The turncoat’s day

The General Elections, slated to begin shortly, have begun to resemble a roadside circus, if not theatre of the absurd. Ignoring pressing problems facing the country like poverty, unemployment, inflation and climate change, politicians incessantly talk of issues long buried in history, and worse still, caste, creed and religion.

The turncoat’s day

Representation image

The General Elections, slated to begin shortly, have begun to resemble a roadside circus, if not theatre of the absurd. Ignoring pressing problems facing the country like poverty, unemployment, inflation and climate change, politicians incessantly talk of issues long buried in history, and worse still, caste, creed and religion. Another disturbing trend is that despite periodic elections, the same individuals remain in power all the time, though representing different parties at different times.

For example, many Union and State ministers and even Chief Ministers of a number of States, including West Bengal and Assam, started their career as representatives of one party but now espouse the ideology of another one ~ which is sometimes diametrically opposite. There is also the time-tested washing machine formula, much in vogue now, where politicians in the cross-hairs of investigation agencies, join the ruling party and soon emerge whitewashed and blameless.

With investigating agencies in full flow, not surprisingly, this stratagem has netted a largish number of turncoats; according to headlines of a leading daily, since 2014, 25 opposition leaders joined the ruling party, 0f which 23 got reprieve. It is sad to see that persons who had a tradition of association with one party through generations, and had enjoyed concomitant benefits for long, felt no qualms in deserting ship and denouncing the ideology of their erstwhile party.


Presently, as many turncoats represent us in Parliament, a disconcerting question confronts us, viz. “Are most Indians disloyal and mercenary, who would not hesitate to renounce their beliefs and ideals, for the sake of pelf and power?” Thankfully, statistics disprove this hypothesis; in the outgoing Lok Sabha, 233 MPs (43 per cent) faced criminal charges, and 83 per cent of Lok Sabha MPs were crorepatis, while the overwhelming majority of us Indians are law-abiding citizens, with limited resources.

Also, Indians are known worldwide for being industrious people, but despite their handsome perks and privileges, our Parliamentarians sit for hardly 60 days in a year. State legislatures have a worse record, working for 30 to 40 days, on average. Notably, the British Parliament is in session for more than 120 days annually, and the US Congress clocks more than 100 days each year. Slowly, political parties have ended up resembling the corporates which fund them, in structure and rapacity, while politicians are more and more like business executives, who cherish monetary incentives, and join new companies for better prospects.

Such developments were not foreseen by our founding fathers, who thought that politicians of the future would be as principled, as they themselves were. This was not to be ~ after single party dominance ended in the early 1960s, defections became rampant; according to estimates almost 50 per cent of the 4,000 MLAs and MPs elected in the 1967 and 1971 elections subsequently defected, leading to political turmoil in most States of the country. Defectors are sometimes called Aya Ram Gaya Rams, in honour of one Gaya Lal, an independent Haryana MLA of 1967 vintage, who first joined the Congress, and thereafter changed parties thrice in a fortnight.

First by defecting from the Congress to the United Front, then back to Congress, again defecting, within nine hours, to the United Front. When Gaya Lal finally defected from the United Front to the Congress, Congress leaders declared “Gaya Ram is now Aya Ram.” Some consummate weathervanes like the late Ram Vilas Paswan, managed to bag a ministerial post in every dispensation. However, in similar circumstances, Mr Paswan’s son, Chirag Paswan, failed to emulate his father, showing that being a successful defector is an art that takes long in learning.

As an interesting footnote, Chirag Paswan is again being wooed by a national party, raising hopes of his future success. The most famous defector of the twentieth century was Winston Churchill, who switched parties three times in his political career; from the Conservatives to the Liberals in 1904, from the Liberals to being an independent in 1922, and back to the Conservatives in 1924. Though, ideological concerns were also behind Churchill’s party-hopping, the predominant reason for changing parties was his massive ego, and his hankering for the top job. Creditably, the British Parliament has had less than ten defectors in the last century. During the tenure of the Fifth Lok Sabha, Parliament formed the Chavan committee, to suggest ways and means to stem defections. The anti-defection legislation proposed by the Chavan Committee, was referred to a Joint Select Committee (JSC).

The Bill lapsed because the JSC did not submit its recommendations within the currency of the Fifth Lok Sabha. Three years later, in 1979, defection of 76 MPs led to the fall of the Janata Government. It fell upon Rajiv Gandhi to amend the Constitution and place anti-defection provisions in the Tenth Schedule of the Constitution, but the law failed to stop the defection of Chandrashekhar and 61 of his followers from the Janata Dal, in 1990. Though the Speaker disqualified eight MPs, Chandrashekhar, went on to become Prime Minister, and defectors became ministers, who were relieved of their offices only after a public outcry. Antidefection provisions were made more stringent by the 91st Amendment to the Constitution in 2003, yet defections continue even today.

Post-2014, the BJP, with a desire to acquire an all-India footprint expeditiously, encouraged defections, which have ballooned, aided by the dwindling fortunes of the Congress, that has made many of its stalwarts jump ship. This trend was adopted by regional parties who were trying to grow into national-level parties, by occupying the space vacated by the Congress. Defectors are encouraged by the fact that few defectors ever got their just desserts ~ aided as they were by sharp lawyers, partisan Governors and Speakers, a somnolent judiciary and an absence of public disapproval.

Also, no stigma attaches to defectors in the public mind, because most turncoats who resigned from the Gujarat, MP and Karnataka Assemblies were reelected by their constituents. The fate of defectors from the Himachal Assembly in 2024 is yet to be decided by voters, but if a money trail is detected, following the Sita Soren judgement, law enforcement agencies may come after them.

Defectors contend that anti-defection laws stifle their right to free speech, glossing over the fact that they are not individuals with a free will, but representatives of an electorate that voted for them on the basis of their assurances ~ including that of party affiliation. Seen in this perspective, defection is an act of betrayal of the people’s trust. Governors have encouraged defections; after State elections in Goa (2017), Manipur (2017) and Meghalaya (2018) the Congress emerged as the largest party, yet, ignoring the recommendations of the Sarkaria Commission which mandated that the largest party be called first to form the Government, the BJP was called to form the Government, which it managed through defections. Sikkim presents an interesting case study.

BJP did not win a single seat in the 2019 State Elections and got only 1.6 per cent of the overall vote, yet with the aid of defectors, BJP now has emerged as the main opposition party. The CM of Sikkim is a person convicted under the Prevention of Corruption Act and hence not eligible to hold a ministerial post. An unprecedented situation emerged in Nagaland where all MLAs have come together to have a Legislative Assembly without any Opposition member ~ a situation beyond the comprehension of constitutional experts.

Recently, the Maharashtra Speaker, after multiple nudges from the Supreme Court, decided the disqualification petition of MLAs, in a way that appears to contradict some key conclusions of the Supreme Court. Briefly put, anti-defection legislation has failed to achieve its purpose because of the rapacity of legislators, and the hunger for power of political parties. As things stand, Speakers, who are interested persons belonging to the ruling party, keep disqualification petitions pending, till some Court directs them to expedite their decision.

Courts, in turn, do not take up disqualification petitions till the life of the Assembly gets over, dismissing such pending petitions as ‘infructuous.’ Perhaps, anti-defection laws can be made more effective by constituting a Tribunal to decide upon disqualification of legislators. Additionally, timelines can be prescribed for various authorities to decide disqualification petitions. In the ultimate analysis, defection is a political and moral problem that cannot be solved by purely legal means. Defections will continue to take place, till we have legislators who are of sterling character, and electorates that do not tolerate defectors.

(The writer is a retired Principal Chief Commissioner of Income-Tax)