The country has been in an election mode for a long time. Now that the Election Commission has announced the election dates, it is apparent that we are in for over the next two months, to repetitious speeches extolling the virtues of different political parties, but mostly of their leaders, who now seem to have become more important than the individuals who have been selected to represent their constituencies.

Resultantly, the party has become supreme and not the selected representative of the constituency. In some cases only one person calls all the shots and exhorts the polity to vote for him, and he will ensure that all such votes reach where they are supposed to. It is such utterances that bring back the long-forgotten colonial phrase of “Divine Right of Kings”!

Notwithstanding the above, we still call ourselves the largest democracy in the world! How our political system has been twisted and turned, with nary a word of protest from those who are called intellectuals of the nation.

Hence, this particular election may well make our very few senior political leaders more important than the humble MP or MLA. The latter just hangs around and waves or chants jingles in praise of the big man, while the cat whiskers of the political party’s lord over.

Road Shows, and well-modulated and emotional speeches shower vengeance on the opposition, twist data or outrightly spread lies. leaders inaugurate various Central and State Governments projects, irrespective of the huge costs pledged, invoke various Gods and Goddesses, and with great fanfare introduce yet another Turncoat with great glee as their best deed of the day.

Two observations here. First, a road show is an Indian innovation, looked at with awe by foreign visiting heads of state or others, who really do not understand what is going on. The reader may recall the formal recent event where the Chief Guest, President Macron of France, had accompanied our Prime Minister on a road show in Jaipur, and the expressions on the Chief Guests face!

Second, all defections are duly reported with photographs by the senior honchos of the parties. They receive the defector with wide grins as if they had achieved the equivalent of a gold medal. They stuff the defectors mouth with a ladoo, maybe to ensure that he does not spill the beans of the process.

Another recent case is that of a shameless judge of a high court, who forgot the oath taken at the beginning of his career, and his exalted status. He chucked it all up by opting to become a turncoat, for some ephemeral gains. People like me fail to understand such behaviour.

It is this last subject, that of the increasing number of defectors/turncoats, on which I wish to dwell in some detail. In recent years, their numbers are increasing alarmingly, but instead of shaming such persons for their treacherous behaviour, they are being projected as heroes.

Turncoats have been a feature of electoral democracies for a long time, especially in third-world countries. The term essentially refers to a candidate contesting an election under a different party’s ticket than the one of which they have previously been a part.

Turncoat comes from the ancient practice of wearing a badge or pin on one's coat signifying the party or leader you supported. By "turning your coat" you quite literally hid your allegiance to others.

It is often used interchangeably with defector. While they are similar, they are not quite the same. Turncoat is worse: it implies no possibility of any good or honest motive.

With the election process having commenced, political parties have not left any stone unturned in getting their flocks together. I have no quarrel with that.

However, they continue to devise stratagems to ensure that they field the most appropriate candidates, also called ‘winnable’ candidates. Since vast sums have been accumulated by political parties by fair means and foul, mostly the latter as is being revealed in the Electoral Bonds case, those with extra deep pockets have resorted to buying off the so called ‘winnable’ candidates by a number of means.

In this respect, whichever party has an abundance of funds does better than the others. Most political leaders, irrespective of party affiliations, are up for sale, since their focus is on power and pelf, with which they are all more than familiar.

Broadly, there are only a few steps in how this is done. Getting what is known in political parlance as a ‘Ticket’, winning a seat, and setting themselves up for at least the next five years, is what both senior and young aspirants in the political arena dream about.

Those who have character, are wedded to what their parties’ policies are and what they stand for. They want to work for uplifting the lot of the people of their constituencies. They bide their time in their parties patiently and learn the ropes, but those without patience or loyalty or character, jump ship by selling themselves to the highest bidder.

These are the modern-day turncoats, earlier known as ‘Aya Ram Gaya Ram’. They have no qualms in selling themselves in the election market, somewhat akin to the slave markets of yore, but now given a somewhat respectable name like ‘horse trading’

Everyone understands the depth of degradation they have reached, substituting the primary jobs of political leaders, viz. improving the lot of their flocks, with setting themselves up for the next few years if not more.

