Party hoppers in Assam, Bengal expose chinks in anti-defection law

Winners in May Assembly polls push for complete decimation of the Opposition, prompting shifting of loyalties and challenging the law made to curb arbitrary defections

Karnataka, The Federal, English news website
In West Bengal, the TMC is giving the BJP the taste of its own medicine. Representational visual

They have been elected only about a month ago, but already many opposition MLAs in two eastern states of Assam and Bengal started looking for greener pastures, bringing to the fore inefficacy of the anti-defection law to fetter party hoppers.

Four-time Congress legislator from Assam Rupjyoti Kurmi joined the ruling BJP on Monday (June 22) with all trappings befitting the initiation to the Hindutva camp.

But unlike West Bengal BJP MLA Mukul Roy, who has joined the Trinamool Congress recently without quitting his MLA seat, Kurmi resigned from the assembly before donning the saffron robe. Hence, he will not come under the purview of the anti-defection law.

“Nevertheless, it is a defection and it violates the spirit of the anti-defection law that has been introduced to prevent frequent change of colour by the elected representatives,” said Assam Congress spokesperson Apurba Kumar Bhattacharjee.


Kurmi claimed to have mulled his move following an astrological prediction. Incidentally, last year when the speculation was rife about him joining the BJP, the influential tea tribe leader claimed to have a vision of his late mother, a former Congress minister herself, forbidding him from leaving the grand old party.

In an obvious symbolic gesture, Kurmi presented a trident to Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma during the joining ceremony, the place and timing of which was decided by the MLA’s trusted astrologer.

There is, however, more than a cosmic intervention behind the switchover, which is billed as just a precursor to many more defections to be followed.

Also read: Political defections: A tool to gain strength, weaken opposition

It was widely speculated that Kurmi would be accompanied to the BJP fold by two other Congress MLAs and a few senior party functionaries. Much to the Congress’s relief, the joining ceremony ultimately turned out to be a solo show. But many even within the Congress admit it was a temporary solace. Two Congress MLAs — one from Barak valley and another from lower Assam — have reportedly made up their minds to join the BJP.

“Perhaps they too are seeking cosmic guidance to time their departure,” a Congress leader who did not wish to be named said sarcastically.

The Assam Chief Minister last week appealed to all opposition MLAs to join the ruling BJP.

“What will they do in the opposition for five years? Since we are working for the welfare of all communities irrespective of their caste and creed, I appeal to them (opposition members) to join us and work together for the people of Assam,” Himanta Biswa said.

The appeal follows the trend in Indian politics of ruling dispensations of all hues trying to enforce an opposition-free regime — a disturbing fallout of the BJP’s pursuit of a ‘Congress-mukt’ Bharat.

The results of Assam assembly elections announced on May 2 saw the BJP-led ruling alliance securing 75 out of the 126 seats. The Congress-led Grand Alliance trailed behind with 50 seats. The BJP alone won 60 seats whereas the Congress managed to get only 29.

Also read: West Bengal: BJP explores options to enforce anti-defection law

The comfortable majority has clearly failed to satiate the Assam BJP’s craving for more as has been evident from Sarma’s appeal to the opposition lawmakers. The idea is to completely decimate the opposition by political mobilization through defection.

The BJP, however, is not the only party guilty of such mobilization. In West Bengal, the TMC is giving the BJP the taste of its own medicine.

The BJP’s national vice president and one of its early heavyweight recruits from the TMC, Mukul Roy, ditched the saffron camp earlier this month barely four years after he had joined the party fuelling its much-hyped Bengal dream.

The Krishnanagar North MLA did not even bother to vacate the seat he had won on the BJP symbol before rejoining the TMC, upholding an old tradition among defectors in the state.

Two dozen other BJP MLAs, too, have started showing signs of change by skipping party programmes. Twenty-four legislators were absent when leader of the opposition in the assembly Suvendu Adhikari led BJP legislators to Raj Bhavan on June 14 to submit a memorandum to the Governor on post-poll violence and seeking enforcement of the anti-defection law.

