Tribune India

THE findings of a report by the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) on candidates who switched parties and recontested from 2014 to 2021 are both insightful and eye-opening. Based on the election affidavits of 500 MLAs and MPs, the BJP, as expected, emerged as the biggest gainer, with 173 joining the party. The Congress was the biggest loser, with 177 defecting.

The defections, the report noted, led to governments in Madhya Pradesh, Manipur, Goa, Arunachal Pradesh and Karnataka falling, blaming it on the nexus of money and muscle power, and absence of laws on the functioning of parties. “It will be a mockery of democracy if we fail to plug these loopholes,” the report released in September last year concluded, adding that it is high time “our parties and politicians put an end to the politics of convenience and self-gain, and start practising politics of conviction, courage and consensus”.

However, parties think that they are above law, says Jagdeep Chhokar, co-founder, ADR. This is quite evident in Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Goa and Manipur, where party hopping remains the most dominant election activity ahead of the polls beginning next month.

A lawyer by profession, Chhokar favours a “comprehensive and strict law governing the functioning of parties that can have checks and balances to take care of many existing loopholes”. Till such a law comes into existence, he says, the free run of hopping parties will continue.

Maj Gen Anil Verma (retd), national coordinator and head, ADR, calls it a sad state of affairs. “The parties have been defying orders of the Election Commission of India (EC) and the Supreme Court on poll-related issues.”

He suggests a three-pronged strategy — a strict and proactive judiciary, a vigilant EC and an informed voter. “I don’t have much hope from the voters because they do fall prey to caste, creed, religion, and freebies. The electorate also does not understand the gravity of electing representatives with criminal background. The only solution left is voter education for ethical and informative voting.”

The EC and judiciary, he says, have been acting lenient for reasons best known to them. “Both should take stern measures. The present penalty by the SC on defectors (post-election) is quite low — between Rs1 lakh and Rs5 lakh. It should be increased to a few crores to at least cover the cost of conducting elections.”

The EC, says Maj Gen Verma, may not have much power such as de-registering parties which encourage hoppers, or freezing their symbol, but Article 324 does give it some freedom to resolve issues plaguing the electoral system, “which the EC has not been using pro-actively”. The anti-defection law, too, needs to be amended, he says, “but lawmakers are these politicians only and they are, obviously, not keen on doing it”.

“Switching parties has always been a part of both pre and post-poll scenario. However, this time, most parties seem to have become dharamshalas with no doors,” says Dr Pramod Kumar of the Institute for Development and Communication (IDC), Chandigarh.

Balwinder Singh Laddi, Congress MLA from Sri Hargobindpur in Gurdaspur district, seems to prove this point. Miffed at not getting the party ticket, he, along with sitting Congress MLA Fateh Singh Bajwa and former minister Rana Gurmeet Singh Sodhi walked across the saffron line. Laddi was back in his parent party in less than a week, calling it an “emotional decision to go to the BJP”. However, even his apologies to the Congress have not earned him a ticket.

A veteran politician of over 50 years, Bir Devinder Singh, who has himself switched parties, calls it the downside of the anti-defection law that penalises only individual legislators switching parties after the election. “Politics nowadays is completely devoid of values. There is no commitment to ideology by anyone anymore, neither by the individuals switching sides or by parties who welcome such turncoats into their parties,” says the former Punjab Vidhan Sabha Deputy Speaker.

Dr Kumar feels blurred ideological boundaries have made this mobility easy as well as fast.

Come one, come all

Despite assertions by the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) national convener Arvind Kejriwal of not accepting ‘kachra’ from any party in Punjab, AAP has been on a major induction spree, ‘welcoming’ leaders from the Congress and Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and rewarding them with tickets, even at the cost of causing resentment among its own committed cadre.

However, of all the 117 names already announced, the party claims only 20 per cent of its nominees are ‘migrants’. Thirteen had joined AAP only a few days ago.

Some of the major names from the Congress that have been given the ticket include Sukhjinder Singh Lalli (Majitha), Raman Bahl (Gurdaspur), Ranjit Singh Rana (Bholath), Raman Arora (Jalandhar Central), Jagroop Singh Gill (Bathinda Urban) and Joginder Singh Mann (Phagwara).

Even many veterans with deep roots in SAD have given in to the allure of power. Traditional Panthic leader and former minister Surjit Singh Kohli, with over seven decades’ association with the Akali Dal, has switched allegiance to AAP, along with son Ajit Pal Singh Kohli, a former Patiala mayor and now the party’s nominee from there. Other prominent names include real estate baron Kulwant Singh, who has been given a ticket from Mohali, and former SAD minister Sewa Singh Sekhwan’s son Jagrup Singh Sekhwan, who is contesting from Qadian (Gurdaspur).