Add to this, agents of political parties with deep pockets who are spread all over the country. They are tasked with identifying candidates who have a fair number of supporters but are unable to get the elusive ‘ticket’ from their own party, and are thus available to switch allegiance.

Defection used to be somewhat of a non-event in the early years of our Independence, but slowly and steadily this virus has spread. It is now everywhere and since both buyers and sellers are available, business is peaking.

In the last ten years or so, it has become the primary means of toppling governments and individuals, and increasing one’s headcount in Parliament and State Assemblies. A great shame indeed.

Let me digress a little and learn what kind of a person drops the political party he has been in for many years, and in some cases has inherited such a mantle from his family, suddenly, drops everything and runs, when he hears the jingling of precious metal or the rustle of crisp banknotes! If this is not rampant corruption, what is?

We must also remember that it takes two to be corrupt, the giver and the taker. Obviously, our laws are inadequate and have loopholes, which must be plugged.

This, of course, is the sordid picture that emerges in the so-called largest democracy in the world. Winning seats and hence the numbers game has become the number one aim of the heads of political parties.

They want to give their favourite leader, on whom they depend on their own appointments, the numbers he has announced. They forget the high values they talk about but do not follow. This is best described by the old Indian proverb, “‘Bagal mein churi, munh men Ram Ram’”

A few important points about our anti-defection laws need to be mentioned to get the perspective right. The anti-defection law punishes individual members of Parliament (MPs)/Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) leaving one party for another.

The Parliament had added it to the Constitution as the Tenth Schedule 1985 in order to bring stability to governments by discouraging legislators from changing parties.

The Tenth Schedule, popularly known as the Anti-Defection Act was included in the Constitution via the 52nd Amendment Act, 1985.

It sets the provisions for the disqualification of elected members on the grounds of defection to another political party. It was a response to the toppling of multiple state governments by party-hopping MLAs after the general elections of 1967.

However, it allows a group of MP/MLAs to join (i.e., merge with) another political party without inviting the penalty for defection. And it does not penalise political parties for encouraging or accepting defecting legislators.

As per the 1985 Act, a 'defection' by one-third of the elected members of a political party was considered a 'merger'. However, the 91st Constitutional Amendment Act, 2003, changed this.

Now at least two-thirds of the members of a party must be in favour of a "merger" for it to have validity in the eyes of the law. The members disqualified under the law can stand for elections from any political party for a seat in the same House.

The decision on disqualification on ground of defection are referred to the Chairman or the Speaker of the House. It is subject to ‘Judicial Review’. However, the law does not provide a timeframe within which the presiding officer has to decide a defection case.

The fallout of the Defection Law is that it affects the political system adversely, especially on account of subversion of electoral mandates by legislators who get elected on the ticket of one party, but then find it convenient to shift to another, due to the lure of ministerial berths or financial gains.

Defection leads to instability in the government and affects the administration. It also promotes horse-trading of legislators, which clearly goes against the mandate of a democratic setup.

The numbers joining the defectors’ bandwagon have become alarming, both at the commencement of elections and later during the ‘toppling games’. they have unfortunately crossed all limits.

A ballpark figure being quoted is that in the last 10 years, nearly 800 elected netas had changed their allegiance in both state and Central levels from the party from where they were elected. I fear that soon there will be more defectors than regularly elected MP’s and MLA’s.

Soon any ruling party will actually be a burgeoning group of turncoats having allegiance to themselves, or rather the money, pelf and promises he or she gets. This state of affairs will result in oligarchs ruling the country, with defectors of all hues and colours providing foot soldiers when needed. That will be the demise of democracy, of which we are so proud.

Lt General Vijay Oberoi is a former Vice Chief of Army Staff and the Former Founder Director of the Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), and now its Director General Emeritus. Views expressed are the writer’s own.