After the monumental mess in Maharashtra, Monday’s byelection victories in Karnataka must soothe the souls of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah. The bizarre theme in both states was, of course, defection politics, which the BJP has metamorphosed into fine art in state after state to browbeat parties and form governments.
But there is a difference: the defection game boomeranged on BJP in Maharashtra while receiving, at least seemingly, a big thumbs-up from Karnataka’s voters. Besides ensuring the continuation and stability of the BS Yediyurappa government, BJP’s victories in 12 of the 15 Assembly seats that went to byelections on 5 December are notable for two contrary things.
The defectors who won the byelections—11 of the 13 turncoats who contested won—can brag that they had only upheld the anti-defection law by resigning from their Assembly seats they had wrested on Congress and Janata Dal (Secular) tickets and then getting themselves re-elected on BJP tickets. At the same time, there are others who argue that the legislators had only poured scorn on the anti-defection law. That’s because while espousing the noble cause of democracy by resigning from their seats they caused a little inconvenience to the Congress and the JD(S). The coalition government of the two parties collapsed in July.
The commerce called politics and the burlesque of government-formation are all about numbers and, equally importantly, how the half-way mark in the Assembly keeps shifting like the sand under your foot on the beach. A party or coalition must have at least one member more than half the Assembly’s strength to have a ‘simple majority’. In the 224-member Karnataka Assembly (excluding the Speaker), this finish line should be 113 (112 + 1). On 23 July, when then chief minister HD Kumaraswamy of JD(S) sought a confidence vote for his 14-month-old coalition government, the half-way mark fell to 102 after 12 members of Congress and three of his own party resigned and three others absented themselves. With support from only 99, the coalition collapsed. And with 105 members, Yediyurappa became the chief minister.
On 29 July when Yediyurappa sought his own trust vote, the disqualification of 17 rebels and the resulting reduction of effective House strength from 224 to 207 took the halfway mark to 104 and the simple majority mark to 105. The BJP exactly had 105 members and the support from an Independent.
The 15 byelections have pushed the Assembly’s strength up from 207 to 222 and the half-way mark up to 111. Byelections have not been held in two seats whose 2018 results are the subject of litigation before the Karnataka High Court. But by netting 12 seats in the bypolls, the BJP has raised its strength to 117, and its government is now as stable as a rock.
And this is just the politics and the mathematics of it. Then there are ethics and economics. By their very nature, defections, at least as they happen in India, are an enterprise where loyalties are low and prices high, and both are negotiable. The BJP’s scheme of circumventing the anti-defection law by getting legislators to resign and bringing down the halfway mark in a House amounts to a political ingenuity that gives a whole new dimension to horse-trading. Over time, this stratagem has become as vital to BJP politics as Newton’s Law is to physics.
But what’s wrong, the BJP’s chanakyas might ask. Nothing, really, on the face of it, except that quitting a seat and then contesting from there on a different party’s ticket serves the letter of the anti-defection law though not the spirit of it, at least the way it is being perpetrated in Karnataka. And if the primary objective of the anti-defamation law was to stop legislators elected on one party’s ticket from joining another party by disqualifying those who did so, the BJP’s quit-and-contest device fits the bill perfectly. This surely is better than the Aya-Rams-and-.Gaya-Rams of the years before the anti-defamation law who walked out and into parties at will.
Slap on Speaker’s face
The Karnataka drama also exposes the partisan nature of the actions by former Assembly speaker KR Ramesh Kumar, a Congress nominee. Kumar had refused to accept the resignations of the defectors and, instead, disqualified them from the Assembly, barring them from contesting an election till the end of the current term of the House. This had been clearly aimed at intimidating them into withdrawing the resignations and backing the coalition. The Karnataka High Court upheld the disqualification but allowed them to contest bypolls.
But what make the BJP-sponsored floor-crossings, in Karnataka and elsewhere, look increasingly questionable are the motive, timing and the blatantly obvious quid pro quo considerations. Does this mockery of the anti-defection law mean that the statute itself must be scrapped? That would be like cutting off your nose when you catch a cold. What must be noted is that the half-effective law at least forced the BJP to go in for resignations and take the risk of not only losing the bypolls and even the government itself. Voters had the option of refusing to re-elect them in the bypolls.
And yet it would be ludicrous to accept the BJP’s argument that the people upheld the defections it manoeuvred. It’s safer to presume that voters voted for stability in Karnataka. Fed up with the constant bickering within Congress and JD(S)—and between the two parties—the voters may have opted for the BJP, with the individual strengths of candidates in respective constituencies helping them in some measure.
It’s perhaps as much a vote against the Congress and JD(S), as it is for the BJP.
The author tweets @sprasadindia
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Updated Date: Dec 10, 2019 14:16:03 IST