In this season of defections, AAP has seen some losses as well — the most curious case being that of Ashu Banger, the party’s nominee from Ferozepur Rural. This is perhaps the first time that a candidate has switched sides even after getting the ticket, the denial of which is otherwise the usual factor for deserting any party. While AAP leader Harpal Cheema alleges coercion on part of the Congress, Banger denies the charge, saying he will soon reveal the reality.

Prof Jagroop Singh Sekhon, former professor of political science at Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar, calls it an era of ideology-less politics. “Power remains the sole aim and getting the ticket the only end with all kinds of means justified to get it.”

The only agenda most political parties have is to win the elections at any cost, adds Dr Kumar.

From 23 to 65

When the BJP and SAD parted ways in Punjab and with the backlash generated by the farmers’ protest, the BJP, the buzz was, would find it difficult to even field 117 candidates. Today, with new partners in Capt Amarinder Singh’s Punjab Lok Congress and Sukhdev Singh Dhindsa’s SAD (Sanyukt), the BJP has forced the Congress to delay releasing the second list, lest the sulking leaders who are denied the ticket switch over to the saffron party.

A defender in other four poll-bound states, this is the first time the BJP is contesting on its own in Punjab, at around 65 seats from a mere 23 earlier. In an effort to play down its Hindutva image and gain a foothold in the state, it is accommodating prominent Sikh leaders from the Congress and SAD.

Apart from Congress’ Bajwa, Sodhi, Dhaliwal, Harjot Kamal, Akali leaders Jagdeep Singh Nakai, Gurtej Singh Ghuriana, Sarabjit Singh Makkar and Manjinder Singh Sirsa have joined the BJP. The party has also managed to rope in Akali stalwart Gurcharan Singh Tohra’s grandson Kanwarveer Singh (Amloh). In its first list released on Friday, out of 35 candidates, 13 are Sikhs.

The party is serving an inclusive platter of nominees, including Brahmins, Khatris, Baniyas, SCs and farmers. Notable inclusions in the first list are recent entrants from the Congress — Nimisha Mehta (Garshankar), a close associate of CM Channi, and Arvind Khanna (Sangrur), a relative of former Chief Minister Capt Amarinder Singh.

Most significantly, one-third of these 35 nominees are recent entrants from the SAD and the BJP.

But as candidates change parties at their convenience, how do they justify it to those whom they represent — their voters?

Prof Sekhon says the traditional voter is not going anywhere and will vote according to caste. Populism should take care of others, adds Dr Kumar. “This is evident from freebies offered in manifestoes, rather ‘menufestoes’. With at least five parties in the ring, competitive bribing is the new norm,” he rues.

“The protest movement against farm laws had brought in some accountability, with leaders strongly telling farmers not to vote for a particular party. Their becoming stakeholders now will only add to the problem,” feels Prof Sekhon.

From promises of money, free atta-dal to jobs, the parties are offering need-based sops. Surinder Rai (33), an unemployed professional from Ferozepur, remains hopeful of AAP’s promises of employment, not affected by the Banger episode.

For Sirhind-based Anmol Bali, the sitting Congress MLA from Fatehgarh Sahib Kuljit Nagra’s past performance is the deciding voting factor. Banger, too, is certain of his win despite the last-minute switch. “I have worked hard in my constituency, sometimes even 18 hours at a stretch. My voters and supporters know this.”

With elections in the state being deferred by a week, February 1 is now the last date to file nominations. The season of defections has just got extended.

Reverse migration in UP

The BJP may have emerged as a major poacher in Punjab, but in Uttar Pradesh, it is the Yogi Adityanath government that has been facing the heat.

Three ministers — Swami Prasad Maurya, Dara Singh Chauhan and Dharam Singh Saini — and MLAs Bhagwati Sagar, Roshan Lal Verma, Brijesh Prajapati, Vinay Shakya, Mukesh Verma and Bala Awasthi have gone to the Samajwadi Party (SP), which has emerged as the saffron party’s main Opposition.

Another BJP MLA, Avatar Singh Bhadana, has joined the RLD. Two Apna Dal MLAs have also quit.

“Maurya claimed he and other OBC leaders were feeling alienated in the Thakur-dominated administration. Akhilesh Yadav is actively courting such leaders as he wants to remove the Yadav tag from his party and consolidate the non-Yadav OBC vote, which these leaders should bring,” says a Lucknow-based veteran journalist.

“Mulayam’s daughter-in-law Aparna Yadav and two more relatives, Hari Om Yadav and Pramod Gupta, joining the BJP is a mere face-saving for the party, as they hardly bring anything to the table,” he adds.

The saffron party was also able to induct Priyanka Maurya, Congress’ poster girl of “Ladki hoon, lad sakti hoon” campaign.

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