By NAGESHWAR PATNAIK in Bhubaneswar, May 19, 2024: Party-switching among leaders is a common practice in India, particularly during election seasons. In the 2024 general election, “Aya Ram, Gaya Ram” (he comes, he goes) has vitiated the political atmosphere like never before. This year has witnessed an exodus of leaders from their respective parties citing multiple reasons, including negligence by party leaders, difference in vision or ideology, and future gains, among others.

Defection in politics can be traced back to Independence when India started to choose its leaders for the first time in 1951, during the first general elections. From the first to the fourth general elections, 542 MLAs shifted their political loyalty for political benefits. The situation worsened in 1967 when Congress leader Gaya Lal changed his party from Congress to Janata Dal and back to Congress only in a time span of 24 hours. Out of approximately 542 instances of party-hopping that occurred over a two-decade period between the first and fourth general elections, at least 438 defections were recorded within a year. Among independent candidates, 157 out of 376 elected representatives joined various parties during this period.

The trend continues unabated. Even before the official commencement of the Lok Sabha elections in 2024, a series of party crossovers had begun. Earlier this month, Arvinder Singh Lovely, who had recently resigned from his position as the Delhi president of the Congress, swiftly joined the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Lovely justified his defection as the Congress had an electoral alliance with the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in Delhi. He also disapproved the inclusion of ‘outsider’ candidates fielded by the Congress in the capital. The Congress candidate list includes former BJP MP Udit Raj and former Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) student leader Kanhaiya Kumar. It’s worth mentioning that Lovely had previously contested against the BJP’s Gautam Gambhir in 2019, losing by over 3.9 lakh votes in the East Delhi constituency.

Paradoxically, the ruling BJP tops in the list of parties in embracing highest number of defectors since it came to power at the centre. Almost a quarter of the BJP’s candidates, 106 out of 435, are individuals who have joined the saffron party in the last decade. Around 90 of these candidates have switched over to the ruling party in the past five years, according to a news report. It also highlighted that the largest number of defectors, at least 37, came from the Congress, followed by nine from Bharat Rashtra Samiti, eight from Bahujan Samajwadi Party, seven from Trinamool Congress, and six from Biju Janata Dal (BJD). Besides, there are 6 defectors each from NCP, SP, and AIADMK, according to the report.

Notable figures from the Congress who have switched sides include Jyotiraditya Scindia and Jitin Prasada, both of whom were close to the party’s leadership. Scindia is slated to contest from his traditional stronghold of Guna, while Prasada has replaced Varun Gandhi in Pilibhit, Uttar Pradesh. Interestingly, as many as 23 prominent opposition politicians who crossed over to the BJP have got reprieve from federal agencies investigating corruption cases against them.

Then there are cases that are still open but put in the ‘cold storage’, i.e. without any progress in investigation. Since 2019, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) is awaiting sanctions from the Lok Sabha Speaker to prosecute West Bengal’s Leader of Opposition, Suvendu Adhikari, who was a Trinamool Congress (TMC) MP when the Narada sting operation scandal broke out. Adhikari joined the BJP in 2020.

Politics in India have revolved around partisan zeal with a focus on personal advancement. After long years of legislative meanderings, Parliament enacted the anti-defection law (10th Schedule) in 1985 to curb political defection. Defections not only caused the frequent fall of governments but also caused great instability in political parties with power-seeking politicians wreaking havoc on political parties. The Supreme Court of India in its first comprehensive judgment in the Kihoto Hollohan case characterised it as a political evil and upheld the right of Parliament to curb this evil through legislative mechanism.

However, the main objective of inserting the Tenth Schedule in the Indian Constitution—to prevent the high-jacking of people’s mandate through the sale and purchase of elected representatives—remains unfulfilled. A Manipur MLA Okram Henry, who was elected on a Congress platform in 2017, was appointed to the BJP cabinet as a minister. The defection procedures against the MLA were postponed by the speaker for more than three years. The Supreme Court’s intervention led to the MLA’s disqualification. The court advised that defection cases be decided by speakers within three months.

The third paragraph of the Tenth Schedule which effectively permitted a comprehensive defection of one-third of elected members of a party while curbing individual defections was replaced by The Constitution (Ninety-First Amendment) Act, 2003. However, Paragraph (4) which validates mergers (where two-thirds of the members of a legislative party have consented) remains in effect as a tool of misuse as was seen in Eknath Shinde’s faction of 40 Shiv Sena MLAs defection. Paragraph (6) confers the task of resolution of an electoral dispute upon the Chairman or the Speaker of the House. There is an alarming trend of the Speaker acting against the Constitutional duty of being neutral. Since Speakers are nominees of political parties, their independence, fairness, and impartiality will always be doubted.

Political defections wither the very roots of democracy in India. The anti-defection law has seriously harmed constitutional offices, silenced the voices of our elected officials, and denigrated democracy. For the last four decades, the anti-defection statute has been unable to guarantee stable administrations. It is high time that the existing anti-defection law must be reviewed or scrapped and a new full-proof law must be brought in to check the menace of defections in the country.

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