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The New ‘Normal’ of Political Splits and Shifts

Context

‘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’  Parties are more closely aligned with the state; the party bond exists only as long as it ensures a legislator’s success.

Relevance:

GS Paper 2: Parliament and State Legislatures

  • structure, functioning
  • conduct of business
  • powers & privileges and issues arising out of these

Mains Question:

Does Anti-Defection Law, while deterring defections, restricts a legislator from voting as per his conscience and erodes his independence? Comment (250 words)


The New Political Circus

  • Political parties sometimes break up like marriages, and individual legislators switch parties like remarriages.
  • The consequences in both cases can be severe.
  • Individual legislators or groups who decide to leave a party, form another party, or join another party may have ramifications for the formation, maintenance, and termination of government.
  • Splits in the ruling party and subsequent realignment of legislators inaugurated new governments in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, respectively.

Distinct waves

  • Splits and switches are common in legislatures all over the world, and India has experienced at least three distinct waves.
  • The first wave occurred in the latter half of the 1960s, when challengers to Congress attempted to dethrone it in the United States.
  • Because of the free movement of legislators across political parties, there was literally a lot of shoving and pushing, and governments changed quickly.
  • The next wave: It began with an attempt to end free movement and regulate legislators’ behaviour through the anti-defection law.
  • While the law discouraged individual movement, it encouraged collective movement of legislators by establishing specific numbers to legitimise and validate party switches.
  • When legislators switch in groups, the costs are shared, and the move appears less opportunistic, which defeats the purpose of the legislation in many ways.
  • Despite the fact that the law has placed obstacles in the way of splits and switches, the activity has continued.
  • To make matters worse, the law’s implications are now influencing the strategies of legislators and political parties.
  • The third wave began in 2014, with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ascending, when already-dominant parties began to use splits and switches to weaken and destroy their competitors.
  • The BJP, like the Congress before it, benefited from a series of governmental changes brought about by legislators switching sides, including Arunachal Pradesh (2016), Bihar (2017), Karnataka (2019), Madhya Pradesh (2020), and Maharashtra (2022).

The Current Phase

  • The current phase is unusual in comparison to previous phases because dominant parties appear to be actively cheering splits and shifts while ignoring basic game rules.
  • The anti-defection law and institutional control are now used as weapons by dominant parties to intervene in the internal workings of opposition parties, sometimes making or breaking them.
  • Furthermore, legislators are changing their support even if it does not contribute to the formation or maintenance of governments.

A perspective

  • Much of our debate is dominated by the morality of splits and switches, which revolves around the harm they cause to the foundations of representative democracy.
  • And these are unquestionably sound arguments. First, switchers violate their constituents’ trust by providing them with something other than what they expected.
  • Second, assuming that voters vote for parties rather than individuals, the argument is that incoherent parties make it difficult for voters to draw clear lines of responsibility.
  • As a result, voters find it difficult to hold party governments accountable for their actions during elections.
  • Despite strong arguments about the despicable nature of splits and switches, they continue to occur on a regular basis.
  • The question then becomes, why do legislators leave and switch parties without fear of repercussions? We can’t answer this question because our understanding of political parties is out of date.

The change and transformation in Party system

  • While we track party system change, we overlook the fact that the component parts, the parties that comprise the system, also change and transform.
  • Our understanding of parties is static and dates from a bygone era.
  • Parties are constantly adapting new modes in order to survive and succeed.
  • Our popular image of a party is that of a traditional mass party that emerges from societal movements and is primarily internally democratic.
  • They are linked to mass organisations and groups that share a common goal that encompasses various aspects of societal life.
  • The organization’s leadership is accountable to it and committed to the goal. This ideal type is the source of our normative posture.
  • This is what the Election Commission of India envisions a party to be, as many of its guidelines emphasise the ‘democratic spirit’ and the importance of transparency and participation in internal decision-making.

The Other side of Reality:

  • While parties mobilise 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 organisations are at best tenuous.
  • Today’s parties are centralised 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.

The New Models of ‘Paid Professionals’

  • 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 labour which 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.

The New Choreography in Leadership

  • Leaders are “elected unanimously,” and party conventions are staged events in which ordinary members meet and greet leaders.
  • These events are designed to raise the profile of the leadership elite and are not intended to be a forum for intra-party debate and discussion.
  • Because parties are primarily concerned with electoral success, anyone who has the trust of the top leadership and can help increase seat share is likely to get a ticket.
  • Furthermore, we now know that parties prefer candidates who bring their own money, fund other candidates, and raise party resources. All of this keeps the party on the ground and in the shade.

New alignment

  • The most significant difference is that parties are more closely aligned with the state than with civil society.
  • Parties exchange material and psychological rewards, as well as goods and services provided by the state, in exchange for electoral advantage.
  • Voters also see parties as service providers.
  • This link pushes legislators and political parties to be in government or close to it.
  • In the two Telugu-speaking states, this was one of the most common reasons for Legislative Assembly members switching parties.
  • As a result of this shift, the party has become a shadow of what it once was, reduced to a tool for defending the government’s policies and programmes.

Conclusion:

  • On the supply side, the party on the ground no longer has the final say; parties are now both election vehicles and service providers. The party bond exists only as long as the legislator is successful.
  • On the demand side, the voter appears to have no objection to either ‘A’ or ‘B’ as long as “services” are available.
  • As a result, splits and switches are not considered objectionable by legislators and are not punished by voters.
  • Legislators will be willing to do anything if the benefits outweigh the costs.
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September 2022
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