It is the Shindes you have to look out for. The rebellion in Maharashtra, which threatens to bring down the Maha Vikas Aghadi government, has been fronted by Eknath Shinde, a Shiv Sena leader who felt neglected and side-lined by the leadership.
But he is not the only Shinde to feel slighted. Though most people do not realise this, before the British arrived and anglicised the name, the Scindias of Gwalior were also Shindes. (When the late Madhavrao Scindia wrote his name in Marathi, he called himself Shinde).
So, in 2020, before this Shinde staged a rebellion and plotted to bring down the Maharashtra government, Jyotiraditya Scindia alias Shinde, had done pretty much the same thing in Madhya Pradesh, by going over to the BJP, taking his MLAs with him and causing the Kamal Nath-led Congress government to fall.
It is possible to overstate the parallels. The Madhya Pradesh revolt did not involve sequestering MLAs in hotels, flying them to other states and there was no question of money being involved in the rebellion. Jyotiraditya Scindia is a man of unimpeachable integrity.
But there are some similarities. Both Shindes believed that promises made to them by the leaderships of their parties had not been kept. Both were under pressure from their MLAs to abandon a government that they felt had not given them their due. And both were prepared to make huge ideological leaps, though you could argue that to go from the Shiv Sena to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is not as massive a jump as the shift from the Congress to the BJP.
Jyotiraditya Shinde (Scindia) has flourished after his move. He is a high-performing cabinet minister and his MLAs have been accommodated in the state government. His example has encouraged other politicians (not just those called Shinde!) to switch over to the BJP and to what they regard as a better future.
It brings home what is fast becoming a central truth of Indian politics. It is not necessary for the BJP to form a government by winning an election. Even if it is defeated (as it was in Madhya Pradesh), it will use pressure and inducements to break the ruling party and try and form a government of its own. Sometimes, the assault on the election verdict fails, as it did in Rajasthan. But all too often, it succeeds.
Sponsoring the rebellion
It is hard to make specific charges without proof so I am going to treat the widely held view among politicians that the revolts are mainly about money as unproven in the Maharashtra case. But even if you do not believe that many of these rebellions have nothing to do with ideology or governance and only involve the buying and selling of MLAs, it is hard to deny that they cost hundreds of crores. Who pays for the charter planes that transport MLAs across the country? How much does it cost to take over five-star hotels and resorts to keep legislators under guard? For some reason, these questions are rarely asked. And even if they are, they are never answered.
Apart from strengthening the legend of the BJP’s invincibility — even if you don’t elect a BJP government, you will end up with one anyhow — these coups and rebellions demonstrate to voters how little election results count for.
When you elect a representative, you don’t really choose a man or a woman who will represent your interests and implement the ideological positions he or she claimed to believe in. An electoral victory now is the political equivalent of a start-up loan. Some MLAs take the mandate we give them and monetise it, becoming political entrepreneurs out to make fortunes for themselves. We, the voters, are merely the suckers who made their prosperity possible.
The cynicism this breeds within the electorate must not be underestimated. At any given time, a political party that wins an election rarely wins with more than 45 per cent of the vote. (Often victories are won with much lower percentages of vote share). Which means that even when Indian democracy is functioning properly, governments in power rarely have the support of the majority, no matter how much we hype their ‘landslide’ victories’.
In most parliamentary democracies, this is not a major problem because, once elected, governments try and be more inclusive, governing also on the behalf of those who did not vote for them.
The problems arise when governments act as though power gives them a right to do whatever they want. The wishes and aspirations of a section of the electorate are ignored. And election results are treated, not as the verdict of the people, but as a starting point for the politics of commerce and greed. It doesn’t matter what promises MLAs made to voters to get elected. Once they are in the assemblies, they are commodities to be bought and traded. Who cares what the electorate voted for?
In 1971, Indira Gandhi won a huge majority at the Lok Sabha election. In 1972, she repeated her triumph at state elections across India. But, by 1974, the Congress was in trouble. Indira Gandhi began to believe that because she had won so many elections, she could do what she wanted. People realised that there was little they could do to register their protests through the elected governments at the Centre and the states. So they took to the streets. By 1975, Indira Gandhi was in so much trouble that she imposed the Emergency. By 1977, she was voted out.
Elections losing relevance
History does not always repeat itself. But what is certainly true is that when people with a grievance find that the political system does not respond to their concerns, they take to the streets. Most times it works. The National Register of Citizens/Citizenship Amendment Act scheme was put on hold after protests. The farm laws were buried after farmers protested. More recently, the protests over Nupur Sharma’s remarks eventually led the BJP to reconsider its position: no more houses are being bulldozed and the Prime Minister has publicly re-asserted his belief in communal harmony by talking about growing up with a Muslim boy who became part of the family.
Even the Agnipath protests, while they have not succeeded in derailing the scheme, have caused the government to announce substantial modifications and concessions.
Nearly all of this could have been avoided if we had parliamentary/legislative democracy that took people into confidence before decisions were announced. One, where elected representatives were sensitive to public opinion and advised the government how far it could go.
Instead, we are heading to a situation where the elections are often irrelevant — because MLAs can be easily led into changing sides once they are elected, where governments can be toppled with ease and where the votes of the electorate are only the first step: money is the second.
So yes, Eknath Shinde may succeed in toppling the Maharashtra government. I have no particular affection for the MVA and will shed no tears at its possible demise. But it’s not about Maharashtra. It is about the relationship between voters and their representatives. And though we hype the popularity of governments, let’s accept that, the relationship between politicians and the people who elect them is already dangerously fragile.
A few more of these entrepreneurial operations and public contempt for politicians will rise to the level where the relationship could well break down.
The author is a print and television journalist, and talk show host. He tweets at @virsanghvi. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)