Tuesday, January 10, 2012

A non-poach between political parties is the need of the day…..

Today’s ET carries an interesting piece titled “Party Hoppers Inc” and lists down 12 prominent (?) leaders of various parties who have either recently jumped ship. They are all from UP where state elections are due next month. Assuming that different political parties exist because they have different ideologies (some would say this is a ridiculous assumption!), this practice raises several questions about the way our political system works. Should such defections be permitted at all – especially just before an election? Or should there be some sort of a non-poach agreement between parties – or a mandate enforced by the Election Commission?

Many corporates have the concept of Non-poach agreements between themselves. For example, Pepsi and Coke refrain from hiring from each other; as do Unilever and P&G. The logic is simple. Senior managers of these companies know about their company’s future strategic plans and jumping ship would mean violating very basic ethical rules. As a measure of good corporate governance, these companies agree not to recruit from each other until the passage of a certain period of time called “cooling off” period. During the cooling off period, the person who has quit one company may work in another company and after the cooling off period is over, he/she may well join the competitor of the first company. But at least this way, trade secrets are protected; ideologies defended.

Why should the same not be expected from politicians and political parties? After all, political ideologies of many parties differ diametrically from each other on vital issues. The BJP for instance has Hindutva as its core ideology (some would call it Muslim bashing) while the Congress has Secularism at its absolute core (some would call it Muslim appeasement). How then can a BJP politician ever join the Congress or vice-versa? After all, these core ideologies are not really learnt or acquired in a political school of sorts. One grows up with them through one’s lifetime. How can they then be quickly discarded? Likewise, if the SP stands for the Muslims (as a primary pillar of ideology), how can SP members join the BJP and vice-versa? How can economically conservative Left party members join the more liberal BJP or Congress? How can politicians fighting the dalit cause via the BSP jump ship to join the BJP which represents the polar opposite – the Brahmins?

All this goes on to prove that politicians don’t care for ideologies, but only for their own good. Now there is nothing surprising in this. In fact, an analysis of the 12 cases listed by ET today makes for interesting copy.

There is one huge trigger for defection from one party to another. That is the denial of a party ticket to contest an election either to the person himself/herself or to someone in the family. Once a ticket is denied, the person is almost bound to quit. Jaspal Rana’s is just the latest example of this – quitting from the BJP and joining the Congress. Captain Amarinder Singh’s brother Malwinder Singh’s joining the SAD from the Congress is another. Since these politicians carry a certain support base, the opposite camp is willing to hire the person for some immediate gain. There may be no long term gains, but there may be some immediate gains. Hence this phenomenon happens so close to election time.

There is one other major trigger for defections. If a politician is indicted in a scam or a criminal case – be in corruption or molestation of women or murder or anyting – and if the party takes action against the politician (something all of us seek), the person quits and joins the opposite camp. Out of the 12 cases listed by ET today, as many as six are of politicians who have changed camps after being charged on one or the other cases of crime. The ability to get votes is far more important to the acquiring party than the nature of the crime allegedly committed by the defecting person. Shahnawaz Rana for instance was suspended by the BSP when his name came up in the molestation of two women. But the RLD (now an ally of the Congress) had no qualms in taking him in. This is one of the reasons why political parties worry about taking action against those who are indicted. A sort of middle-ground is usually found where the person is rested for a while, but is never thrown out. And the right term, he/she is brought right back in.

In some cases, it gets really bizarre. There is not even a fake attempt made to make the defection look like a move based on ideology. Naresh Agarwal for instance was a Congress leader; he then formed the Loktantrik Congress; then became a minister in the BJP and SP governments and then joined the BSP in 2008. He’s now back with the BSP! Or Shahid Siddiqui started with the SP, joined the BSP in 2008, moved to RLD in 2009 and has now re-joined the SP! Or Haji Yaqoob Qureshi who started with the SP, moved to the BSP and has now joined the RLD recently! He must be thinking that he still has the Congress left to embrace! Clearly, the only ideology for these people is the ideology of power….

This is not the case in the US. When Senator Specter – long standing Republican from Pennsylvania – switched sides to the Democrats in 2009, there was much hue and cry in the US. Unfortunately for Specter, the switch didn’t help and he lost his Senata seat in 2010 to another Democrat. Defections are rare but when defections do happen, they are based on long standing ideology, not short term gains. For example, the extension of the tax cuts that the Republican Party is seeking and is asking its leaders to back is causing much heartburn amongst the Republicans. Many Republicans may vote against their party’s diktat – and some may even defect – but it’s based purely on ideology. Usually, quick back and forths are not seen in the US. Likewise in the UK also, there have been only 16 defections of MPs, MSPs (Member of Scottish Parliament) or MEPs (Member of European Parliament) in the last ten years…..

So if ideology is immaterial and if opportunism is everything, then what can be done? Obviously no political party is going to be interested in a non-poach agreement. Maybe a non-poach would be called illegal even – denying as it is the rights of a person to seek a new “job” or a new “opportunity”! But just like rules were made to restrict defection of MPs after they were elected (the Anti Defection Law), maybe this time around, the Election Commission can make some rules that prevent a politician from changing parties at least ahead of elections. Or maybe there can be some restriction put on the number of political parties a politician can be a part of in his/her lifetime. Whatever is done…..the fact is that something should be done to stop this scourge.

The real truth is that politics has become totally mercenary in India. Defections are one of the ugly forms of manifestation of the same. There is an urgent need for reforms in this area. If political parties won’t put rules voluntarily, the Election Commission has to do it for them. If we can stop defections, political parties will actually start representing distinct ideologies…..

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