The politics of defection is one big snub on a civilized electorate that entails gross miscarriage of fair conduct by a legislator, profiting from his election for power & money.
BY SUNEEL KOUL
Nothing is more demeaning for the electorate than witnessing changing of loyalty by their representatives to another political party for considerations of power, position & moolah. In a country where politics is no less than a religion to the vast majority of its people, such unabashed misdemeanors count for no less than blasphemy. I wonder what would be the fate of “one nation, one poll” in the existing cesspool of a system where the allegation of engineering defections is on those very people who are entrusted with the responsibility of nurturing democracy & strengthening its pedestals, by unflinchingly subjecting themselves to its sacred testament, the constitution of India & following its tenets in letter & spirit. It is time Indian lawmakers shook off any remnants of their smugness & freed themselves from the malaise & intoxication of power gained through ordinary hands, over countless promises, zillion expectations, and mounds of faith culminating in swearing of oath & allegiance to the constitution, serving our nation & its objectives.
I would go a step further & implore this government to walk the talk on clean & ethical governance, probity & proprietary in public life. Only then this nation shall be convinced of the just bonafides that could have attracted such massive support & blessings by the common people. Under the circumstances & of all the pending legislative reforms strewn before this government, tightening and cleaning up the anti-defection laws should count as the most urgent.
There is a method to madness & any country that is governed by a party which considersits rise infallible &stay in power invincible, can lead to dangerous ramifications both for polity, institutional integrity & democratic values. We shall either experiencedeterioration in the quality of initially well-functioning democratic institutions or witness wanton acts of indiscretion, ingression & misuse of authority that lead to uncertainty, anxiety & chaos, without necessarily finding ourselves having slipped into authoritarianism by design. Erosion of democratic principles & constitutional morality encompass undermining,in incremental steps, of most of our age old tried & tested ideas that make polity & democracy alluring. The proclivity towards exercising absolute control on bureaucracy & autonomous institutions, misuse of police, investigative & enforcement agencies, can lead to dangerous consequences. Let there not be a day when the tiger shakes us down & devours us for our own sins & fallacies.
We must agree that the evil of political defections is a matter of national concern that needs immediate attention &a lasting treatment. If it is not combated, it is likely to undermine the very foundations of our democracy and the principles which sustain it. What we have been witness to in recent times in the states of Karnataka & Goa & Manipur &others in the past is a sordid saga that is no less than an insult of the people’s mandate & their will.
It was the infamous pendulum like swaying of political loyalties by one Gaya Lal, a legislator in the Haryana state assembly in 1967 that first brought to the fore the issue of defections. He had changed his political party twice in a day, and then a third time within the fortnight, all because he wanted to be part of the governing party. He succeeded in his short-term mission, but at the rather hefty cost of seeing his name associated forevermore with the practice of “defections” in Indian politics. “Aya Ram, Gaya ram” (come and go men) thus became the sarcasticexpression used to describe turncoats who switch parties for money, power and other allurements. What was started by Gaya Lal has been repeated by many a politician of different hues, all through Indian political history. Between 1967 and 1971, there were 142 defections in Parliament and 1,969 in state assemblies, according to PRS Legislative Research. Between 1967 and 1983, there were approximately 2,700 defections at the state level, with 15 defectors landing themselves in Chief Minister’s saddle.
Most of the political parties survive purely on the back of a strict party doctrine or discipline. It is only when doubts start to develop within; the inner party cohesiveness begins to crumble leading to a free fall. Arguably the core of Indian politics suffers with many practical disorders, the politics of defection being one such sore element that represents a terrible miscarriage of fair conduct by the elected representative turning politics into a game of thrones. Contrary to what the more developed world would have been expected to do, it is India that has taken a big leap & brought in anti-defection lawsto check this menace having proliferated our polity.
