While Karnataka assembly election has opened up a debate on democracy in India, not much has been said about the blatant violation of the constitution and mockery of the Indian voter that has been continuing in Manipur. Horse trading, defecting, poaching of MLAs – all that Karnataka has been witnessing after the Congress and JD(S) (Janata Dal (Secular))formed an alliance to beat BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) who emerged as the single largest party, have been tested in Manipur for efficiency. BJP seems to have concluded that the practice is, in fact, efficient and is only implementing the ‘tested OK’ version in Karnataka.
It was in March 2017 that in the assembly elections in Manipur, BJP won 21 seats and came second to the Congress, who was the then ruling party. Congress had secured 28 seats but that was three less than the majority required to form a government. Like how Congress formed an alliance with the JD(S) in Karnataka, BJP had its local party allies, namely the Naga People’s Front (NPF) and the National People’s Party (NPP). But even with these seats, BJP was still one short of the majority required to form a government. They only had 30 seats. In the 60 member assembly, they would have to have 31.
The first MLA to be ‘poached’ seems to be Independent MLA, Ashab Uddin. He was said to have been detained by the CISF personnel on duty, a claim which they denied. The New Indian Express reported that the CISF inspector at the airport refused to give any comments saying ‘we have been given instructions’ (by top officials) not to talk on the issue. The Congress had accused the BJP of ‘poaching’ the MLA who, according to Congress had pledged his allegiance to Congress over phone. Ashab Uddin later appeared in the assembly on the BJP side.
This, however, was just the beginning of the bizarre political drama that was to unfurl. BJP required one MLA to hit the 31 mark required to form a government. Without much fuss, they went about to poach a Congress MLA, Thounaojam Shyamkumar Singh. Perhaps for the first time in the history of India, a Congress MLA joined BJP without resigning from Congress. He was awarded a cabinet minister post in the Biren Singh government and is currently the state PDS and consumer affairs, weights and measures, revenue, relief and rehabilitation minister.
The uncanny resemblance to the present Karnataka situation does not end there. Like the BJP empathiser Governor Vajubhai Vala in Karnataka who invited BJP’s Yeddyurappa to take oath as Karnataka chief minister, BJP leader and Manipur Governor Najma Heptulla conducted Shyamkumar Singh’s swearing-in despite the fact that he had violated the Tenth Schedule of the constitution.
The Tenth Schedule is called the ‘Anti-Defection Law’ where defection is the crossing of the floor by a member of a legislature, abandoning a position or association, often to join an opposing group. The reason for the addition of the amendment states that if defection is not combated, ‘it is likely to undermine the very foundations of our democracy and the principles which sustain it.‘ This, however did not seem to matter to BJP as it went ahead with Shyamkumar Singh and still continues to be in power.
Singh never resigned from the Congress and when former Congress Chief Minister Ibobi Singh was asked how a Congress MLA made his way into the BJP cabinet, he said, ‘Please ask him (that question),’ referring to Shyamkumar Singh. Congress served Singh a show-cause notice which didn’t yield a reply. In fact, the unabashed manner of violation of the Constitution became even more pronounced when Shyam Kumar’s name was announced during the swearing-in ceremony and it was answered with a loud cheer in the Raj Bhawan hall room occupied by BJP leaders and supporters.
Later, the Congress expelled Shyamkumar Singh from the party for 6 years for indulging in ‘anti-party activities.’ Manipur Pradesh Congress Committee (MPCC) president T.N. Haokip was of the opinion that it was the ‘first time in the political history of India that an MLA-elect of an opposition party has defected and joined the ruling coalition government directly as a minister.’
While speaking to the Wire, Rajkumar Imo Singh, Congress MLA and MPCC general secretary (administration), said that the Congress had thereafter lodged a complaint against Singh at the Speaker’s court, seeking his disqualification under the anti-defection law. He said that since both the speaker (Yumnam Khemchand) and the deputy speaker (Kongkham Robindro) are from the BJP, they refused to take action against Shyamkumar.
Congress also approached the High Court seeking Singh’s disqualification. ‘Nothing has happened since and Shyamkumar continues to be in the BJP even after winning the elections on a Congress ticket,’ Rajkumar told the Wire.
This impunity enjoyed by the Congress-BJP minister could be the reason why in April 2017, four more Congress MLAs shifted allegiance to the BJP without resigning from their constituencies won on Congress tickets and thereby reducing the number of Congress seats to 22 from 28. The four MLAs, Y. Surchandra, Ngamthang Haokip, O Lukhoi and S Bira were felicitated by chief minister N. Biren Singh and state unit president K. Bhabanada at the BJP office, reported the Hindustan Times.
State Congress president TN Haokip had then remarked, about the turn of events, ‘things have changed after the election. Friends have become foes. There is nothing called principle or ideology. Those who crossed floor are not afraid of disqualification.’ Again, petitions were given to speaker Y. Khemchand seeking to disqualify the MLAs under the Tenth Schedule.
In July 2017, two more MLAs, Kshetrimayum Biren Singh and Paonam Brojen, joined BJP.
As if these violations did not suffice, the MLAs who switched over don’t sit in the treasury benches but with the opposition when the assembly is in session just to avoid the anti-defection law, the Wire reported journalist Laba Yambem as saying.
While the situation in Karnataka is being seen as a political thriller unfurling in front of the voters, the Manipur violations have not been pursued by the media with the same vigour. It remains a mystery how Congress MLAs crossed floor with the votes people gave them to take positions of a cabinet minister and other trophies in the BJP government. While the media is unable to stop talking about the ‘death of democracy’ in Karnataka, there seems to have been no such obituary in the case of Manipur whose Chief Minister Biren Singh was once a journalist.