The new ‘normal’ of political splits and shifts

‘The current phase is bizarre when compared to the past because dominant parties appear to be actively encouraging splits and shifts and having no respect for the basic rules of the game’

K.K. Kailash

Political parties sometimes break up like marriages, and like remarriages, individual legislators switch parties. In both cases, the consequences can be severe. When individual legislators or a group decide to leave a party, form another party, or join another party, it could have repercussions in terms of government formation, maintenance, and termination. In Maharashtra, recently, and in Madhya Pradesh, a while ago, splits in the ruling party and a subsequent realignment of legislators inaugurated new governments.

Distinct waves

Splits and switches are commonplace in legislatures across the globe, and India has witnessed at least three distinct waves. The first wave occurred towards the latter half of the 1960s when challengers to the Congress attempted to displace it in the States. There was literally great shoving and pushing and a quick turnover of governments due to the free movement of legislators across political parties. The next phase was inaugurated with an attempt to end the free movement and regulate the behavior of legislators through the anti-defection law. While the law discouraged individual movement, it incentivized a collective movement of legislators since it laid down specific numbers to legitimize and validate party switches. When legislators switch in groups, the costs are shared, and the move also appears less opportunistic, which in many ways defeats the purpose of the legislation. Though the law has placed hurdles before splits and switches, the activity has continued. To make matters worse, the implications of the law now influence the strategies of legislators and parties.

The third phase was inaugurated in 2014 with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on the ascendance when already-dominant parties began to use splits and switches to weaken and destroy their competitors. Aided by friendly Governors, the BJP, like the Congress did earlier, benefited from a string of governmental changes, including Arunachal Pradesh (2016), Bihar (2017), Karnataka (2019), Madhya Pradesh (2020), and Maharashtra (2022), which were brought about by legislators switching sides. In Puducherry (2021), switches led to fresh elections, bringing a BJP alliance to power. In Goa (2022) and Manipur (2017), though the Congress was returned as the single-largest party, it was outmaneuvered by the BJP soon after. It was only in Uttarakhand that a Supreme Court of India intervention saved the Congress government.

A regional example

It is not the BJP alone, as around the same time, ruling parties had a field day in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. In Telangana (2014), the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) decimated the Congress and the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) by encouraging shifts. In 2018, the Congress again crumbled under pressure. Likewise, in Andhra Pradesh, first, the TDP did the same to the Yuvajana Shramika Rythu Congress Party (YSRCP) after 2014, and subsequently, when the YSRCP came to power in 2019, it paid the TDP back in the same coin. In all these cases, the ruling party already had a comfortable majority of its own and did not necessarily need additional support.

Therefore, the current phase is bizarre when compared to the past because dominant parties appear to be actively cheering splits and shifts and having no respect for the basic rules of the game. The anti-defection law and control of institutions are now weaponized by dominant parties to intervene in the internal working of Opposition parties, and sometimes make and break them. Furthermore, legislators are switching support even if it does not count to the making or maintenance of governments.

A perspective

So, what do we make of the splits and switches? Much of our discussion is dominated by the morality of splits and switches, and this revolves around the damage it causes to the foundations of representative democracy. And these are undoubtedly reasonable arguments. First, switchers violate the trust relationship with their constituents as voters get something other than what they bargained for. Second, assuming voters vote for parties and not candidates, the argument is that uncohesive parties make it difficult for voters to draw definitive lines of responsibility. Consequently, it is difficult for voters to hold party governments accountable for their actions during elections.

Despite sound arguments about the despicable nature of splits and switches, they continue to happen routinely. The question then arises: Why do legislators split from and switch parties without fearing the negative connotations? We cannot answer this question as long as our perspective of political parties is dated. While we keep track of party system change, we ignore the point that the component parts, parties which make up the system, too,  change and transform. Our conceptualization of parties is static and is drawn from an era long gone by. Parties constantly adapt new modes to sustain and find success for themselves.

Our popular image of a party is that of the classical mass party, which rises from societal movements and is essentially internally democratic. They are linked to mass organizations and groups that share a common goal encompassing different dimensions of societal life. The leadership comes from the organization, is accountable to it and is committed to the goal. Our normative posturing comes from this ideal type. This is what even the Election Commission of India imagines a party should be since many of its guidelines lay stress on the ‘democratic spirit’ and the need for transparency and participation in internal decision-making.

However, in reality, parties are anything but this. While they mobilize and compete around identity and group solidarity issues such as mass parties, the internal democracy element is missing, and their links with society and mass organizations are at best tenuous. Today’s parties are centralized vote-getting machines which primarily work to ensure the return of political leaders to office. Mass inputs and ideas do not matter, and it is the central leadership that counts. All party activities begin and end with elections.

In this model, it is not surprising that paid professionals occupy a central place. They pick strategies, run campaigns and are sometimes involved in ticket distribution. New forms of communication and campaign methods have displaced traditional campaign modes. Consequently, the vast pool of voluntary unpaid laborwhich traditionally formed the backbone of parties and linked parties with the grass roots are no longer as closely involved as they were in the past.

Leaders are “elected unanimously” and party conferences are choreographed events where ordinary members meet and greet leaders. These events are used to enhance the profile of the leadership elite and are indeed not a forum for intra-party debate and discussion. Since parties are mainly concerned with electoral success, anyone who enjoys the confidence of the top leadership and can help increase the seat share is likely to get a ticket. Moreover, we now know that parties prefer candidates who bring in their own money, fund other candidates and raise resources for the party. All this puts the party on the ground in the shade.

New alignment

Finally, the most significant change is that parties are more closely aligned with the state rather than civil society. Parties exchange material and psychological rewards, and goods and services the state provides for electoral advantage. Voters also see parties as a supplier of services. This connection pushes legislators and parties to be in government or at least close to the government. This was one of the most common reasons for Members of Legislative Assemblies who switched parties in the two Telugu-speaking States. As a corollary to this shift, the party has become a shadow of what it once was and has been reduced to an instrument to defend policies and programs of the government.

On the supply side, the party on the ground no longer calls the shots; parties are election vehicles and a supplier of services. The party bond exists only as long as it ensures success for the legislator. On the demand side, the voter does not appear to have any problem, whether it is ‘A’ or ‘B’, as long as “services” are available. Consequently, splits and switches are not seen as objectionable by legislators and are not punished by voters as well. Legislators will, therefore, be willing to do anything if the benefits exceed the costs.

(The author is with the Department of Political Science, University of Hyderabad)

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