Kolkata: Dipali Biswas won the 2016 assembly election on a Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPI(M)] ticket from Gajole in Malda district, switched over to the Trinamool Congress (TMC) in another two months and stayed with the party until December 2020, when she joined the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), along with rebel heavyweight Suvendu Adhikari. It was Adhikari who brought her to the TMC and he also took her to the BJP. However, winning on one party’s ticket and serving two others did not cause her to lose her membership in the state legislature.
The CPI(M)’s complaints before the assembly speaker Biman Banerjee, who has been occupying the chair since Mamata Banerjee came to power in 2011, did not elicit any ruling from him. When she switched over to the BJP, the TMC did not approach the speaker because she was, formally, still a CPI(M) MLA.
The case of Dulal Bar was similar. Winning the 2016 elections on a Congress ticket with the CPI(M)’s backing, he joined the TMC ahead of the 2018 panchayat election and switched over to the BJP immediately ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. He later took charge of the BJP’s SC Morcha. But it did not cost him his tenure despite the Congress lodging a complaint with the speaker, seeking his disqualification.
So, when TMC MLAs Biswajit Das, Sunil Singh, Subhranshu Roy, Wilson Champramari, Sukra Munda and Sabyasachi Dutta joined the BJP in 2019, there was no action against them either, ostensibly because any action could open a floodgate for the complaints that had been lodged by the Congress and the CPI(M) over the defection of MLAs in the previous years.
After all, more than three dozen MLAs from the Congress and Left parties had joined the TMC between 2011 and 2020. Only three resigned to contest assembly by-elections on the new party’s ticket. Some were given the TMC’s ticket for the Lok Sabha or Rajya Sabha elections and resigned from the assembly. None of the rest lost their membership of the House.
The Tenth Schedule of the constitution, which is popularly referred to as the anti-defection law, says, under the heading of “disqualification on ground of defection”, that a member of a house belonging to any political party shall be disqualified if he or she has a) voluntarily given up membership of such political party; or (b) votes or abstains from voting in such House contrary to any direction issued by the political party to which he belongs
The root of the problem also lies in the provisions of the law. It says that on the question of defection, the decision of the speaker was final. It does not set a time limit for the speaker to arrive at his decision.
The Bengal assembly speaker never arrived at a decision.
Asked why none of the legislators facing defection charges had been disqualified during the past ten years, Biman Banerjee told The Wire, “I can’t say now.”
The mysterious case of Mukul Roy
After former railway minister and first-time MLA Mukul Roy’s return to the TMC earlier this month, Suvendu Adhikari, now the leader of the opposition, said he will ensure the application of the anti-defection legislation in the state, no matter what it took. Roy did not resign while changing camp.
But both the TMC and the BJP having been involved in engineering defections and Suvendu Adhikari’s claims may not mean much. Pat came the TMC’s response to his remarks. “He should first ask his father to resign,” said TMC state unit general secretary Kunal Ghosh, referring to Suvendu’s father, the Kanthi Lok Sabha MP Sisir Adhikari, who joined switched over to the BJP from the TMC.
The TMC’s Lok Sabha leader, Sudip Banerjee, has already written twice to the Lok Sabha speaker Om Birla and spoke to him over the phone once, seeking the disqualification of Sisir Adhikari and Bardhaman East MP Sunil Mandal. However, Birla is also not bound by any time limit to make his decision.
Any such disqualification would result in a by-election to be held within the next six months. If such a situation arises, the BJP cannot be too hopeful of winning these two Lok Sabha seats.
This is where Roy’s decision not to resign from the assembly has intrigued political observers. In 2017, before joining the BJP in November, he had first resigned from the Rajya Sabha. This is the same procedure that Adhikari himself followed before joining the BJP, but Adhikari had completed his tenure because the elections were less than six months away in any case.
But Roy’s decision this time to switch camp without resigning came as a surprise, as he is also known as a leader who was not comfortable in the role. He was reluctant to contest the elections in the first place. On the question of by-election, given the massive mandate with which the TMC came to power, and the state of disarray in which the BJP is currently in, the TMC should not be worried about winning those.
According to a senior TMC leader who spoke to The Wire on the condition of anonymity, Roy himself wanted to resign but the party asked him not to.
“The more the BJP highlights his case, the more limelight the matters of Sisir Adhikari and Sunil Mandal will naturally draw,” he said, adding, “Of course we have no problem is asking defectors to resign and get re-elected but we would not do that until the matter of the two Lok Sabha MPs is solved.”
Defection: History of a decade
The defection of elected public representatives had been a rare phenomenon in Bengal politics for decades, except when some leaders switched camps from the Congress to the TMC, after the latter was born out of the former in 1998. The Left and the Congress, which were the principal rivals for the first five decades of Independence, never poached leaders from each other.
But defections emerged as a dominant political component soon after the fall of the four-year-old Congress-TMC alliance in September 2012, with the TMC withdrawing from the Congress-led government at the Centre and the Congress from the TMC-led government in the state.
The first defections from the Congress happened in November 2012, with Krishnendu Narayan Chowdhury of the English Bazar constituency in Malda district and Humayun Kabir of Rejinagar in Murshidabad joining the TMC. In an apparent bid to encourage other Congress MLAs to defect, Chowdhury and Kabir were rewarded with a place in the cabinet. Both of them resigned from the assembly to contest by-elections on the TMC’s ticket. Chowdhury won and continued with his ministerial stint, while Kabir lost and had to resign from the cabinet. The next to defect was Ajoy De, who recently died. He had won the 2011 elections on a Congress ticket for a fifth straight term but joined the TMC in November 2013. He, too, resigned and won the May 2014 by-election. He was the last to do so.