In any democratic set up, representatives of the government are chosen by the people, for the people and of the people. However in practice, perhaps one of the causes that are fading away the democracy of dreams is due to the smog of political defection. It is a continuing hazard irrespective of the preventive legislative measures. On one hand, this political ritual is a must have in the parliamentary democracy, while on the other hand it is source of abridging the essence of democracy. Defection connotes to mean transfer of loyalty. Likely, in political terms, it means the transfer of allegiance by a legislator from one political party to another. Traditionally, the idea of floor-crossing is synonymous to the term. Hence, when a member of one political party joins another party, it amounts to defection. In other words, any member is supposed to have defected when he abandons his loyalty or allegiance towards one’s leader or cause. It is a political jargon which connotes change of party association or loyalty by an elected representative. The Ministry of Home Affairs in a study has defined “defection” to mean inter alia the relocation of loyalty by a legislator from one political party to another or a political clan which is identifiable.
In a representative democracy like India, the prime loyalty of a representative lies to the electorate and the nation. However, a party manifesto is the bed rock upon which a candidate getselected. The problem lies while settling as to whom he owes his allegiance, i.e., the nation or the party through which he is elected. At one place it is to serve people’s interest and at another place to abide by the party manifesto.
Kudos to the Rajiv Gandhi led Congress Government that first got a bill passed on defections that became known as Anti-defection Bill. The law amended the Constitution and added the 10th schedule to the Constitution, from which the quote above has been taken.This Bill was meant for outlawing defection and fulfilling the assurance, Congress had made to the people before 1985 elections. In the nearly 35 years since then, the spirit and letter of this piece of landmark legislation, which aims to discourage defections and violations of the party whip, has been violated time and again by politicians. You may recall that such propensity to change loyalties had reached epic proportions in the run up to the general elections of 2019.
Indian electorate watched in absolute despair the flocking of legislatorsto luxury rendezvous, their mobile phones snatched, pampered & serenaded so that they could not interact with opponents nor entertain any thoughts of hobnobbing with rival party. Conversely another set of legislators could be spirited away to luxury hotels in a more friendly territory, away from their own party bosses, heavily guarded & patronized so that they could either resign or shift their loyalties for humongous gains in the bargain. One of the main reasons this practice has been able to flourish is that the anti-defection law is allowed to be violated by the ruling party. The law says a defector can be disqualified by the Speaker on the basis of a petition by any other member of the House. However, the practice of naming Speakers from the ruling party means defections are allowed in nearly all circumstances, with no regard for the motive behind defections.
Even when the Speaker’s decision on defections is subject to judicial review, such reviews of the enforcement of the anti-defection law are a developing arena. In 2016, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government imposed President’s Rule in Uttarakhand, dismissing the state’s Congress government amid a rebellion by some Congress legislators. The chief justice of the Uttarakhand high court, K.M. Joseph, quashed President’s rule, thus restoring the popular mandate. Two years later, his promotion to the Supreme Court was sought to be held back by the central government despite a strong recommendation for elevation by other senior judges, who eventually had their way.
The Perennial problem
The story of defections in India is interesting if for no other reason than the anomaly presented by the near-constant presence of defections in electoral politics and the absence of a public debate around it. There are deeper, related issues around the nature of political representation and electoral politics that, too, need urgent debating in public. For instance, it can be presumed that the whole notion on which the anti-defection law is predicated; that elections are won by political parties rather than individualsis indisputable. Yet, this idea is also problematic in Indian society, where deeply entrenched traditional cultural values may mean an election candidate is also judged, defeated or elected for a raft of reasons other than their politics alone. These may include broader factors such as gender, class, religion, caste and kinship as well as more local and tangible ones such as whether the candidate can deliver on a promise to, say, get you a specific job that’s going.
That such local considerations can be important even in national elections finds resonance, for instance, in the jobs versus nationalism debate in the current hustings.It would take a pretty large leap of faith to describe Indian election candidates as individuals (independents) rather than representatives of political parties with well-defined and –recognized ideologies. Yet, from the prism of the voter, the candidate often is a well-recognized individual rather than someone necessarily identified with a political party.Within a scenario where all major political parties (except those on the Left) appear to have found a positive consensus around economic liberalization (including its need and impact), such locally based identities and considerations come into even sharper focus. “A plague on all your houses, but can you get us a job”, could be one way of describing a common voter perception in election time.
