Legislators who change party affiliations must seek re-election

Amrith Lal
Whatever be the reason, the legislator is duty-bound to explain his defection to the electorate; the first step towards that is to quit the seat. (PTI Photo)

The recent defections of Congress legislators in Goa and Telangana to the BJP and the TRS respectively and four TDP MPs in the Rajya Sabha joining the BJP seem to pass the anti-defection law test. In all the three cases, the rebels had the required numbers two-third members of the legislature party to escape disqualification. One of the MLAs who joined the BJP in Goa had been elected on a Congress ticket defeating the BJP nominee only two months earlier. It s not been even a year since elections were held in Telangana and almost all the defectors had defeated TRS candidates. It takes an instrumentalist reading of the law to justify these defections as a normal political activity. The fact is these are a violation of political and constitutional morality.

Parliamentary politics in India revolves around political parties in the main. Candidates in an electoral contest are seen as representatives of political parties, and not as autonomous agents with a voice distinct from the party they represent. The primary identity of a candidate is political, which is derived from the history and ideology of the party that has fielded him. For the voters, the candidate is the voice of the party. The party symbol, election manifesto, etc. embellish his claims to represent a party and an ideology. The candidate seeks endorsement from the electorate on behalf of the party, and also for the party. There may be times when a leader becomes the face of the party and votes are sought in his name, as in the 2019 general election.

This being the case, a defection of a legislator is a betrayal of the mandate; it is a breach of the trust forged through the election process. A legislator is well within his rights to change party; in fact, he must if he loses trust in his parent party or finds another ideology more attractive. But any shift in political affiliation would mean the right to represent the mandate is lost. Political morality demands that he resign his seat and seek re-election. For instance, when V P Singh fell out with the Congress under Rajiv Gandhi, he resigned his Lok Sabha seat and sought re-election. Ramakrishna Hegde resigned as chief minister of Karnataka when the Janata Party was wiped out in the 1984 Lok Sabha election though he was under no compulsion to do so on the ground that he has lost the moral authority to head the government. Singh won the Allahabad bypoll and Karnataka voted Janata and Hegde back to office in the following assembly election. In 2012, R Selvaraj, a CPM MLA in Kerala who defected to the Congress, resigned his seat and sought a fresh mandate from the new platform.

The defections in Goa and Telangana have been blamed on the Congress leadership s failure to shield its flock presumably by offering cash, office or other incentives. The defectors also take cover behind hollow terms such as development and governance to explain their political shift. Whatever be the reason, the legislator is duty-bound to explain his defection to the electorate; the first step towards that is to quit the seat.

Is this likely to happen if a defector is not censured by the electorate? The changes in political economy have transformed political parties as well as the political process. The influx of big money into elections has turned electoral contests into an expensive, lopsided affair. Political parties have long ceased to be about beliefs and have become platforms that dispense patronage. In some of the southern states, candidatures have become a privilege of the very rich, who court political parties as a means to to keep the law away and use the privileges the association confers to further business interests. The patron-client relationship that gets established between the party leadership and legislators is thus mutually beneficial it ensures funds for the party, which, in return, provides protection and privileges for the affiliate.

Occasionally, this system is challenged by the people. Radical left-wing uprisings, the J P Movement, V P Singh s Jan Morcha, the anti-corruption movement led by Anna Hazare, etc. were expressions of public anger with the corruption of parliamentary democracy. The phenomena of New Social Movements, which mobilised people on issues such as land, livelihood, ecological concerns, too owes it existence to the people s disillusionment with electoral politics. All these took a toll on the Congress, which was instrumental in the degeneration of parliamentary democracy. It may be the turn of the BJP soon.

This article first appeared in the print edition on July 19, 2019 under the title ‘Dishonouring the mandate’. Write to the author at amrith.lal@expressindia.com.