The long, boring and predictable non-thriller in Karnataka is over. We can assume that similar coups will be staged in some other states on a periodic basis. Indeed, a handful of MLAs were already pocketed by the BJP in Goa recently, while an open claim has been made during the election campaign by the BJP president that Trinmool Congress MLAs will soon start deserting the party. In Maharashtra, almost every day, some prominent leaders from the Congress or NCP have been joining the BJP, and occasionally the Shiv Sena.
Therefore, rather than lamenting what happened in Karnataka, it is more useful to take into account the larger significance of such cross-party poaching. Two straightforward responses often dot media discussions on these developments. One is laced with moral indignation, a sense of resignation and exasperation. This constitutes a lament about honesty and integrity of party members combined with the frustration that the anti-defection law is so ineffective.
The other response, coming from pro-BJP observers and also from many independent observers, reminds us how this is only a repetition of what used to happen earlier during the heydays of Congress’ dominance. On the one hand, this response fits well with the current bout of whataboutery — “they did it earlier, why criticise the BJP now for doing the same”. This response knowingly or unknowingly attempts to exonerate any transgressions of democratic morality today in the name of similar transgressions in the past. This line of argument seldom realises that it denies any space for recovery. Instead, it situates democracy in a déjà vu of dead ends and impasses. For non-BJP observers, such a response implies the impossibility of critique. One cannot begin commenting on the present without going through an endless list of criticisms of the past.
But if we choose to move beyond cynical justifications and helpless lamentations, what can we learn from the developments in Karnataka, Goa, West Bengal or Maharashtra — and possibly everywhere? They tell us about the fragility of India’s parties and party system. Today, the BJP appears invincible, ascendant and almost hegemonic. But it still needs to demolish other parties, not through elections, but through the subterfuge of defections. It simply cannot rely on its “so-many-crores-strong” members and its ideological anchor for entrenching itself; it requires a steady import of all sorts of dubious characters and practitioners of the old regime in order to put itself in a position of strength. This peculiar predicament of the BJP draws attention to four lessons about party politics and party building in the Indian context.
In the first place, the current processes of in-flow and out-flow underline the weakness of the way parties are organised. Parties do talk about membership drives, but they often obfuscate intra-party democracy and intra-party competition. Tickets are bought, begged, stolen, but not distributed on any sound principles that would convince party workers to stay on with the party even when it denies them the ticket. Organisational hierarchies are marred by personality cults — but family is the basic organising principle at the local level for most parties. The looseness that marks the organisation and functioning of parties allows its elected representatives to function almost independently from the organisation.
In fact, electoral victories for many candidates are so individualistic that they can easily override the party in their legislative performance and choices. Only when parties are tightly controlled by a leader does some of this looseness appear to be reined in. But in exchange, proximity with the supreme leader trumps principles of party organisation. So, the result is the same — an anarchic, individualistic, unregulated and meaningless manner in which party organisations function.
Two, there is no mechanism to broker ambitions of party workers at any level of the party hierarchy. Because the rise to power within the party is unreasonably individualistic or based on transparent cronyism, when different workers at the same level aspire for something, the party does not have pluralistic, consensual and/or formal democratic mechanisms to address intra-party competition. Vulgar money, closeness to the leadership, recourse to community identity, and increasingly, show of muscle power, operate in situations of intra-party competition.
Characteristically, power positions within the party remain stagnant because there is rarely any routine way for incumbents to exit. Young workers seek other avenues because they are not accommodated; but at the same time, the old guard also migrates to other parties if they are sought to be replaced. The absence of intra-party rules and mechanisms about holding different positions results in party-hopping whenever ambition is circumscribed either by intra-party competition or by fluctuations of party fortunes.
Three, what does this tell us about the link between the party and the voters? When a representative changes party — as in Goa, Karnataka or West Bengal recently — is s/he carrying along the voters to the new party? Both in 2014 and 2019, the National Election Study (conducted by Lokniti) has shown that around 31 per cent voters vote for the candidate rather than the party. But larger numbers say that they vote for the party. Changing a party is clearly a treachery to voters. But it is also true that over and above this more general finding, many representatives get elected on their own “merit” — further weakening the party. All parties need to take notice of this worrying tendency because the party is becoming irrelevant as a vehicle of one’s ambition and electoral success.
Finally, indiscriminate party-hopping, what once came to be known as the “aya ram, gaya ram” trend, obviously happens in a milieu of non-ideological parties and politics. It is therefore ironical that in times of the ascendance of a party that actually gets involved in controversies over its ideological inclination, a free movement of present and past representatives is gaining currency. While one may blame this on the non-ideological nature of non-BJP parties, this also suggests that despite its ideological vehemence, the BJP too adopts a non-ideological path to power.
This alerts us to the larger lesson: Politics is supposed to be a route that links personal aggrandisement and a faint sense of public good. In contrast, the BJP’s open door policy and its new entrants’ penchant for personal aggrandisement suggest that even the faint whiff of public good is losing its relevance. More than the individual entrants, the party that embraces them needs to be blamed — not for the moral scandal this involves but the deeper democratic malaise it tends to exacerbate.
This article first appeared in the print edition on July 31, 2019 under the title ‘A case of migrating MLAs’. The writer taught politics and is currently chief editor of Studies in Indian Politics and co-director of Lokniti.