July 12, 2022
Aaya Ram, Gaya Ram, the phrase that came to be identified with political defections, or as it is more appropriately expressed in Hindi, Dal badlu, originated from a real-life incident. A Congress MLA in Haryana, Gaya Lal, switched political affiliations thrice in 15 days, the last two in a span of nine hours. Initially, he switched from the Congress to the Janata Dal, then again to the Congress and then in a few hours crossed the floor of the Assembly to the Janata Dal once again. Congress leader Rao Birendra Singh referred to Gaya Lal at a press conference in Chandigarh as “Aaya Ram, Gaya Ram”. The phrase stuck and became descriptive of a reprehensible and immoral political act.
Initially, it was tossed around as a joke but today democracy itself has been reduced to one, the electoral process a farce of no consequence. This is a terminal ailment afflicting our democracy and could well bring about its demise.
Since 2014, and especially post-2019, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has emerged as the master of toppling popular governments, engineering splits and defections. Agencies like the Enforcement Directorate, Income-Tax Department and the Anti-Corruption Bureau are deployed to intimidate and coerce elected representatives and their allegiance is being bought. Puducherry, Karnataka, Manipur, Goa, Arunachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and most recently Maharashtra have all been victims of the BJP’s machinations. In Sikkim, the BJP lost all the seats it contested in the 2019 Assembly elections, most of its candidates losing their deposits, but today it miraculously has 12 MLAs. It ‘weaned’ away 11 from the Sikkim Democratic Front, leaving it with only one MLA, former Chief Minister Pawan Chamling. Why bother with elections?
Defections aren’t new. Between 1967 and 1971, almost 50% of the 4,000 people’s representatives in national and state legislatures defected. It cannot be called ‘switching loyalty’ because there was no loyalty.
The trend of engineering defections and splitting parties led to parties with initials attached to their names, indicating the splits and in many cases the ‘leaders’ of the breakout. The mother of all Indian political parties, the Indian National Congress, was the first to attach an initial to the name, becoming the Congress (O) – the old party – while the Congress (R) was the ruling group. Over time, the old group shrunk, many stalwarts passing away, many quietly switching sides or joining other parties. Then, post the Emergency, the Congress (R) split and the Congress (I) emerged as the dominant group. Then the age of Aaya Ram, Gaya Ram dawned, especially after the Janata Party experiment failed. Maharashtra witnessed a historic split when Sharad Pawar grabbed power.
It reached such a state that elections became almost redundant. Governments were toppled by engineering splits in the ruling party and MLAs crossing the floor or voting against their own government with impunity. This disturbing trend led to much anxiety and a view began to emerge that a law to prevent such defections was needed.
During the term of the Fourth Lok Sabha, in 1967, a committee was formed under the leadership of Maharashtra’s Yashwantrao Chavan. Its recommendations led to the first Anti-Defection Bill tabled in Parliament. Indira Gandhi referred the Bill to a joint select committee, where it languished.
In 1979, the Janata Party government led by Morarji Desai lost its majority in Parliament. Indira Gandhi returned to power and her second innings was a period of splits and defections and the toppling of non-Congress governments. This period came to be known as the ‘Gold Rush’, with elected representatives chasing money turning into commodities.
The law that didn’t work
Civil society passionately debated the need for an anti-defection law but it remained a debate for intellectuals and political experts. Finally, after securing an absolute majority in 1984, Rajiv Gandhi introduced the Anti-Defection Bill in Parliament and after extensive debates both Houses passed it in January 1985. It was approved by the President on February 15, 1985, and came into effect on March 18 that year.
Although India convinced itself that it had protected its democracy from the epidemic of defections by vaccinating the democratic system, the vaccine failed. The law was inadequate. Politicians and Constitutional experts found loopholes and the law has been challenged as being contrary to the principles enshrined in our Constitution. Thus, a half-baked law has been reduced to a mockery.
Recent events in our democracy illustrate this weakness. I have given examples of it. I will be criticised for listing regimes toppled and the subverting of the people’s mandate by the BJP, but I have also acknowledged the Indira Gandhi era as the age of Indian democracy being corrupted – although the blatant subversion of our electoral democracy by the BJP in recent times makes the Indira age fade into insignificance.
The most current example, the blooming of the BJP lotus in Maharashtra, is one of the most shameful episodes. Bhakts will argue that the Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi (MVA) coalition was opportunistic and negated the people’s verdict in the last election. But the electorate of Maharashtra denied a clear mandate to all parties, and there was a fallout between the BJP and the Shiv Sena, which fought the election together. The MVA did not result from a defection or a split. Despite apprehensions, the MVA lasted for half the term, managing the state efficiently and admirably through the COVID-19 crisis. Then the BJP engineered a split in the Sena.
The time has come to scrap the Anti-Defection Law; it has proven to be useless. We must instead overhaul the election process altogether. We must adopt the South African model in which political parties, not individuals, contest elections. The party that wins the constituency nominates its member/s, up to three, to represent the seat in turns or as the need arises. The seat remains the party’s for the duration of the term. If a member disagrees with the party, she/he can resign and the next in line takes over. But, for the duration of the term, the seat remains with the party.
The electorate must have a vote of no confidence too. This, way political parties will become more responsive to the electorate and less hostage to its elected members. Defections will end and Indian democracy will become healthier.
During the recent regime change drama in Maharashtra, one phrase used by a rebel MLA became very popular: “Kaay te dongar, kaay te Jhaadi, kaay te hotel.” The rebel was praising the scenic beauty of Assam and the luxurious hospitality provided by their benefactors, but it also reflects the lack of morality of the elected lot of today. To them, nothing matters except for their greed and avarice.
Thank God Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj’s Mavlas could not be bought off the way today’s elected representatives are.
Tushar Gandhi, great grandson of the Mahatma, is an activist, author and president of the Mahatma Gandhi Foundation. Reach him here: firstname.lastname@example.org.