Explained snippets – This Word Means: Horse trading

This expression rushed back into currency as soon as it became clear that Karnataka had produced a hung Assembly on Tuesday. What is the political behaviour that it describes?

The Cambridge Dictionary describes horse trading as shrewd, often difficult, discussions among people or organisations trying to make a business arrangement, where each tries to get something more favourable to them. The origins of the expression lie in the nineteenth century, when the traders of horses were seen to be especially crafty or calculating. In modern British English, it refers to unofficial negotiations that involve hard bargaining and give-and-take, and various degrees of compromise, and carries a general sense of disapproval.

In the Indian context, horse trading has been commonly used since the mid-1980s when political defections became frequent, and MLAs and MPs were approached to act outside expected party positions and help rivals sometimes form governments. It usually involved loaves and fishes, the lure of office, and is seen as political corruption.

Aya Ram, Gaya Ram

This most eloquent evocation of the politics of horse trading is a contribution of Haryana to the Indian political lexicon. But horse trading is far from just being just a Haryana phenomenon.

In 1967, when the first non-Congress governments were formed in India, the Haryana MLA Gaya Lal managed to switch to, and back from, the United Front thrice in 15 days — one crossover happened within just nine hours. When he finally rejoined the Congress, Congress leader Rao Birender Singh produced him at a press conference and announced, “Gaya Ram is now Aya Ram.”
While entire cabinets have defected in Haryana, several states have seen the phenomenon of floor-crossing. In the so-called JMM bribery case, the minority government of P V Narasimha Rao survived in 1993 after Jharkhand Mukti Morcha MPs supported the government, allegedly in return for cash. While Rao was ultimately acquitted, the long-running scandal raised a lot of awareness about the phenomenon of elected representatives switching political loyalties, often for dubious reasons.The 52nd Amendment, which came into force in 1985 when Rajiv Gandhi was Prime Minister, inserted the Tenth Schedule in the Constitution, popularly known as the ‘anti-defection law’, which laid down a process for the disqualification of legislators on grounds of defection. A provision in the law that is relevant to the situation in Karnataka prohibits the breaking away of any section of legislators smaller than two-thirds of the strength of their party in the House. The anti-defection law has generally been seen as providing stability to the government by preventing shifts of party allegiance. However, a summary of the draft working paper of the Law Commission on simultaneous elections to Lok Sabha and state Assemblies circulated last month lists, among its possible recommendations, that “in order to prevent a stalemate… in the case of Hung Parliament/Assembly, the rigour of ‘Anti-Defection law’… be removed as an exception”.

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