The continuing political uncertainty in Jammu and Kashmir after the courageous participation of voters, braving bullets and bombs, once again exposes the shenanigans of our politicians. The murky politics of power and dissidence in our largest state of UP too expose the increasing divorce between people’s mandates and government formation.
Democracy is about people’s verdict and peaceful change. If the vote becomes merely a power of attorney to allow a legislator to do as s/he pleases after election, and if all we get from our representatives is unbridled lust for power and pelf regardless of public good, then democracy is reduced to a medieval power game. This propensity to undermine people’s verdicts and hop parties at will was best illustrated by the shameful events in the last UP Vidhan Sabha.
The Tenth Schedule of the Constitution incorporated in 1985 through the 52nd Amendment was greeted with great relief by all advocates of political morality. However, its spirit was violated on innumerable occasions. And in UP in October 1997, even the letter of supreme law was ignored with impunity. The people elected 66 BSP members to UP Assembly. 12 of them violated party directive and voted for the Kalyan Singh government during the confidence vote in October’97. Though the Constitution mandates that defecting members violating party whip should be disqualified if they do not constitute one-third of the legislature party, the then Speaker, Kesrinath Tripathi refused to act. In an audacious piece of political chicanery, the Speaker held that the whip issued by Ms Mayavati as leader of the BSP in the House was not valid as it was not issued by an authorized person within the meaning of para 2(1)(b) of the Tenth Schedule! Supreme Court is yet to hear the appeal filed in that case!
In all mature democracies, an acceptable political culture has evolved over a period of time, and defection for personal gain or violating people’s verdict is unthinkable. In an evolving democracy it is hard to sustain politics of principle without the aid of legal provisions and strong institutions.
The Tenth Schedule discourages individuals from straying, but rewards collective defection. As a result splits are engineered, and constitutional coups are planned with meticulous precision. Politics is reduced to a numbers game without any sense of fairness, principle or obligation to the electorate. The UP case showed that partisan Speakers can violate even the Constitution with impunity.
There is another major unintended consequence of the Tenth Schedule. Once the law provided that violation of party whip on any vote attracts disqualification, party legislators who may honestly differ on a piece of ill–conceived legislation are now forced to submit to the will of the leadership. The use of whip to force Congress MPs to vote for Muslim Women’s Bill in 1987 to undo the Supreme Court verdict in Shah Bano case, and the shameful episode of Congress members abstaining on party orders during the vote in the impeachment case of Justice Ramaswamy are two particularly ugly instances which undermined our democracy and society on account of this mindless obedience. Clearly, all legitimate dissent is stifled and smothered, whereas collective plunder of the state goes on merrily unchecked.
Obviously major reforms are needed in the anti-defection provisions if we are to preserve even the limited sanctity of electoral verdicts:
1. Defections, by individuals or groups, should incur automatic disqualification.
2.If there is indeed a legitimate split of a party, it should first take place in the formal party organization with adequate public notice and through voting. Only after a party splits in a transparent and public manner should the dissenting group be recognized in the House as a separate party. A sudden overnight change of heart by a group of legislators and midnight meetings with the President or Governors cannot be recognized as split of a party, no matter what proportion the ‘splitting’ members constitute.
3. All such members who split a party should be prohibited from holding ministerial office for at least one year.
4. The scope of whip should be limited only to such issues, voting on which will bring down the government or undermine people’s verdict. In effect, whip and disqualification should only apply to vote on confidence or no-confidence motions, finance bills, and legislation introduced to fulfill the main planks of the electoral manifesto of the party which assumed office. A whip in all other circumstances should be prohibited. Given the formidable power of party bosses, fears of large-scale indiscipline without whip on every vote are unfounded.
4. Finally, we can no longer trust presiding officers to enforce the anti-defection provisions, when the political stakes are high. Therefore, the Election Commission should be the competent authority to decide on disqualification.
A democracy can survive only when rule of law is respected. If the process of power itself is vitiated and no rules of conduct apply, soon the state is seen as illegitimate, and governance is reduced to constitutional brigandage. The parties have great stakes in amending the anti-defection provisions for their own survival and credibility. Can we trust our legislators to exhibit a modicum of enlightened self-interest, and end this scourge of defections?