From 2014 onwards, none who joined the TMC resigned, unless the person had to contest a Lok Sabha or Rajya Sabha election on the TMC’s ticket. None of them had to face disqualification.
Between 2014 and 2016, 14 legislators switched over to the TMC, of whom two – RSP’s Dasharath Tirkey and Forward Bloc’s Sunil Mandal – had resigned from the assembly to contest the 2014 Lok Sabha election on the TMC’s ticket. The 12 others took time and resigned in March 2016, only after the TMC had named them as candidates for the April-May 2016 assembly election.
These dozen leaders were: Abu Naser Khan Chowdhury, Gholam Rabbani, Asit Mal, Imani Biswas, Umapada Bauri and Sushil Roy from the Congress, Chhaya Dolui and Nabin Chandra Bag from the CPI(M), Udayan Guha and Tajmul Hossain from the Forward Bloc and Anantadeb Adhikari from the RSP.
Defections kept hitting the Left and the Congress in Mamata Banerjee’s second term too, beginning within a couple of months of her return to power. Dipali Biswas of the CPI(M) and Tushar Kanti Bhattacharya of the Congress were the first defectors. They took up the party flag on the dais of the TMC’s flagship annual event on July 21. This was followed by the defection of the Congress’s Manas Bhuniya, a former state unit president, in September 2016.
According to Congress leaders, Bhuniya took up the TMC’s flag at a public meeting, spoke against the party inside the House. And yet, during a hearing called by the speaker, he said that he was still with the Congress. He did not even resign immediately after Banerjee named him as a Rajya Sabha candidate in May 2017. The resignation only came in July, just a few days before he submitted his nomination.
Then, in early 2017, Bankura’s Congress MLA Shampa Daripa started sitting on the treasury bench in the assembly that is reserved for ruling party legislators. A few months, later Abhishek Banerjee publicly announced that the Bankura MLA had joined the TMC. But she completed her term nevertheless, so did the RSP’s Direndranath Layek, who joined the TMC at a public event in Bankura in February 2018.
Veteran CPI(M) leader Sujan Chakraborty, who was the leader of the Left parties in the last assembly, said that the parties had written to the speaker about Dipali Biswas numerous times, but nothing came of it.
“The speaker conducted 23 hearings but nothing happened. She skipped one hearing after another but the speaker kept allowing her more time. We submitted all relevant documents, media reports of her joining the TMC, even the TMC’s announcements of allotting her a party position, and examples from the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha of how much time speakers took to decide on such matters. But nothing worked,” Chakraborty said.
Chakraborty added that after Biswas joined the BJP in December 2020, the CPI(M) wrote another letter to the speaker. “This time, we wrote that the speaker should not have any problem anymore since she had now joined the BJP. We all knew what was happening but we just wanted to keep things on record,” Chakraborty said.
Asked how she responded during the hearing, Biswas told The Wire, “Yes, the speaker held a few hearings but since the five-year tenure is over, what’s the gain in talking about it now?”
Taking a lesson from this case, when two more CPI(M) MLAs defected in 2017 and 2018 – Abdur Rejjak and Kanai Mandal from Murshidabad district – the CPI(M) expelled them promptly. The RSP took the same measure when Layek switched over to the TMC.
Once expelled from a party, a member becomes independent and does not have to face disqualification for the rest of the tenure. This is why the Congress never expelled its defector MLAs. They usually suspended these MLAs from the party and pursued the case of disqualification with the Speaker.
Veteran Congress leader Abdul Mannan, who was the leader of the opposition in the last assembly, said that the anti-defection law has turned into a farce because the speaker of any House is not bound by a time limit to arrive at his decision. Once he announces a decision, it can be challenged in court. But there is no scope for approaching the judiciary until the speaker has announced his decision.
“Our MLAs took up TMC flags in the presence of Mamata Banerjee but the speaker never arrived at a decision on a single defector,” said Mannan, adding that they kept pursuing every single case of defection but nothing worked.
He cited the example of Goutam Das, a Congress MLA from Gangarampur in Dakshin Dinajpur district, and Dulal Bar, a Congress MLA from Bagda in North 24-Parganas, who switched over to the TMC ahead of the 2018 panchayat elections. The Gangarampur MLA went on to become the TMC’s district unit president in 2020, while Bar had joined the BJP in 2019. Neither faced disqualification.
“People are laughing as they see the BJP and the TMC lock horns over the implementation of the anti-defection law. The TMC has perfected the art of which the BJP has been a master at the national scale. Suvendu Adhikari, who is now targeting the TMC over non-implementation of the anti-defection law, was one of the architects of the TMC’s defection drive. While getting one CPI(M) or Congress leader after another to join the TMC, did Adhikari ever ask his party to respect the law? Did any of those whom Adhikari took from the Congress or the CPI(M) resign?” Mannan asked.
Notably, just ten days before Abdur Rejjak joined the TMC in Suvendu Adhikari’s presence, Adhikari had proudly announced, in cricketing jargon, “I am going take another wicket of the CPI(M).”
For the TMC, Mukul Roy, Suvendu Adhikari and Abhishek Banerjee had been the key leaders who engineered defections in the opponent’s camps. After switching over to the BJP, Roy and Adhikari played the same role there.
Now that Roy is back, there seems to be another round of khela hobey, a game of defections. And whether the Bengal assembly speaker will arrive at any decision regarding any complaint depends significantly on how the Lok Sabha Speaker is going to deal with the complaints against Sisir Adhikari and Sunil Mandal.
Snigdhendu Bhattacharya is a journalist and author based in Kolkata.