Even as party campaigns are in full swing and candidates are announced in poll-bound Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Mizoram, Rajasthan and Telangana, one development that seems to be common to these elections and those held recently is the last minute defection of leaders from one party to another. Elections in India have become expensive and most parties, except those from the Left, tend to field candidates not just based on their dint of work or popularity but, increasingly, on their abilities to mobilise resources for campaigns. So, electoral politics has thrown up a set of politicians who are in it to build a career more out of patronage and less out of ideological conviction. This allows for a large degree of malleability in party affiliation for this set, many of whom engage in party-hopping as they have a good sense of the way electoral winds are blowing. Joining them too are incumbents who do so if not given another chance by their parties, and also rebels. The politics of patronage can be frowned upon as being less representative of interests and demands in a constituency and more of a transaction between the candidate and the voter — the voter gets goods and services from the winning candidate for voting in favour while the legislator uses the post to create an elaborate spoils system, usually to benefit from it as well. This system of patronage can also be seen as an outcome of the larger democratisation of the polity itself, as it throws up representatives catering to specific demands of voters, making the process meaningful for them, bypassing the party structure.
The by-product of this system is the presence of careerist politicians who are in it more for transactional purposes than principled or ideological reasons. A reason why the Congress has lost out to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in pre-eminence nationally is because of large-scale defections to the BJP, which has managed to articulate a clear ideological stance of right-wing conservatism through its leadership while providing a platform for those seeking to use the electoral system for patronage. As the Congress tries to rejuvenate itself, the party has sought to distinguish itself from the BJP not just in terms of what it represents in secular terms but also as a vehicle of welfare through electoral guarantees. This has allowed itself to play host to last-minute defectors from the BJP and regional parties in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Telangana, but this also throws up a challenge in retaining these malleable legislators. Alas, defections will remain a feature of Indian politics unless voters punish the defectors for repeated party-hopping and see no longer term interest in choosing a representative with tenuous ideological affiliation.