India's high-stakes party switchers

In India politicians switch party allegiances almost routinely, but the practice is controversial.

To some it seems to provide an incentive for deals leading to corruption and even to threaten the democracy the country inherited from Britain. Yet the custom of crossing from one party to another is as much a part of India's election scene as ballot boxes and rallies.

Politicians are often regarded with cynicism. Cash and the lure of power - with its possibilities for making money on the side - are commonly seen as the driving forces behind defections.

One national newspaper put the going rate for legislators pursued by both Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's Congress-I Party and the opposition in the northern state of Haryana at $160,000.

Wooing of defectors is a game all parties play. Stakes are high: Old governments tumble if opposition parties steal supporters. New ones are formed when enough legislators cross the aisle to form a new majority. Defections make it difficult for voters to choose between candidates: They have no assurance of how a politician will behave once he is elected. It is a rare Indian who believes ideology or party policy motivates a switchover.

Before last month's election for the state assembly in Haryana, threats of firm disciplinary action thundered from the Delhi headquarters of India's ruling Congress-I Party. They were directed at rebellious state legislators who, denied their party's renominations, dared to run as independents against Congress-I candidates. But when the ruling party came up short at the polls, the firm action turned out to be a warm welcome back. For six winning rebels, ready to rejoin the fold, state ministerial jobs were the rewards.

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