TCPD Columns

Turncoats: State Politics or National Ideology?

With the Karnataka Assembly election nearing, it is important to look back to the previous election. May 2018 was a turbulent time for MLAs and constituencies across the state – the phrase “resort politics,” which quite literally means putting MLAs up in resorts, became quite common. 

The first round of Legislative Assembly polls resulted in a hung assembly, with the BJP having received the largest number of votes, but not enough for a simple majority. The Congress then gave their support to the Janata Dal (Secular), or the JDS, Karnataka’s most popular regional party and the runners up of the election, and then somehow managed to form the government. However, shortly after the 2019 General Elections, 16 INC-JDS legislators resigned, and 2 independent MLAs switched their support to the BJP, once again turning the Assembly and finally allowing BS Yediyurappa to take office. 

This begs the question of party allegiance – how different are the ideologies of the two sides, and how cohesive are they with the ideologies of each candidate? Is this gap growing wider, and does it matter more or less as time progresses? 

Turncoats have been a feature of electoral democracies for as long as they have been around. The term essentially refers to a candidate contesting an election under a different party’s ticket than the one of which they have previously been a part. They are not defectors, but they leave behind one party’s ideology for another. The reason they are relevant to this discussion is just that there exists a culture of politicians switching around their party alignments in the state. 

The reason that the Legislative Assembly exists in the first place is to separate local governance from national politics; the idea is that local politicians, or state-specific politicians will have ideologies, knowledge, and capabilities specific to particular states that don’t necessarily translate to that of large national parties. The rising effects of polarisation and a greater focus on abstract concepts has led the two phenomena of state politics and national ideology to converge at an alarming rate. 

Now, let’s look at some numbers. The following is a graphical representation of the strike rate of turncoat candidates versus a general strike rate of political parties in Karnataka over the years. There are certain data points, such as the first two, which are statistically unreliable simply because the sample size is not large enough – for example, in 1989, only one candidate was a turncoat in favour of the BJP. However, data points after 1994, which is the second point, are quite sizeable. 

Figure 1

As is shown, in 2013, right before the 2014 general elections where the Modi wave took the nation by storm, being a turncoat in favour of the BJP was rewarded by the electorate, while the same for the congress was punished. In 2018, the most recent election, both strike rates converged almost exactly. 

In the approaching Legislative Assembly elections, it remains to be seen how both parties fare, but in the last 5 years, especially after BJP’s Chief Minister Basavaraj Bommai took office, Karnataka has been the subject of several religion-based issues, with the arrest of the Hindu Mahasabha leader in Mangaluru, the Muslim neighbourhood voter list scandal, and most recently, the question of the hijab ban in Udupi. State politics have become almost synonymous with national ideology struggles, which have also happened along similar lines. 

If we take a look at Madhya Pradesh, a state which the turncoat data followed the same pattern in 2013 as Karnataka’s did in 2018, perhaps we will be able to draw certain parallels. 

Figure 2

In between the years of 2013 and 2018, under the leadership of BJP-ally JDU, communal violence ran rampant through the state, and Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan going into his third term, described his victory as a triumph of the BJP ideology1. However, at the end of his term, the BJP saw a fall from winning 165 seats to 109 – and the data suggests that the electorate did, in fact, punish turncoats. 

The intuitive understanding is that turncoats are politicians who are able to contest even if their vision is not synonymous with that of the party – or that their vision is modifiable – and it is only natural that this phenomenon is not ideal in the minds of voters. If there is no punishment by the electorate, it is an assumption that votes are cast for the party alone, regardless of the candidate being elected to represent a constituency. It now appears that in an increasingly ideological battle, voters were once again looking past party beliefs and more closely at individual candidates. 

Of course, it remains to be seen how parties and turncoats fare in November in Madhya Pradesh, but the guess is that the trend continues. And if we see a similar result at the end of May, Karnataka will effectively have mimicked the patterns of Madhya Pradesh, one election cycle later. There are still several cases of turncoats – most famously, ex-Police Commissioner Bhaskar Rao, who switched from the AAP to the BJP a few months ago, but we can only hope that state politics will regain its federal strength and focus more closely on governance rather than the national picture. 


India Today Online, Madhya Pradesh Elections 2013: Shivraj Singh Chouhan Leads BJP to a Massive Win, February 27, 2014. 

Note: This piece was edited by Poulomi Ghosh.


Aditi Warrier is an undergraduate at Ashoka University


This article belongs to the author(s) and is independent of the views of the Centre.