Phenomenon of political defection and poaching: Ideology plays no role in scramble for money and personal gains

Denied a ticket for the impending Lok Sabha elections, Arjun Singh, a Trinamool Congress MLA from North 24 Parganas, joined the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on Thursday. It was a personal decision, you could argue. Nothing amiss at all and no big deal since the likelihood is that this will mean the extirpation of his political career. Over the past few months, two other Trinamool MPs have crossed over to the BJP. Personal choice again. A prominent BJP member, also the owner and editor of a newspaper, went the other way not so long ago.

It’s not as if this phenomenon of ‘crossing the floor’, metaphorically speaking, is confined to Bengal; it’s happening all over the country. North India perhaps shades our very own down under a little bit in the great floor-crossing sweepstakes. One of the problems is that this movement is something in the nature of Brownian motion. In other words, people’s representatives are changing parties across the board – from the Samajwadi Party (SP) to the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP); from both to the BJP. It’s not as if, though, that the BJP is insulated from this trend.

It's time to get some clarity into our understanding of the phenomenon of ‘defection’, seen simplistically, before other factors are weighted in. At the simplest level, an individual people’s representative is free to quit his or her party and join another one – the condition is forfeiture for the time being of one’s membership of whichever legislative body one belongs to.

Phenomenon of political defection and poaching: Ideology plays no role in scramble for money and personal gainsEven at this level, random movement between parties — especially when they are ideologically contrapuntal — is conceptually problematic. Let's return to the Bengal situation. It’s not really a problem if and when the movement is between the two Congresses; when it is between either and the BJP it is problematic from one end. Neither of the Congresses in Bengal are ideologically straitjacketed: the Trinamool Congress is ideologically promiscuous, while the Congress has a history of a broad-church ethic with a basic liberal mooring.

It’s a problem, however, from the BJP end. The saffron party is anything but ideologically promiscuous, nor is it a broad church. Thus, when it goes out hunting for renegades, or even just accepting them, we can only reach one conclusion: the BJP is more than willing to dilute its ideological commitments to get its grubby hands on the levers of state power. All of this applies to the Left in Bengal as well, especially because much of the BJP’s ‘spectacular’ rise in the state is due to the exodus of Left leaders/cadres/voters. Talk of ideological/political lines getting blurred; it’s more like being obliterated.

It’s pretty much the same all over north India (including the western parts that are south of the Vindhyas). Technically, the north Indian ‘regional’ parties have inherited the obscenely ‘splittist’ variant of socialism of which the high priest was Ram Manohar Lohia. To be fair to Lohia, however, his penchant for splitting the Left movement was grounded in a particularly inflexible reading of politics. His political descendants have inherited some traits but not inflexibility. Genetics is not an exact science, politically and biologically. So, the movement between various parties is determined by expectations of personal gain constrained by a complex calculus determined by factors related to caste, gender and other factors. To conclude this bit, ideology plays no role in this scramble for pelf and familial aggrandizement.

Lest, we appear to be on the better side of naiveté, let us assure readers that is not the case. We are merely staking out the territory to approach a phenomenon that is completely distinct. When individuals change sides, it is usually caused by a relatively straightforward meeting of two kinds of desire: the individual’s desire for aggrandisement or pelf and the party’s desire to increase its political firepower.

Typically, however, the story changes when we move from the individual to the group. When groups of legislators change sides, the element of inducement becomes more prominent. That is, groups of legislators (or lower levels of party functionaries) change sides because they are aggressively pursued with offers of money and other inducements like ministerial office. We call this poaching. This phenomenon usually causes either the destabilization of lawfully elected governments or their creation.

On the scale of aggravated grand larceny, this happened in Bihar when Chief Minister Nitish Kumar led his party out of its alliance with the Rashtriya Janata Dal and others and allied with the BJP to form a new government. It was a betrayal of the ‘pre-poll’ mandate and was occasioned by the exchange of suitcases, not briefcases. The BJP had the deep pockets, the Janata Dal (United) the exceptionable cupidity to betray the mandate. Job done.

But the classic template of inducement-driven poaching can be found in Karnataka. A brief recap would help. In elections conducted last year, the BJP emerged as the single largest party, but before it could really orient itself, the Congress and Janata Dal (Secular) struck a deal to form a coalition government. The alliance still exists. On Wednesday, the two parties announced a seat-sharing deal. On the day the alliance was first announced, the BJP launched ‘Operation Lotus’, a polite name for the totally unscrupulous project that aimed at bribing legislators to shift sides to enable the BJP to form a government. That it didn’t happen is hardly an extenuating circumstance. In fact, on Wednesday, a BJP leader announced, proudly, that if it got 22 seats out of 28 in the Lok Sabha elections, it could form a government in 24 hours. Former BJP chief minister BS Yeddyurappa seems to be stuck in the 20s.

While defections undermine the basis of parliamentary democracy, poaching subverts it. In the past few years, the BJP has almost destroyed the foundations of parliamentary democracy through poaching. It has formed governments in Goa and the North-east by buying out, we use the phrase advisedly, smaller parties and splinter groups. Its swollen war chest makes that possible. Now with the elections impending, it is busy once again in the market. It is only to hoped that this bull run will end in a bear hug that will destroy the semi-legal corporation called the BJP.

After the fourth general elections led to the whittling of the Congress’s majority in the Lok Sabha and its unseating in nine states, a fractured polity saw a violent outburst of ‘defections’ that led to a disturbingly rhythmic fall of dispensations; one legislator changed parties thrice in the space of 24 hours. In 1968, an all-party committee was formed to report on the phenomenon of defections, used especially after 1970 by the ruling Congress (R) to gain advantages. It submitted a report but legislation failed to follow. It was only when Rajiv Gandhi became prime minister that an anti-defection act was passed.

With its legislative preponderance, the BJP has all but killed it in letter and spirit, aided, to be sure, by other parties. Voters should now object to having the mandate they deliver being stolen from under their feet. Unfortunately, for the present, they can only do so by delivering another vulnerable mandate. Yet, it would be a start if the BJP got no more than two seats in Karnataka.

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Updated Date: Mar 15, 2019 16:40:46 IST

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