducherry seems the most likely candidate for the second government in the south, given the touch-and-go numbers of the almost equally divided ranks of political parties. With the Congress in an existential crisis and disarray that goes beyond Puducherry, multiple other national/regional political parties (including major Tamil Dravidian parties) and a strong Puducherry-based party in the fray – the playground lends itself to some serious possibilities and the testing of the waters and deliberation, by the Central ruling party.

By invoking the historically misused tool (by all earlier dispensations also), of nominating three legislators who are not supposed to be bearing any political affiliations, but are supposedly people of eminence, accomplishment or of unrepresented communities – the previous L-G yet again nominated three new legislators who were known political empathizers of the national ruling party. This structural and constitutional nomination moved the numerical balance even more invitingly and soon six elected legislators defected in quick succession to bring down the elected government.

All other public sideshows of dissonances like stepping onto each other’s turf were minor piffle and distractive veneers, as the rug was effectively pulled out of the state governments feet, just before the state elections are due in April. The serendipitous removal of the L-G as the crisis was unfolding (apparently without any reason), raised even more eyebrows – if anything, it made the task easier for the deserting legislators to shift allegiances, after over four and a half years of personalised attacks against the ‘face’ of opposition i.e. the earlier L-G.

The task was done clinically, and all implausible explanations and confessions by the shifting legislators like feeling suffocated, getting sidelined, requiring family time etc., barely cut ice. The Union Territory is now effectively under the Centre and two advisors to the new L-G of Puducherry, in the form of a recently retired CRPF DG and a retired civilian servant, will manage the Union territory, as it nears the election date of 6 April 2021. This is decidedly the preferred arrangement and situation for the national ruling party, as it makes a serious bid for Fort Puducherry.

No political party can claim to be holier than thou and there have been enough instances of such-like manipulations and facilitation across the states, but now this seems to be the norm and not the exception of Indian politics. What is perhaps more disconcerting is that the slippery slide is only worsening and that no state, party or region can truly claim to be above reckless and amoral politicisation.

Till the time the electorate remains forgiving or even selectively agreeable (with routine whataboutery to defend the indefensible) towards the mushrooming of the ‘Aya Ram, Gaya Ram’ spirit in politics, nothing will change for the better. Sadly, it will be the petty, patronising and vindictive politics (also vain politicians) who will weaponise their vacuous promises that will grab the centrestage in the forthcoming elections, and not the more pressing agendas of development, job creations or pandemic related concerns, that will get debated. The news coming out from the other election-bound states of Assam, Kerala, Tamil Nadu or West Bengal, is no different. Political rhetoric and individual preferences aside, keep a watch on the Democracy Index for 2021, for that perhaps is the most non-partisan and relevant indicator of where we are headed, overall.

The author is a former Lt Governor of Puducherry

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