Only 50 legislators accompanied Adhikari. The BJP had won 77 seats in this year’s assembly elections. After Roy’s departure and the party’s two Lok Sabha MPs, who had successfully contested the assembly elections tendering their resignations as MLAs last month, the strength of the BJP in the 294-member house now is 74.

The Bengal BJP’s legislative wing wrote to Speaker Biman Banerjee seeking disqualification of Roy on June 18. The party would take legal route if Roy was not disqualified from the assembly or if he did not voluntarily resign, said BJP MLA Manoj Tigga.

The anti-defection law was hardly invoked in the West Bengal assembly in the recent past even as more than 35 MLAs had joined from the Left Front, Congress and the BJP to the TMC ever since it came to power in 2011.

In the last assembly, 18 lawmakers of the Congress and the Left had defected to the TMC and eight others to the BJP. Except for Manas Bhuiyan of the Congress, none had forfeited their assembly seats. They were also not disqualified.

The Congress and the Left had jointly moved the court for the enforcement of the law, but the case remained pending.

Two TMC parliamentarians — Kanthi Lok Sabha MP Sisir Adhikari and his Burdwan East counterpart Sunil Mandal — switched to the BJP ahead of the assembly elections. A TMC petition for their disqualification is now lying with Lok Sabha speaker Om Birla.

There have been many such instances of legislators defecting in alleged violation of the law in several other states, including Arunachal Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Goa, Gujarat, Manipur, Nagaland, Telangana and Uttarakhand, in recent years.

In 2017, the BJP formed the government in Manipur after seven legislators of the Congress joined the party. The Congress moved the Speaker to disqualify the seven, but the petitions had been kept pending.

Interestingly, Speaker Y Khemchand disqualified three of the seven MLAs when they pledged their votes to the Congress ahead of the Rajya Sabha election in June last year.

The law has been repeatedly misused and used selectively to form or topple a government or to pass a contentious legislation or to get a candidate elected to the Rajya Sabha.

A total of 405 MLAs switched parties between 2016 and 2020, according to a study by the Association of Democratic Rights (ADR).

To prevent such party hopping, the Tenth Schedule, popularly known as the anti-defection law, was inserted in the Constitution in 1985.

The law said that an elected member of the House shall be disqualified from being a member if he/she joins another party voluntarily giving up membership of the political party on whose ticket he/she contested the elections or “if he votes or abstains from voting in such House contrary to any direction issued by the political party to which he belongs”.

The power to disqualify a member is vested with the Speaker.

However, the provision of the law is rarely enforced by the presiding officer or the speaker, who is usually a nominee of the ruling party.

“The court can intervene in the matter only after the Speaker gives an order. But the law did not specify a time-period for the presiding officer to decide on a disqualification plea, which led to pendency of petitions seeking disqualification of erring members,” pointed out Arindam Das, a senior advocate at the Calcutta High Court.

The Supreme Court, however, last year in K Meghachandra Singh versus Speaker Manipur Legislative Assembly case said that a petition should be disposed of within three months.

“What is reasonable will depend on the facts of each case, but absent exceptional circumstances for which there is good reason, a period of three months from the date on which the petition is filed is the outer limit within which disqualification petitions filed before the Speaker must be decided if the constitutional objective of disqualifying persons who have infracted the Tenth Schedule is to be adhered to,” the Court had remarked.

The apex court’s observation means defectors like Roy may not be able to spend their entire tenure in the assembly now without having to resign.

“I think that the SC judgment in the K Meghachandra case will help in curbing defections of MPs and MLAs as it will expedite disposal of pending disqualification petitions,” said Ningombam Bupenda Meitei, a lawyer and Congress leader from Manipur.

But then the lawmakers can always resign and get re-elected within six months to continue the cycle, until there is an electoral reform banning a defector from contesting the elections at least for the entire remaining term.

“The anti-defection laws need to be strengthened through contemporary amendments to completely check the change of political colour  by elected representatives,” Bupenda added.