Gujarat Congress MLAs defect to BJP: Resort politics must end, parties must treat legislators with respect

For that day we all must labour,
Though we die before it break;
Cows and horses, geese and turkeys,
All must toil for freedom’s sake

So sang Major, the old boar, in George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Cows, hens, sheep, horses, donkeys and cats heard him in delight. Orwell writes: “The cows lowed it, the dogs whined it, the sheep bleated it, the horses whinnied it, the ducks quacked it.” Then they prepared to fight for freedom.

 Gujarat Congress MLAs defect to BJP: Resort politics must end, parties must treat legislators with respect

Congress MLAs at Bengaluru airport. Image courtesy: Chidananda Patel

And when the animals trounced the humans who attacked them later, they sang the same song to celebrate their victory in what they called the Battle of the Cowshed.

The sordid story of the Congress herding its Gujarat MLAs to Bengaluru on Friday and virtually locking them in a resort to keep them safe from poachers in the upcoming Rajya Sabha elections reminds me of the two delightful scenes from Orwell’s novella.

Make no mistake, MLAs are elected representatives of people and honourable individuals who must be treated with respect. They are not chattel to be collared and corralled in safe hideouts when a Rajya Sabha election or a no-confidence motion is around the corner. Why must party leaders conduct themselves like the nervous farmer who counts his sheep and locks them in a barn when he hears the distant growl of a prowling tiger?

Gujarat chief minister Vijay Rupani is bragging about his party’s concern for people suffering from floods in his state and mocking Congress MLAs “relaxing” in Karnataka resorts.

Nobody should be fooled by this display of injured innocence by Rupani and his colleagues. In Karnataka, the BJP has a history of treating its own legislators the way erstwhile KGB stashed suspected spies and alleged criminals in fortress-like dachas where copious vodkas flowed at the cost of freedom.

So it’s not just the Congress. Other parties too have been treating their legislators with utter contempt and with a venality that brings to our mind visions of animal fairs and auctions.

But unlike Orwell’s creatures, our MLAs have had no luck in unshackling themselves from the chains of their leaders. At the slightest fear that rivals will lure them away with offers of cash and kind,  party leaders ship their flock to faraway resorts and escort them back to the floor of the House just in time to vote —not how MLAs want to —but how their masters want them to.

Bengaluru excels in resort politics

Long before Bengaluru earned the fame of being India’s pub capital and IT hub, it became notorious for turning into an epicentre of resort politics.

My first experience with cattle class politics came in October 1983, when Indira Gandhi decided to topple the Janata Party government of Ramakrishna Hegde in Karnataka by enticing his MLAs with power and pelf. Hegde alleged at the time that the Congress (I) was offering Rs 10 to Rs 25 lakh to each MLA. (The rupee had more value then.) What he didn’t say was that he had concealed them in all sorts of places to protect them from “Congress vultures”. I remember trying to track down the "missing" MLAs but with little success.

Professing to practise “value-based politics”, Hegde attached a certain value to each of his MLAs, took care of them pretty well and ultimately saved his government.

With valuable experience thus gained, Hegde offered his MLA-protection services next year to NT Rama Rao whose Telugu Desam government in Andhra Pradesh was threatened by an intra-party revolt. Desam's MLAs were brought to the Karnataka capital and kept in “protective” custody of the workers of Janata Party and its ally BJP. This time, there was no need for reporters to chase them. We knew where they were lodged.

I found that Desam MLAs were being treated to plenty of malt whiskey and mutton biryani and whatever else they wished to quench their thirst and satisfy their palates with but were denied the freedom to use the telephone to talk to their near and dear ones. Not all the MLAs looked cheerful. It was tough to say how many of them were there on their own free will and how many had been “kidnapped”, as Rao’s rivals in Hyderabad alleged.

Questions have often been asked not only about the way party leaders treat their MLAs as sub-human species, committing offenses ranging from kidnapping to illegal confinement but also about the political hygiene of legislators themselves.

Or is it the case that our legislators are mere weathervanes in human flesh, willing to bend in whichever way the political winds blow? Or are they men and women with negotiable loyalties, so vulnerable to offers of money and posts that they need to be quarantined? Your mileage may vary on that one but there's enough blame to go around.

Meanwhile, as Tennyson might have said, parties and governments may come and go, but resort politics go on forever. In 2002, Maharashtra’s ruling Democratic Front flew about 40 MLAs, including three ministers to Bengaluru by a special aircraft to save the Vilasrao Deshmukh government from a no-confidence motion and lodged them in a plush spa on the outskirts of the cit.

In October 2010, when Karnataka chief minister BS Yeddyurappa faced a trust-vote, both the BJP and the Opposition Janata Dal (Secular) hid their respective supporters in five-star luxury. A year later, when Yeddyurappa had to resign over mining and land scams, rival factions contending for the leadership shepherded their supporters into the safety of resorts. In the case of the Hegde government in 1983 and the BJP government in 2010, audio tapes were produced to support allegations of horse-trading but nothing came from the evidence.

Before the ongoing Gujarat drama, the most recent case was that of VK Sasikala who, on 8 February, kept her AIADMK MLAs under virtual house arrest at a swank Chennai beach resort to stop them from being poached by the Panneerselvam camp.

A cash-for-votes scam is difficult to prove. But resort politics — its political face — isn't. Perhaps it's time to think of a way to make it mandatory for a speaker to postpone voting when credible reports of legislators being whisked away to hideouts emerge.

Author tweets @sprasadindia

Updated Date: Jul 30, 2017 17:09:59 IST

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