Opinion: It's Floor-Crossing Season In Karnataka - But Is It New?

The Karnataka election dates are expected any day now, but the season of floor-crossing has clearly begun.

Already, there are press conferences by parties welcoming leaders from other parties who have suddenly experienced a change of heart.

Three categories of floor-crossing are noticeable at this stage.

First, legislators who sense they could be denied a ticket - or the chance to contest - could well jump ship. Second, when politicians see the trend not going in their favour within the party, either on account of factional rivalry or as the result of a rift with the central or state leadership, a quick exit is seen as the best way out. Third, when leaders gauge a visible mood against their party, either in their region or in the state, they calculate the advantages of switching sides.

Another factor driving defections emerges when parties announce candidates and disgruntled ticket seekers try their luck with some other party. Karnataka has witnessed many a political summersault in election season.

Since the last Karnataka election, the political complexion of the state assembly has vastly changed after mass resignations that brought down a coalition government and forced by-elections. The BJP, which couldn't rack up a majority, eventually came to power with the support of rebels from the Congress and Janata Dal Secular (JDS).

The switcheroo is a common play in Karnataka politics.

More than half the ministers in the state cabinet have pulled off multiple switches in their careers. A third of the Karnataka cabinet consists of ministers who were first elected on a Congress or JDS ticket, who resigned and returned as BJP MLAs.

Interestingly, Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai and Leader of Opposition Siddaramaiah, a former chief minister, were both in the Janata Dal before one moved to the BJP and the other joined the Congress.

A few more data points assume relevance. One of every six MLAs in the Karnataka assembly - 35 of 224 - have been elected on more than one party ticket during their electoral career. Nearly a fourth of the current BJP MLAs (28 of 119) have won an election previously from a different party. Ten percent of Congress MLAs (7 of 75) have similarly been MLAs from a different political party in the past. This fluidity is linked to the fact that political parties are intensely faction-ridden, and the departure of every leader triggers the migration of their supporters too.

In Karnataka, especially since 2004, floor-crossing by elected representatives is a direct corollary to the fact that electoral outcomes have not given a clear majority to a single party. This has resulted in the "manufacturing" of a majority through various means. The most-favoured strategy is to get rival party MLAs to resign, cross over and contest by-elections on the ruling party ticket.

Does the victory of MLAs who switched sides indicate that the floor-crossing is endorsed by voters? It can be persuasively argued that all but two of the MLAs who defected from the Congress/JDS to the BJP won by-elections.

There is a second argument that merits attention. Voters in the constituencies where by-elections took place had seen the instability of the JDS-Congress coalition government and may have well wanted a clear majority for the BJP to ensure stability for the rest of its term. Yet political stability is not merely about the survival of the ruling party but also about how well it handles its internal contradictions once it has cobbled together a majority by all means possible. A die-hard BJP supporter explained it through a simple conservative analogy. He said in a joint family, when a new daughter-in-law enters the house, she becomes the focus of attention. There is, he said, a tendency to forget the contribution of the daughters-in-law already in the house. This seems to be the fate of many a ruling party that is desperate to achieve the magic figure of a simple majority, unmindful of the compromises needed to be made along the way. In the current season of floor-crossing in Karnataka, this is an important lesson to keep in mind.

(Dr. Sandeep Shastri is the National Coordinator of the Lokniti Network)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.