Can you think of a time when Indian politics has been more polarised than it is today? I certainly can’t. Yes, there have been times when political parties have vigorously opposed each other but it has mostly been in the spirit of domestic competition.
But today, the battle is more fundamental. The problem with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Congress tells us, is that it is opposed to the very idea of India. According to it, to allow the BJP to continue in power would be to give up on the idea of a diverse, pluralistic nation committed to liberal values.
For its part, the BJP is as extreme in its characterisation of its political opponent. The Congress is no longer a political party, it says. It is a family business run by a greedy and corrupt dynasty that has robbed India through the ages while consistently betraying our national interest. The only way for India to become a great nation, the BJP tells us, is to work towards a Congress-mukt Bharat.
You would think that with this level of hostility and such a clear divide between the two sides, members of either party would stay far away from each other, that the differences would be sharp and all-pervasive.
You would be wrong.
In reality, there has never been a time when there is so much mobility between parties. The Congressmen who accuse the BJP of destroying the secular fabric of the nation are quietly negotiating to join the very same BJP. The Trinamool Congress (TMC) leaders who abandoned their party before the Bengal election, heeding Amit Shah’s call that Mamata Banerjee was destroying the state are now negotiating the terms of their exits from the BJP and their re-admittance into the TMC. And even as the BJP condemns opposition politicians as being part of the dynastic Lutyens’ cabal that destroyed India, it is simultaneously offering them plum posts if they are willing to change sides.
It has now got to the stage where it is regarded as vital for all political parties to squirrel away their legislators to expensive resort hotels to ensure that they cannot negotiate defections to other parties. Nobody regards this as odd. In fact, it is now perfectly normal.
An ordinary voter may well wonder: What in God’s name is going on? I have often asked myself the same question. This week, when Jitin Prasada, who I know and like, crossed over to join the BJP, a party that he (and his family) had opposed for years on familiar grounds (communalist, deceitful), I began to look for answers again.
The most reasoned and convincing explanation I found was in an article by Shashi Tharoor. The Congress leader made a basic point that we often lose sight of. Yes, politics can become a career. But it is fundamentally different from becoming, say, a banker or a salesman because you don’t choose your party as you would choose your employer.
If you are a banker, you might start out at say, the State Bank of India (SBI) and then, if you feel your prospects are better at HDFC, you might abandon the SBI and join HDFC. That’s fine. It is how career professionals are expected to behave. (The idea is Shashi’s but the examples are my own).
When you enter politics, however, you join a political party based not on your career prospects but on your values and beliefs. If you agree with Karl Marx, you join the Communists. If you believe in Hindutva, then the BJP is the party for you. If you are committed to a liberal, secular idea of India, you join the Congress. And so on.
If, after that, your career stalls or your party falters, then you try and change things from within. If that is not possible, you can sit out the bad period or you can perhaps join a breakaway faction of your party.
That is how it has been in Indian politics for decades. If you don’t like the BJP’s current leadership, you don’t suddenly turn your back on Hindutva and decide that your prospects are better in say, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or the Congress. You stick by your core beliefs, no matter how badly your career is going.
Indian politics is full of examples where a disgruntled faction within a party has broken away. The CPM emerged out of the CPI. The Trinamool Congress is a breakaway faction of the Congress. The Janata Dal has splintered into many parties.
In none of these cases did any of the breakaway factions consider merging with an ideological enemy. The CPM did not approach the Congress. When Sharad Pawar, P Sangma and other Congressmen had problems with Sonia Gandhi, they formed the Nationalist Congress Party. They did not go and join the Shiv Sena.
This is not a peculiarly Indian way of doing things. This is how the democratic system works the world over. People do sometimes change parties but it is rare and usually provokes great consternation. Hardly ever does a senior politician jump from one party to its ideological opposite.
In India, there are occasions when differences between the ideologies of parties are minor and the parties are defined by their leaders. In such cases, you can perhaps understand how a politician can change parties. But that is certainly not true of major parties today. As we have seen, never before has the gulf been so wide.
So why do people switch sides so easily? How do they so quickly abandon the beliefs they have sworn by for decades?
The only answer possible is the one that Tharoor suggests. Things have reached such a pass in India that even among our brightest politicians, politics is no longer about values or beliefs. It is now no more than a career. Like the chap who is not getting very far at SBI and decides to join HDFC, our politicians treat personal advancement as the ultimate goal. Ideology is only for sloganeering and rhetoric – which they can promptly disown later.
You don’t have to be a genius to see that a country whose political system is staffed by people who regard their own career prospects as more important than values or any beliefs is in a bad way.
Yes, there will be fewer defections from cadre-based parties like the BJP and the CPM. But how ideologically solid can the cadre of any party be if it is repeatedly infiltrated by newcomers who don’t care about ideology and are only focused on their own advancement?
I don’t expect India’s politicians to worry too much about what their desire for career advancement is doing to the country. But what about the rest of us? What about the media in particular?
We have effortlessly sunk to a level where even the media regards defections as no more than a game. Each change of party is reported with the breathless excitement normally reserved for an IPL match. Nobody even talks about the betrayal of values, of ideology that each defection represents. At a time when Indian politics is most polarised, we treat it as entirely normal that people should be able to walk across to the other side only because they are getting a better deal.
They say that a country gets the politicians it deserves. That’s too harsh. But yes, when we expect no ideological integrity from our politicians and accept that their only purpose in life is to get the best deal for themselves, then our country is in very deep trouble indeed.
For more stories by Vir Sanghvi read here