Apart from the hullabaloo over Sheena Borah murder case and elections in Assam, one important trend that needs to be pondered upon at the present time is the growing number of cases of defection in Indian politics and Assam politics specifically. Of late, there has been a wave of many prominent members joining Bharatiya Janata Party in Assam which is helping it to gain grounds in Assam politics which hitherto witnessed the hegemony of Congress for 14 long years. Indian political system had seen such instances many a times. During 1967-71 there were 142 defections in Parliament and 1969 defections in State Assemblies across the country. Thirty-two governments collapsed and 212 defectors were rewarded with ministerial positions. The epic incident in this regard was that of Haryana legislator, Gaya Lal, who defected thrice within a fortnight. The phrase ‘Aya Ram’ and ‘Gaya Ram’ which is used to describe the phenomenon of defection in Indian politics, owe inspiration to him. When such scenario is experienced, the questions that come into mind are that what can be the various possible reasons for these politicians which made them change their loyalty and what can be deciphered from these instances of defection as far as Indian polity is concerned.
Changing loyalties have been a pre-dominant phenomenon not only in Indian politics but also in other countries. One of the prominent cases of defection outside India is that of Ramsay Mc Donald. He defected from his party on account of disagreement on policy responses to the economic crisis. However he didn’t resign his seat because of this. Defections happened in Australia and US too. But these countries don’t have an assigned law for anti-defection whereas countries like Bangladesh, Kenya, Singapore, South Africa and India has anti-defection laws.
In this context, one needs to look at the Anti-Defection law in India. The anti-defection law (52nd Amendment, 10th Schedule) was included in the Constitution in 1985 by the Rajiv Gandhi ministry and sets the provisions for disqualification of elected members on the grounds of defection to another political party. The grounds for disqualification are a) If an elected member voluntarily gives up his membership of a political party; b) If he votes or abstains from voting in such House contrary to any direction issued by his political party or anyone authorised to do so, without obtaining prior permission. However, there are certain exceptions also and 91st amendment stated that a person shall not be disqualified if his original political party merges with another and if he and other members do not accept the merger and opts to function as a separate group. As far as disqualifications under anti-defection law are concerned, till 2009, 88 such cases have been complained out of which 26 have been disqualified in the Parliament. In the states, till 2004 there had been 268 complaints registered and 113 have been disqualified.
The anti-defection law comes up with various pros and cons. Though it has the advantage of providing stability to governments and ensuring loyalty to party manifestos, it reduces the accountability of the government to Parliament and curbs dissent against party policies. Many also say that freedom of speech and expression is curtailed by the tenth schedule. But the Supreme Court in Kihota Hollohon vs. Zachilhu and Others stated that it does not violate any right or freedom under Articles 105 and 194 of the Constitution. The same judgment also maintained that decisions of disqualifications shall be open to judicial review. However with the growing cases of defection in India how functional is the law against defection is questionable.
The anti-defection law, according to some scholars, might lead to suppression of healthy intra-party debate and dissent. There might be some genuine cases where defection becomes the last resort specially when politicians get weary of the dictates of ‘party whip’ or when they have serious reservation toward any decision of the party. But such cases are very miniscule in number. And a close analysis of cases of defection hints mostly at political opportunism.
Politics of defection has given rise to unpredictable alliances. Any notion of political ideology is relegated to the background in politics and defection from one party to another adhering to a completely opposite ideology is a reflection of the same. The main aim of most of the politicians has been narrowed down to contesting elections and get into positions of power. Political opportunism in most cases has become the order of the day and this can be said from the fact that defection exacerbates when elections are close at hand and politicians shift their loyalty towards the dominant party. General elections are regarded as the best and suitable time for political defection and political fraction. This trend is reflected in Assam politics too. The trend in the present time in Assam politics is a shift to BJP whereas at the time when Congress was dominant the shift was towards it. However, it must be kept in mind there are some politicians among the lot who had some genuine reasons of leaving one’s party. But defection of some can be questioned. Amidst such instances defection and the laws associated with it needs some serious consideration. Nevertheless, one can ponder over as to how these defections effect politics in the present time and politics of Assam specifically as elections are nearing. It will be interesting to see whether BJP which hitherto was not that dominant in Assam can gain some prominence in the elections and if it does this shifting loyalty has a major role to play.
It is also important to know how common people perceive this phenomenon. But the pertinent fact to note that how many of us (voters) take into the account the factor of ideology while voting. It has become very difficult to predict voters’ behaviour in the present time. They also shift their loyalty at the drop of the hat. In a nutshell, it can be said that loyalty to a particular ideology and a particular party both from the point of view of voters and politicians themselves has become an unexpected factor.
The author is a doctoral candidate at the Centre for Political Studies, JNU.
She has done her Masters and M. Phil from the same institution and her graduation from Lady Shri Ram College, Delhi University.
Her areas of interests include – media studies, citizenship, social movement, gender studies.