About 40 lawmakers in Maharashtra threatened to withdraw support for the state government
Politics in India has once again shifted from legislative assemblies to luxury hotels.
The newest spectacle takes place in the richest Indian state of Maharashtra. About 40 lawmakers – led by influential minister Eknath Shinde – reside at an upscale hotel thousands of miles from home in the city of Guwahati in the northeastern state of Assam.
The democratic process in India allows any party that can prove it has a majority – more than half in the legislature – to form a government. So, when electoral margins are low, governments – especially coalitions – run the risk of rival parties, and sometimes even their unhappy lawmakers, tearing the rug out from under their feet.
This can lead to what is referred to as “spa policy” – where the political party gathers lawmakers and takes them to a well-guarded resort or hotel where they are closely watched to keep them from escaping.
And leaders do their best to stop their opponents. Reports say Shinde moved his group as far as Assam, partly because Gujarat – where they were initially taken – was “too close to Maharashtra,” increasing the risk of disgruntled lawmakers returning to Prime Minister Uddhav Thackeray.
The rebellious politicians belong to Shiv Sen’s party, which currently rules Maharashtra as part of a coalition with the Congress Party and the regional Nationalist Congressional Party (NCP).
Shinde and lawmakers are now threatening to withdraw their support for the coalition, bringing it to the brink of collapse.
Reports say Shinde is likely to form a new coalition with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). However, BJP denies having played any role in the crisis.
Dramatic videos of Maharashtra lawmakers running from Gujarat airport to catch a flight to Assam went viral on Wednesday. Politicians were confronted with a group of reporters who bumped into them as they made detours while complaining to avoid a collision.
“It looks like a footage from a movie,” wrote a social media user.
Such performances are not new and date back to the 1980s, when political parties first began relocating their lawmakers to resorts when they feared desertion.
In the past, some places have gained fame by hosting politicians who made decisions to create or break governments.
In 1983, Karnataka’s chief minister of state, Ramakrishna Hegde, sent his lawmakers to a luxury resort after he feared a rival party was trying to overthrow his government.
A year later, similar scenes took place in Andhra Pradesh, where former Prime Minister Chandrababu Naidu sent several lawmakers to vote in accordance with his plans in the upcoming confidence vote.
While these stories were largely told by newspapers in the 1980s, politics today is played out on TV channels as well as on social media.
In 2019, when the Karnataka state government decided that the opposition party was making efforts to its lawmakers, it transferred them to a luxury resort. The video showing them resting while the state stares at political uncertainty has become popular.
The fate of the government of Maharashtra – led by Uddhav Thackeray (L) hangs in the balance
Critics say this indicates a weakening of democratic structures in political parties.
“Lawmakers are sometimes forced to switch sides because they are powerless compared to higher party leaders,” explains political scientist Rahul Verma.
“Their appointment depends on loyalty to the leader, so they try to stick to one camp or the other.”
Political writer Sudhir Suryavanshi agrees.
“Ethics, principles and adherence to ideology and parties do not play any role now. Every elected representative wants to remain in power, ”he says.
India’s anti-defection law forbids individual lawmakers to switch sides. However, the law does not apply when the number of lawmakers who leave a political party is two-thirds of its legislative power.
This is the reason why desertions usually happen in large numbers.
There are over 40 legislators from Shiv Sen’s party in the hotel
India has dozens of strong regional parties, and state elections often produce fragmented results, leaving room for desertions.
“If you have too many small players in any market, there will always be one player who will always consolidate the competition or become a monopoly. That’s how politicians work, ”explains Verma.
And whenever these desertions take place, the meeting places are often picturesque resorts or exclusive hotels. Some lawmakers have been caught in front of the camera playing cricket and cards and lounging in resorts while plunging their states into a political crisis.
Politicians are being forced to turn off all digital devices, including cell phones, and are under the watchful eye of senior leaders.
In 2019, Congressional Party lawmakers in the state of Rajasthan were invited to magic shows and movie nights at the hotel where they stayed amid days of intense internal struggle between two senior state leaders. Their little vacation has inspired tons of memes and jokes on the Internet.
In 2019, Rajasthan State Congress leaders spent their days at the center amidst internal struggles
But things don’t always go as planned, especially when some lawmakers are starting to guess their move.
There have been reports of lawmakers trying to escape from their luxury hotels.
Also this time, some Shiv Sena leaders in Maharashtra shared vivid details of what they called “capture” and eventual “escape”.
Kailas Patil said some rebel leaders told him they were going to dinner in Mumbai and tried instead to drive him to the neighboring state of Gujarat. He claimed to have escaped from the car, but had to walk many miles until he hitchhiked on a motorcycle and later in a truck to return to Mumbai.
Another legislator, Shiv Sena, argued that some people forcibly admitted him to the hospital when he tried to flee his hotel in Gujarat. He still managed to escape, and now he has promised his support to Mr. Thackeraya.
Experts say that while such a drama could be good prime time television, it also points to a rapidly deteriorating ethics in politics.