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Defections and the State: Cracking the Illusions of Political Order

Until recently, a vocal BJP leader and former minister in the Narendra Modi cabinet, Babul Supriyo joined the party’s strident opposition, the All India Trinamool Congress this month to a profusion of media coverage and debates. Commentators were quick to imply that defection is an unprincipled move for political gain that sidelines ideology and the same plays out in the terrain of Indian politics. Notwithstanding the context, such an understanding idea of defection in a cross-national way, however, might not necessarily hold. To think of the Arab Spring, where militaries defected and troops refused to fire on the protestors, it is worth thinking if defections go beyond concerns of ideological cohesiveness and as a feature of contemporary politics, provide ways of renegotiating how organizations package ideology and harness power.

Image Credits: Times of India

A diversity of motivations to defect have been spoken of and studied. Wolfgang Müller and Kaare Strom in their seminal work, Policy, Office, or Votes? How Political Parties in

in Western Europe Make Hard Decisions (1999), outline parties' objectives as threefold, which were identified by Richard Fenno as motivations which also explain party switching. These, as Diana Z. O’ Brien and Yael Shomer report are to maximize electoral support or the vote, to get re-elected, to accrue the benefits of serving in office and to implement ideological goals by shaping policy outcomes. All of these have been evidenced in Indian politics— members of losing parties have often been seen switching sides, with declared intentions of bringing change through a better bid to or access to power.

India’s tryst with defections is not new, with the 1967 case of Haryana legislator Gaya Lal who changed his political affiliation three times in a single day, and gave prominence to the notorious expression “Aaya Ram Gaya Ram” frequently spoken of, and the 1985 Indian Defection Law in place. In 2017, when the state of Goa had a hung assembly, with the Congress emerging the biggest party with 17 seats, yet falling short of the 21 seats required to clinch a majority, defections from the Goa Forward Party enabled the Bharatiya Janata Party, coupled with the support of the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party to form the government. Similar trends were seen in Manipur, Karnataka and Arunachal Pradesh where defections altered the face of the elected government altogether.

However, defection goes beyond the constitution of parties and governments. When erstwhile West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee in the late 2000s, drew criticism for the Singur Tata Nano project and police violence against protestors at Nandigram, he was criticized not just by opposition parties, but members of the politburo of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) as well, who noted a straying away from principle. Thus, while the Chief Minister might not have switched parties, the internal criticism he faced implied a defection from proclaimed ideology itself. All of these raise significant concerns about state stability itself and highlight the contradiction between the glossy, emancipatory rhetoric of order and the unstable sociopolitical realities within which it operates.

Without discrediting arguments against defection in the political scheme of things as it exists, the phenomenon outlines the appearance of order polities portray. Politics is about collective decision making and is thus, inextricably linked to society, as it needs social actors to activate itself. Like our social existences are unstable, politics, despite the corporate veneer of democracy and other forms of governance, remains a domain of instability, where declared ideological positions become provisional and capricious in terms of the enactment and implementation of legislations, as well as the representation of apparent wholenesses such as the nation-state. The artificiality of modern political put-togetherness is put to test by the emergence of defections, which blows away the facade of order. Our bewilderment at it is arguably, thus, a consequence of the betrayal of the promise of state stability itself under modern governance. Defections, then, expose the cracks in the liberal and the popular conception of the state and induce alertness to the trap of visiblised order that regimes offer.

Viewed from the standpoint of unstable politics, defections as scandalized as a BJP minister joining the TMC make sense. Perhaps, defections have to be dealt with to achieve the idealized state in its static, determinist formulation. However, such an idea of the state might need fundamental reconfigurations for it to operate and until then, events in the vein of defections will keep illuminating the recurrent crises we encounter in our bid to uncritically soldier on with idealist conceptions.


By Abhinav Bhardwaj

Abhinav is a postgraduate student of English literature at University of Delhi. A published poet and an independent researcher, he has been a longlist awardee of the Wingword Poetry Prize and his works have been published by journals such as English Studies in Latin America, Contemporary Literary Review India and media portals like Feminism in India. His areas of interest include world literatures, gender and sexuality studies, modernisms and media and culture studies.

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