Millennium Post

When allies change sides

A the  columnist faces dilemma of choosing a single issue to write about when many important issues occurring during the outgoing weeks need scrutiny. This week’s column on Punjab also posed this dilemma. The issues which needed a close look included: politics of defections; likely political implications of the Moga by-poll’s outcome; the controversy, generated by the Afzal Guru’s hanging, on the issue of deferred execution of Beant Singh’s assassin Balwant Singh Rajoana; and, Punjab’s cash-strapped Akali-BJP government’s decision to mobilise resources by selling the state’s heritage buildings. Because of the space constraints this column will deal only with the issues of political defections and the likely implications of the Moga by-election outcome.

The deputy chief minister and the Akali Dal president Sukhbir Singh had been demonstrating his election management skills by winning the elections. Facing the tough task in Moga, he has resorted to engineering defections in the opposition parties, mainly the Congress and the Manpreet Singh Badal-led People’s Party of Punjab. His penchant for ‘weakening the opposition through defections’ reminds one the pioneering role Haryana played in injecting politics of defection in India’s body politic soon after its birth in 1966. During the state’s politically turbulent 1966-1968 years, 44 members of the 81-member Haryana Assembly had defected-one five times, two four times, three thrice, four twice and 34 once. Of them, Gaya Lal defected thrice in a day giving the country’s political lexicon the term of
Aya Ram Gaya Ram.
The defections caused political instability leading to the fall of successive governments in the newly-born state.

Sukhbir must remember that Haryana’s politics of defections cannot be gainfully repeated in Punjab on Haryana’s scale for two reasons. One, though not having its own majority, Akali Dal has been in power for the last six years with the support of its coalition partner the BJP. Unless the allies part ways, which does not seem likely in foreseeable future, the ruling alliance is expected to continue in power. The second, and the most important reason, is the anti-defection laws, which were non-existent in 1966-1968. These stipulate that MLAs who desert their parties and join other parties would be disqualified.

In his attempts to engineer defections, Sukhbir has won over some of the local level office bearers, former MLAs or activists of the opposition parties and admitted them in the Akali Dal. He has also claimed that several Congress leaders including half a dozen MLAs want to join the ruling party. He said ‘we will pick only diamonds from among the stones’. And the ‘diamond’ he has picked is Joginder Pal Jain, the two-time Congress MLA of Moga. A turncoat joining and quitting parties in the past, Jain has a criminal record. He had remained in the jail for several months. Half a dozen criminal cases are reportedly pending against him. During his election speeches in 2012 when Jain contested the Moga seat on Congress ticket, Sukhbir had criticised him for his criminal past.

Inducting a politician with criminal record into his party, Sukhbir has betrayed his own declaration made after the killing of Amritsar police officer by a leader of his brother-in-law and Revenue Minister Bikram Singh Majithia-led Youth Akali Dal. He had announced that the Akali Dal would be cleansed of the criminal elements. In sharp contrast to the promise, not only some prominent Akali leaders including a couple of ministers with shady record continue to enjoy the party leadership’s patronage but leaders like Jain are also being inducted into the party.   

Jain defected from the Congress and, as stipulated under the Disqualification Laws, he had to resign from the Assembly to facilitate his entry into the Akali Dal. As promised by Sukhbir, he was nominated as Akali Dal’s candidate for contesting the February 23 Moga bypoll.  

Jain’s argument for joining the Akali Dal was that he wanted to ensure development of his constituency, which he could not do as Congress MLA. Jain’s remarks on Moga’s development exposes Sukhbir’s claims made during his election meetings that Moga had witnessed fast development under the Akali-BJP rule.  

The Congress cannot blame Sukhbir alone for injecting defection politics in Punjab’s body politic. It has itself started walking in his footsteps, though with limited success. It has admitted into the party some Akali workers and former MLAs. It, however, cannot compete with the Akali leadership in the game of engineering defections. It neither has wherewithal like the official machinery to intimidate the opponents nor the power to withdraw court cases nor offer ‘incentives’ or allurements like lucrative government offices to potential defectors.       

Outcome of Sukhbir’s adventurous Moga move may prove to be a turning point for Punjab politics. Winning the by-poll is going to be an extremely tough task for the Akali Dal. That the leadership realises the political risks involved in its Moga gamble is indicated by the rushing of the aged Parkash Singh Badal to campaign in Moga immediately after remaining bed-ridden for a week due to chest ailment. If the Akali Dal wins it may help it soften the anti-incumbency sentiment generated by the government’s poor governance record and failure to implement most of its election promises.

But if it loses its Moga gamble it will be a politically damaging end of the series of the party’s past electoral victories and will also lay the basis for erosion in Sukhbir’s clout. It will also be an inauspicious signal for the Akali-BJP’s electoral prospects in the 2014 Lok Sabha poll.       

If the Congress wins the election, it may result in Capt. Amarinder Singh retaining his post of the PCC president.

He can then hope to lead the party in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. (IPA)
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