The new ‘normal’ of political splits and shifts

The parties are more closely aligned with the state; the party bond exists only as long as it ensures the success of a legislator

The parties are more closely aligned with the state; the party bond exists only as long as it ensures the success of a legislator

Political parties sometimes separate like marriage, and like remarriage, individual legislators change parties. In both cases, the consequences can be severe. When individual legislators or a group decide to leave one party, form another party, or join another party, it can have repercussions in terms of forming, maintaining, and terminating government. In Maharashtra, recently, and in Madhya Pradesh, earlier, a split in the ruling party and a subsequent realignment of lawmakers inaugurated new governments.

Strange waves

Splits and switches are common in legislatures around the world, and India has witnessed at least three distinct waves. The first wave occurred in the latter half of the 1960s when challengers to Congress attempted to replace it in the States. There has literally been great push and push and rapid turnover of governments due to the free movement of legislators in political parties.

The next phase was inaugurated in an attempt to end the free movement and regulate the conduct of legislators through anti-defection law. Although the law does not encourage individual movement, it does incentivize a collective movement of legislators because it lays out specific numbers to legitimize and validate party transfers. When legislators move into groups, costs are split, and the move also appears less opportunistic, which in many ways defeats the purpose of the law. Although the law placed barriers before splits and switches, activity continued. To make matters worse, the implications of the law are now influencing the strategies of legislators and parties.

The third phase was inaugurated in 2014 with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on the rise when the dominant parties began using splits and switches to weaken and destroy their competitors. With the help of friendly Governors, the BJP, as Congress did earlier, has benefited from a series of government changes, including Arunachal Pradesh (2016), Bihar (2017), Karnataka (2019), Madhya Pradesh (2020), and Maharashtra (2022), brought in by lawmakers switching sides. In Puducherry (2021), the transfers led to new elections, which brought a BJP alliance to power. In Goa (2022) and Manipur (2017), even though Congress was restored as the single largest party, the BJP soon overtook it. Only in Uttarakhand did the intervention of the Supreme Court of India save the government of Congress.

A regional example

Not only the BJP, because at the same time, the ruling parties had field days in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. In Telangana (2014), Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) broke the Congress and the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) by encouraging changes. In 2018, Congress collapsed again under pressure. Also, in Andhra Pradesh, first, the TDP did the same to the Yuvajana Shramika Rythu Congress Party (YSRCP) after 2014, and then, when the YSRCP came to power in 2019, it paid the TDP in the same coin. In all these cases, the ruling party already has a comfortable majority on its own and no longer needs additional support.

Therefore, the current stage is unique compared to the past because the dominant parties appear to be actively indulging in splits and shifts and have no respect for the basic rules of the game. Anti-defection law and control of institutions are now used by the dominant parties to interfere in the internal affairs of the Opposition parties, and are sometimes perpetrated and destroyed. Furthermore, legislators exchange support even if it does not count towards the creation or maintenance of governments.

An insight

So what do we do with splits and switches? Much of our discussion is dominated by the morality of splits and switches, and it revolves around the damage it does to the foundations of representative democracy. And these are undoubtedly reasonable arguments. First, switchers violate the relationship of trust with their constituents while voters get something different than what they talked about. Second, assuming that voters vote for parties and not candidates, the argument is that unrelated parties make it difficult for voters to draw specific lines of responsibility. As such, it is difficult for voters to hold party governments accountable for their actions during the election.

Despite great arguments about the disgusting nature of splits and switches, they continue to happen regularly. The question then arose: Why did lawmakers split and switch parties without fear of negative connotations? We cannot answer this question as long as our view on political parties is dated.

As we monitor the change of the party system, we ignore the point that the component parts, the parties that make up the system, are too evolving and changing. Our conceptualization of parties is static and drawn from a long time. The parties are constantly adapting new modes to maintain and find success for themselves.

Our popular image of a party is the classical mass party, which arose from social movements and essentially internal democracies. They are associated with mass organizations and groups with a common goal covering different dimensions of social life. Leadership comes from the organization, is accountable to it and purpose -focused. Our normative posturing is from this ideal type. This is what even the Election Commission of India thinks should be a party as many of its rules emphasize the ‘democratic spirit’ and the need for transparency and participation in internal decision making.

However, in reality, the parties are anything but this. As they act and compete on issues of identity and group unity such as mass parties, the element of internal democracy disappears, and their relationship with society and mass organizations is weakened. Parties are now centralized vote -getting machines that work primarily to ensure the return of political leaders to office. The inputs and ideas of the masses do not matter, and central leadership matters. All party activity begins and ends with the election.

In this model, it is not surprising that paid professionals occupy a central place. They choose strategies, run campaigns and are sometimes involved in ticket distribution. New communication methods and campaign methods have replaced traditional campaign modes. As a result, the vast pool of voluntary unpaid labor that traditionally forms the backbone of parties and linked parties with roots is no longer as close as in the past.

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

New alignment

Finally, the most significant change is that the parties are more closely aligned with the state than in civil society. The parties exchange material and psychological rewards, and products and services provided by the state for electoral advantage. Voters also view parties as providers of services. This connection drives legislators and parties to be in government or at least close to government. This is one of the most common reasons for Members of Legislative Assemblies to switch party to the two Telugu -speaking States. As a result of this change, the party has become the shadow of the past and has become an instrument to defend government policies and programs.

On the supply side, the party on the ground is no longer calling shots; The parties are election vehicles and a provider of services. The party bond exists only as long as it ensures victory for the legislator. On the demand side, the voter does not seem to have any problem, whether it is ‘A’ or ‘B’, as long as “services” are available. As such, splits and switches are not seen as undesirable by lawmakers nor are they punished by voters. Legislators, therefore, are willing to do anything if the benefits outweigh the costs.

KK Kailash is with the Department of Political Science, University of Hyderabad