The onus of ensuring credible elections — a free and fair contest between rival political parties — and, the consequence thereof — peaceful and orderly transition of power from one regime to a different one — in the BJP’s rule book lies with the Opposition. This was the leitmotif of its campaign in the recently concluded Lok Sabha election and the recent Assembly elections in a handful of states.
In one tiny corner of India, in the Northeast, Tripura to be exact, the BJP is repeating its complaints against the Opposition that the rival parties failed to play by the rules. It has to live down its achievement, of setting a new record of how large a victory a party can organise, because most of the seats were won unopposed. The BJP’s indisputable supremacy — 85 per cent of the 6,646 panchayat seats in Tripura were won by it unopposed — is awkward, making the July 27 election into a travesty of sorts.
How will the home minister and BJP president Amit Shah explain why crores of people were not given an opportunity to exercise their votes? He could blame it on the Opposition, as the Tripura BJP is trying to do. Or, he could grudgingly acknowledge that he has taken a leaf out of the Trinamul Congress play book, even though it was a tactic he forcefully deplored, and turned it into a page from an elephant folio.
When 34 per cent of the panchayat seats in West Bengal went unopposed to the Trinamul Congress, Mr Shah described the situation as “misrule”. The Trinamul Congress’ 2018 panchayat elections performance was used over and over again, in the run up to the Lok Sabha elections and during the campaign to engage with disgruntled voters and woo them over to the BJP, with the promise that misrule would end.
The BJP raised a very significant issue in the context of the panchayat elections in West Bengal — depriving voters of the opportunity and the right to make a choice on representation in a democracy where elections are regularly held is a violation, corrupting the implicit principle that peaceful transitions of power should be the normal. Now that in Tripura the BJP has won unopposed in 5,652 out of 6,646 seats, it must defend its advocacy of the principles of free and fair elections and the peaceful transition of power.
The need to defend both these principles is urgent. The 2019 elections have been tainted by the dubious conduct not only of the Election Commission, but also of the BJP, which wilfully flouted not only the criteria in the model code of conduct, but also various laws on hate speeches and fomenting communal discord.
The need to defend the principle of peaceful and orderly transition is even more urgent. It is imperative that the BJP explain why it has meddled in the internal matters of other political parties, by celebrating defections, by sheltering defectors, by negotiating with potential defectors and by justifying its actions as fair politics. In Karnataka, in Goa, Telangana and Maharashtra, the number of legislators who have quit the Congress to join the BJP is telling. In Andhra Pradesh, four Telegu Desam Party Rajya Sabha members of Parliament switched to the BJP.
As examples of orderly transition of power, without the benefit of elections, the Goa, Maharashtra, Telengana defections qualify. In Karnataka, the resignation of 16 legislators has neither been peaceful, nor has it been orderly. The Supreme Court has been petitioned; the state Assembly is in limbo and Karnataka is in turmoil. The destabilising effects in Karnataka of the BJP’s acquisitive endeavours are all too evident. No government, freely and fairly elected, or even not fairly constituted, can do its work in the current state of chaos.
In West Bengal, the BJP leader who defected from the Trinamul Congress in 2017, Mukul Roy, has announced that 107 legislators would defect to the BJP soon. While most would be from the Trinamul Congress, Mr Roy claims that there would be legislators from the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and other parties. Since the end of May, dozens of Trinamul Congress councillors and panchayat members have been shunted to New Delhi to be paraded proudly by the BJP as defectors.
The West Bengal situation is bizarre — councillors who moved over to the BJP in June are now back with the Trinamul Congress in July. Municipalities that turned to the BJP in June have reverted back to the Trinamul Congress majorities in July.
These switches have unleashed unconfirmed reports of intimidation and fear, temptation and opportunity, converting the process into a mockery. This is a situation where Mr Shah as president of the BJP needs to defend his own actions in the light of what he said of the panchayat elections in West Bengal.
Municipalities do not have crores of voters; but they do have lakhs of voters. When each voter made a choice in 2018, it was with certain expectations. One of these expectations was the certainty that the chosen representative was from a specific political party.
Voters do not make the effort to queue up to elect a representative from a specific party anticipating that the person will switch sides and nullify the choice made at the time of voting. There would be voters who would never vote BJP or Trinamul Congress or Congress or CPI(M) or TDP. These are people who have a definite choice. Defections, engineered or voluntary, make nonsense of the process of choosing.
The free-for-all that has begun with defections being glorified as principled politics by the BJP and in West Bengal by the Trinamul Congress, dishonour and disgrace democracy. The voter is being cheated. Treated as a biddable button pusher, and not as sovereign and independent person exercising a choice — the voter has been marginalised in the current politics of defections. What is obvious is that once the elections are over, the voter and her/his choice is not her/his business any more. Voters have been pushed into the role of spectators, watching the ambitious, unscrupulous politicians and parties haggle to acquire power or remain in power. Elections have been emptied of meaning; individual choice has been stripped of its majesty. Political leaders have become traders and the deals they are making or have made are not credible.