The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Indian political parties resort to extreme measure to prevent their candidates from switching sides: Sequestering them

Indian Youth Congress workers protest outside the Sofitel hotel in Mumbai in 2019. (Satish Bate/Hindustan Times/Getty Images)

NEW DELHI — As election season in India neared its climax this week, more than three dozen politicians gathered on Tuesday at a high-security resort in the beachfront state of Goa. For more than a day, they had remained inside, appearing to do little except mingle with their colleagues while sequestered from the outside world.

That, apparently, is precisely where their political party, the Indian National Congress, wanted them.

As several states prepare to announce election results Thursday and the formation of new state governments, India is again witnessing a peculiar phenomenon that has cropped up in the immediate aftermath of several back-to-back elections: the isolation of politicians to prevent other parties from wooing them and inducing last-minute defections.

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In the past five years, the sequestrations in palm-fringed resorts, five-star Mumbai hotels and hilltop lodges have become increasingly common, to the point where the practice has been coined “resort politics” in Indian media. The tactic has often been associated with the Congress party, the once-dominant party of Mohandas Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi that has seen its grip over Indian politics — and over its own straying members — loosen in recent years.

Political observers say the phenomenon points to a deeper problem: the frequency and ease with which India’s elected officials swap parties in exchange for political appointments, sometimes just days after campaigning on a platform and winning a race.

“Accepting the outcome of an election is a feature of a healthy democracy, but trying to alter results through defections is a serious breach that’s become normalized in Indian elections,” said Gilles Verniers, a professor of political science at Ashoka University. Verniers said that by trying to woo defectors this week, political parties can prevent their rivals from gaining enough seats to form a government, effectively “betraying the voters’ mandate.”

The world’s most populous democracy has a long history with footloose lawmakers. The most famous case was Gaya Lal, a politician from Haryana who switched parties three times in the span of two weeks in 1967. Lal’s maneuvering spawned the popular Hindi saying “Aaya Ram gaya Ram” — “Ram came, Ram went” — to describe the about-faces and horse-trading so frequently observed in Indian legislatures.

In 1985, India, under a Congress government, passed an “anti-defection law” to discourage lawmakers from jumping ship, but it has proved largely ineffective.

In the modern era, political experts say, the Congress party began to take the issue seriously in 2017 after a particularly humiliating defeat in Goa’s state elections. The party had won 17 seats, more than the Bharatiya Janata Party’s 13. Neither party had enough to claim a majority in the 40-seat state assembly, but the BJP scored a coup in the subsequent days by flipping legislators from rival parties and forming a government. One of the Congress defectors went on to become Goa’s health minister under the BJP. Another defector was eventually rewarded the position of deputy chief minister, the state’s No. 2 role.

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Since then, political parties have gone to extreme lengths to keep their legislators under close watch. During a political showdown in Karnataka state in 2019, a dozen lawmakers were flown to the glitzy Sofitel hotel in Mumbai, while others were sent to hillside villas with pools. When a struggle broke out for control of Madhya Pradesh in 2020, the BJP locked its lawmakers in a posh hotel near the Delhi airport, while the Congress party packed its assembly members off to the tourist city of Jaipur. By the time the dust settled, the Congress party had ceded control of Madhya Pradesh to the BJP.

According to a 2001 analysis by the Association for Democratic Reforms, a nonpartisan group of Indian academics, 433 out of a total of nearly 5,000 national and state lawmakers switched parties between 2016 and 2020, with 170 defecting from the Congress party. Control of five state governments changed hands during that time because of defections, the report said.

Indian commentators have increasingly voiced concerns about the trend and what it means for their country’s political system.

“For today’s politicians, power is the essence of life. Ideology, political commitment and loyalty are variables,” P. Raman, a veteran political journalist in New Delhi, wrote in an op-ed in Wednesday’s Indian Express. “It is more like business executives seeking better career options. It’s purely transactional.”

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As elections approached this year, political parties prepared countermeasures. The Aam Aadmi Party required its candidates to sign legal affidavits guaranteeing loyalty. The Congress party in Goa escorted its candidates to a Hindu temple, a mosque and a church so they could vow, in the presence of their respective gods, that they would not jump ship. The party posted the photos on Twitter with the hashtag #PledgeOfLoyalty.

More bizarre scenes unfolded Wednesday. Indian TV crews flocking to Goa with less than 24 hours left before the announcement of the results in the closely fought election. Some outlets reported that the opposition Aam Aadmi Party had its candidates hunkered in several secret locations. Speaking from his garden, the local BJP leader confidently told reporters that the ruling party would win and “didn’t need to resort to resort politics.”

The Congress party, meanwhile, was making an effort to shield its candidates while maintaining a veneer of normalcy. The party’s spokespeople said no one was forced to stay at the resort against their will. One senior party official came out from the beachfront resort to insist that the men inside were simply grabbing lunch. Another official, former Goa chief minister Digambar Kamat, told reporters that the politicians were in town to celebrate his birthday.

Speaking to NDTV under swaying palm trees outside the resort, Kamat said he would have hosted his colleagues, but “my house was too small.”

Kamat toed the party line for several minutes, coolly deflecting the reporter’s questions by discussing his birthday, until she asked whether the Congress party was worried about a repeat of 2017, when the BJP poached Congress politicians from under their nose.

“Last time was a murder of democracy,” he replied, his voice laced with anger. “You have to learn to respect the people. If you don’t respect the people’s mandate, then there is no democracy.”

Anant Gupta contributed to this report.