“A criticism of the anti-defection law is that the penalty for defection comes into play after the defecting legislators have destabilized a government. It is also an example of implementing a legal solution to solve a political problem,” says an analysis by PRS Legislative Research.Of all the pending legislative reforms before the next Indian government, tightening and cleaning up the anti-defection law is among the most urgent—if only to tend to the health of the world’s largest democracy.
The most unfortunate aspect of such irresponsible conduct is that most of the floor crossings arise out of colored, self-centered motive that they hope to be appointed ministers in the Council of ministers. The thrust is not welfare driven, rather power seeking. It can be illustrated in the light of the bulky Kalyan Singh government of Uttar Pradesh. In 1997 the Bharatiya Janata Party formed the government with the support of the defected members from the Congress Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). Interestingly, most of the defectors lately got appointed as ministers. This immoral, opportunistic and indicative defection was an unprecedented event in political history of India. It involves breach of faith of electorate. Such a practice of defection multiplies defects in a democracy like governmental instability; contributes to distrust in the minds of the voters and ideologically imbalances the political dynamics. It negates the electoral outcome because the party which does not attain majority in the House through ballot may in order to form the government conspire to get a majority in the House by inducing defections. Conversely, the party which won the mandate from the people to represent the government may not succeed due to the defection problem.
Similarly prior to 1967, the Congress Party enjoyed a power monopoly in the absence of competitors. But the election of 1967 is an unmatched periodthe India’s political development and destruction. This period marked the dawn of party split and floor crossing in India. It was a phase which diminished the strength of Congress through dispersion of power and mushroomed coalition governments in 9 out of 17 States. Since then, the politicians inculcated the habit of defection as their favorite pastime.
It was all about instability and chaos and somewhere in the smog; politics and political thought was lost. A rat race for power and possession became the order on the day. The process was further aggravated by the incentives offered by the non-Congress parties. The lust for office converted the Indian political scenario into barter for exchanging individualistic interests. After Jawaharlal Lal Nehru, the arrival of Indira Gandhi marked a very disturbed atmosphere of political ethos and led to an inevitable political split. This time India got another reason to witness defection, as “Congress”, the heart of India’s political miracle broke into two. With every passing day, the Indian Political parties steadily fragmented and proliferated. Hence, an intrinsic need to regulate the act of defection was felt necessary. The democratic principles and its foundations were putrefying in the absence of any such controlling mechanism. It was therefore thought indispensable to enact a legislation to restrain the vice. Subsequently, during 1984, Rajiv Gandhi took a different approach to the defection politics and the government, after securing a massive mandate, immediately announced its intention to amend the Constitution to ban the political defections and hence introduced the Constitution’s 52ndAmendment Act, 1985. On incorporation, it altered the following provisions of the Constitution, viz. clause (3) (a) of articles 101; clause (2) of article 102; clause (3) (a) of 190 and clause (2) of article 191 and also incorporated thereto the Tenth Schedule (hereinafter schedule). This schedule is often referred as Anti-Defection Law.
The schedule empowers the Speaker of the Lok Sabha to craft rules for disqualification on the ground of defection. It also empowers the presiding officer of each house to decide upon the cases of defections as a matter of internal administration as indicated by Articles 122 and 212 of the Constitution of India. Articles 122 and 212 restrict the courts from interfering into the Parliamentary proceedings and State Legislatures. In other words, such proceedings cannot be questioned on the ground of aberration in any court. The Chairman or, the Speaker, of the House has been authorized through the schedule under paragraph 6, to preside and decide the questions pertaining to disqualification on the ground of defection. In this case the decision of the presiding officer shall be final. However, if a situation arises wherein the presiding officer himself is disqualified, in that case the house chooses a member, who decides the matter. The schedule expressly states that the proceedings shall be purely parliamentary. Consequently, the Courts cannot thump in to inquire into these proceedings.
The jurisdiction of the courts is barred in matters associated with disqualification of members in defection cases. Persistently, the Parliament’s intention to rest the decision making power upon the presiding officer of the house is a concern and has attracted severe criticisms so far. It is also observed that it encourages public distrust and fails to bell the cat as desired. Nevertheless, the Apex Court, the guardian of the Constitution, has upheld the constitutional validity of the Anti-Defection law by a majority of 3:2 in the case of Kihota.