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Fomenting Factionalism


Defectors are back in favor, and the effort by political parties is to foment factionalism and get them to switch over in numbers large enough to beat the anti-defection law. That they do not succeed always goes to prove that the anti-defection law is holding, but only just. This besides, parties at the receiving end do a lot of hard maneuvering to hold their flock together; higher courts are also getting stricter in applying the tenth schedule which contains the anti-defection law, as well as in monitoring trials of strength on the floor of legislature. The Karnataka bypoll results for 15 seats declared lately are remarkable for the fact that as many as 11 of 13 turncoats who switched over from Congress or JD(S) to the BJP managed to win.

Not only did the ruling BJP gamble by fielding them, the electorate too chose to repose their faith in them despite change of political color. Does this mean some political leaders are getting bigger than the parties to which they happen to owe allegiance (for the time being)? While the jury is out on this question, it would do well to remember how the BS Yedyurappa-led BJP government in Karnataka has now secured a majority after the Congress-JD(S) regime fell apart in July this year. These two parties had cobbled together a government to keep out the BJP which had emerged the largest party in the assembly elections last year; the country was then treated to the sorry spectacle of second-placed Congress and third-placed JD(S) shifting their newly elected legislators to resorts outside the state, so as to prevent the BJP from poaching on them. After the Speaker disqualified 17 rebel Congress and JD(S) MLAs in July this year under anti-defection law, the assembly strength came down from 225 to 208, helping Yeddyurappa with his 104 MLAs to form the government; subsequently, these disqualified legislators were allowed by the Supreme Court to contest the bypolls.

The 12 seats now won in the bypoll to 15 seats means that it took Karnataka nearly one-and-half year to be rid of the uncertainty of a hung assembly and horse-trading slur. In Maharashtra this year, the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance unraveled over who would be chief-minister; after another BJP misadventure to form a government without the numbers, the Sena-NCP-Congress post-poll alliance under Uddhav Thackeray has taken over reins. There have been misgivings about the ethics of a pre-poll alliance — involving vote transfer from the supporters of other party/parties in the alliance to the party getting to contest a seat — turning into a different post-poll alliance in which rival parties may join hands. While this is seen by some as betrayal of public mandate, it has long been the norm in countries with fractious politics like Italy where strange political bedfellows may come together. As of now, the Sena-NCP-Congress combine as the Maha Vikas Aghadi is promising to implement a common minimum programme including complete loan waiver to farmers, one-rupee medical clinics and 80 percent reservation of jobs for local youths. But it remains to be seen whether these three parties succeed in putting up a united front at the Centre and in Parliament over national issues, particularly issues that can have ‘repercussions/consequences on the secular fabric of the nation’ as promised in the preamble of their common programme.

If they fail, a fiasco like in Karnataka may well come about in not-too-distant future, handing back the advantage to BJP. After all — in realpolitik — the party in power always seeks to create the impression in other parties that it will eventually form the government, sooner or later, come what may. In July this year, politics in Goa heated up after 10 Congress MLAs, constituting two-third of the 15 Congress MLAs in the House, switched over to the BJP; their resignations from the Congress were promptly accepted by the Speaker. This raises the question about loopholes in the anti-defection law. The focus is no longer on the lone legislator or a few of them inviting disqualification due to quitting their party or voluntarily giving up its membership (which can also be inferred from acts like voting against party whip). Thanks to another amendment in 2003, it is no longer enough for just one-third of legislators to split away from the party to form a separate group — to escape disqualification, two-third of legislators must merge with another party. This is the point where the role of the Speaker has come under scanner, creating misgivings about partisan conduct and misuse of constitutionally derived power. No wonder, there is intense jockeying by parties over the appointment of a pro-tem Speaker before floor test. And to get two-third of legislators of a party to rebel (as the BJP erroneously thought Ajit Pawar did against his uncle and NCP supremo Sharad Pawar in Maharashtra), the obvious way to do so is to incite factionalism in the rival party. Obviously, the time is nigh for a re-look at the anti-defection law, because flagrant mockery of democratic norms is becoming the new normal.