The only homage paid to virtue, Lord Byron once said, is hypocrisy. The Indian political class has internalised this in letter and in spirit. Every party has a stance on defection and the stand depends on where they sit. The spectacle of resort politics witnessed in Karnataka is but one manifestation of collective hypocrisy. Ideology is less a political conviction and more a matter of convenience.
Popular perception pins the phenomenon of Aaya Ram Gaya Ram politics on Gaya Lal of Haryana. In 1967, Lal quit the Congress, won Hassanpur as an independent by a margin of 360 votes, joined the United Front, rejoined the Congress and went back to the United Front—all in a matter of days. Defections were in vogue long before G Lal came to symbolise it.
The birth of free-market politics predates economic liberalisation by four decades. With the Avadi Resolution of 1955, the Congress party adopted the socialistic pattern for national economic development, but it relied on laissez-faire to expand political market share. In a study on The Politics of Defection, a former secretary general of the Lok Sabha pointed out that there were 542 defections between 1957 and 1967, of which the Congress netted 419 gains.
The votaries of state-led industrialisation were also the pioneers of capitalistic politics. Congress strongman Yashwant Rao Chavan, who popularised the phraseology of Aaya Ram Gaya Ram, is said to have wooed to the party’s fold members of parties representing peasants and workers as also communists. The Chavan brand of inducing defections was known as “berij rajkaran”, which literally means “addition politics”.
The now-very-fashionable resort politics was born, unsurprisingly, in Haryana. In 1982, the Congress could win only 36 of the 90 seats. Devi Lal’s Lok Dal and its ally the BJP won 31 and six seats, respectively. The alliance cobbled together a tally of 45 to stake the claim. Fearing the worst, Devi Lal bundled the MLAs to a swish hotel in Parwanoo in neighbouring Himachal Pradesh. The task of preventing defection by defectors was with Lachhman Singh, an independent MLA from Kalka who had won by a margin of 7,538 votes. Come the big day, Bhajan Lal ensured that Lachhman Singh disappeared, leaving Devi Lal short of a majority and Bhajan Lal in the CM’s seat.
The defection industry thrived through the eighties and nineties under different models of profit—barter support for post or transfer of ‘resources’, and often both. R Gundu Rao engineered a majority in Karnataka with motivated political migrants in 1983. Ousted by Ramakrishna Hegde, they threatened defections to topple him, and in Andhra Pradesh, the Congress engineered an unconstitutional coup against N T Rama Rao.
Eventually, public outrage over Aaya Ram Gaya Ram politics resulted in the passage of the Constitution (Fifty-second Amendment) Bill, 1985 barring defections. The object and reasons read, “The evil of political defections” unless combated, could “undermine the very foundations of our democracy”. It stipulated that any member of an elected house could be disqualified on relinquishing membership, abstaining from voting or voting against party direction. Splits and mergers were exempted.
The ‘evil’ persisted as the political class found ways around legalities—while individual defections were barred, the law allowed bulk defections under exemptions for a one-third split in a party and merger clauses. The exemptions enabled the continuation of the Kalyan Singh regime in Uttar Pradesh with the help of 12 defectors, and the coming to power of the BJP in Goa under Manohar Parrikar.
In April 2003, following the recommendation of the Committee on Electoral Reforms and the National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution, the split option was rendered null and void through an amendment in the Tenth Schedule by Constitution (Ninety-first Amendment) Act, 2003.
It did not take too long for parties to innovate. The 2008 victory of the UPA aided by cross-voting by 24 MPs in the nuclear trust vote is a case in point—the threat of disqualification didn’t matter as elections were barely nine months away. The new nuke option is resign, recontest under a refinance model on a new symbol, and reign. There is also the cushion that while the decision of the Speaker can be challenged, it requires the Speaker to decide—and there is no time limit for the decision.
The series of episodes of guided resort tourism organised by political parties in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and elsewhere has triggered outrage. Some want stricter laws and others want the law to be dumped. Ideally, barring constitutional and money bills, the rule of the whip on voting must go, the liberty of the elected representatives to represent the views of those who elected them must prevail. Flanking this is a need to put a time limit for a decision by the speaker and a time bar on those who defect from contesting again.
Chances of reforms to stem the rot, though, are slim. The stakes involved in preserving power are way too high whereas there is little or no cost attached to organised hypocrisy. After all, turncoats and defectors have no difficulty getting re-elected by outraged voters?
Author of Aadhaar: A Biometric History of India’s 12 Digit Revolution, and Accidental India