Why is defection a non-issue for voters?

 Indian voters are divided on what kind of representatives they prefer voting for

July 04, 2022 12:40 am | Updated 12:54 am IST

Eknath Shinde with rebel Shiv Sena MLAs at a hotel in Guwahati.

Eknath Shinde with rebel Shiv Sena MLAs at a hotel in Guwahati. | Photo Credit: PTI

The reason why a poor record on honesty and frequent switching of candidates from one political party to another (defection) hardly concerns Indian voters is simply that a very large section of the electorate chooses the party and not the candidate during elections. If merits and demerits of candidates had any bearing on voting considerations of Indian voters, many defectors and candidates with questionable records would not have made it to the Indian Parliament or the Assemblies of different States.

In some instances, there may be well-founded reasons for an elected MLA or MP to defect from one party to another. But the reason why many legislators and parliamentarians defect to other parties for purely personal gains is that they know voters will not punish them for their actions and will support them if they contest election on the ticket of any “popular” political party. Similarly, many of them also know that it is the party’s ticket and the popularity of its leader that helps them win the election. What they are careful about is to keep themselves accessible to people and help them in getting their work done. When some voters decide to choose the candidate rather than the party during elections, the ability to get work done remains the biggest asset for the candidate, no matter how.

The findings from the National Elections Studies conducted by Lokniti-CSDS indicate, during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, 58% voters mentioned voting for the party while 33% said they voted for the candidate. The proportion of voters who voted for the party declined slightly to 52% during the 2019 Lok Sabha elections while 37% voters preferred voting for the candidate. There is a slight increase in candidate-centred voting amongst Indian voters during the last few years, but the evidence over the years for Lok Sabha and State Assembly elections suggests that a large majority of Indian voters vote for the party and not for the candidate. This party-centred approach is prevalent amongst both uneducated as well as educated voters, amongst urban and rural voters and amongst voters with various degrees of media exposure. It is this strong trend of party-centred voting which neutralises any displeasure, if at all, that voters may have about their chosen representatives defecting and contesting again on a different party ticket.

Relocating mandate

There are numerous examples, of defectors being re-elected, on a party ticket against which they had contested the previous election. Twenty-two sitting legislators of the Congress party, some of them Ministers in the Kamal Nath government, defected to the BJP in Madhya Pradesh in March 2020, of whom 19 were re-elected again to the House as BJP legislators. Another instance that is fresh in our minds is that of Mahesh Iranagouda Kumathalli, who become the MLA of Athani Assembly constituency in Karnataka in 2018 on a Congress ticket, but crossed over to the BJP and got re-elected to the House. How could one forget Suvendu Adhikari’s defection from Trinamool Congress to the BJP, and his subsequent re-election to the West Bengal Assembly, defeating the sitting Chief Minister and heavy weight Mamata Banerjee. These are just few examples from the long list of defectors getting re-elected soon after their defections and occupying prime positions. Let us not forget, Vishwajit Rane, who resigned as Congress MLA of Valpoi, Goa, and the Minister of Health, Agriculture & Craftsmen Training on March 16, 2017, joined the BJP on April 7, 2017 and became part of Parrikar government with health portfolio. While this has been the dominant trend, the 2022 Assembly elections in Goa came as an exception when nine of the 12 defectors lost the Assembly election, some very badly. Nevertheless, it is the broad trend which seems to encourage MLAs and MPs to change parties without any valid reasons except for personal gains.

We can broadly predict when the four seasons — winter, spring, summer and monsoon — set in, but one cannot predict when and where defections are likely to take place. Defection is not new to Indian politics, and has been around for a long time. Voters have seen it as a routine exercise in Indian politics, and do not consider it an evil practice. There have been several attempts by various governments at different points of time to strengthen laws to curb this menace in politics. It was first introduced in the 4th Lok Sabha in 1967 by the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, but the Act finally came into being in 1984 during Rajiv Gandhi government’s tenure. Important amendments to Anti-Defection law introduced in 2003 by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government to strengthen the legislation failed to bring about the desired results. The political drama that recently unfolded in Maharashtra involving 37 Shiv Sena legislators is another example of how Anti-Defection law is being misused by contesting groups/sides and dissident legislators for personal and political gains.

Voting preferences

Evidence from the National Election study indicates that the views of Indian voters are divided on what kind of representatives they would prefer to vote for. Many of them do not express strong reservations against candidates with tainted backgrounds or those involved in corrupt practices. While many are happy to vote for an honest but inaccessible candidate (48%), there are others (24%), who are happy to vote for a candidate who is corrupt but accessible.

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Similarly, 36% voters are ready to vote for a candidate with criminal background, but gets works done, while 35% are ready to vote for an honest candidate, but can’t get work done. I think we are close to answering why defection and corruption do not matter much to Indian voters.

Sanjay Kumar is a professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), Delhi and a political analyst. The views expressed are personal

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