It is time to strengthen the anti-defection law | Opinion
Bar legislators who switch parties from contesting elections for six years. This is harsh but necessaryUpdated: Aug 03, 2020 22:13 IST
The pell-mell in the Congress’ legislative arm in Rajasthan has again brought into focus the vulnerabilities of the anti-defection law. There have been suggestions that the 1985 amendment, which inducted the 10th Schedule in the Constitution, has ceased to be the antidote to the malaise for which it was designed. The past decades have seen numerous circumventions of its provisions to topple regimes through desertions from elected legislatures.
As opposed to copybook defections — which are punishable with the loss of House membership — desertions have become the norm. Riding allegedly on the exchange of monies and promises of official positions, they are typified by resignations to bring down the effective strength of the House. That gives ascendance to parties with the wherewithal to lure turncoats.
The slipway serves well the legislators willing to be poached. It saves them the ignominy of being divested of membership which inevitably would be their fate for defying the party whip under the 10th Schedule. Such desertions-resignations are also useful because there’s no bar on the deserters returning to the same legislature in the bypolls to vacancies caused by their exit.
Such manoeuvrings can only be stalled legislatively. If the stakeholders, especially political parties represented in Parliament, are serious about stemming the rot, they should bring about a consensual amendment to the law to block all routes for the renegade members’ re-election to the same House. A six-year time-bar for contesting elections, as is the case with those guilty of corrupt electoral practices, could be a good deterrent to end circuitous horse-trading.
The proffered moratorium may appear too harsh. But it won’t be disproportionate to the magnitude of the offence. Ethically speaking, defections aren’t merely a betrayal of a party or an ideology. They’re a breach of the people’s trust which should be inviolable when the poll-time promise, or pretence, is to serve the electorate.
If allowed unhindered, the frequent hijacking of popular mandates could denude our multi-party democracy of its representative character and credibility. The act of the big fish gobbling up the small fish might ensure durable regimes, but not necessarily a diverse society predicated on variegated thought and aspirations. In addition to bolstering the anti-defection law, it will be in order also to read down the omnibus party whips to allow intra-party disagreements on matters other than votes impinging on the viability of regimes.
A compact where justice belongs to the stronger is antithetical to all principles of democratic equity. It’s true especially of states with small, easy-to-fracture legislatures. Their record of aaya ram, gaya rams makes them easily malleable entities where tail wags the dog. The point is proved by past instances of defections/desertions in the Northeast, Goa and Haryana. A prime example of it perhaps is the 2006 elevation of an independent legislator, Madhu Koda, as the chief minister of Jharkhand.
The tenuous legislative construct of small assemblies is compounded by the preponderance of minuscule parties/pressure groups canvassing ethnic, socio-cultural and sub-regional aspirations. Their obliteration at the altar of political expediency involves the risk of communities losing their voice, getting alienated and dropping out of the national mainstream.
In the unitary versus federal tussle, the winner has to be decentralisation of power. A key achievement of the coalition era (1989-2014) at the Centre was the regional parties’ share in governance that helped subdue sub-nationalist, separatist and secessionist tendencies. A testimony to that is the relative peace in the Northeast, Tamil Nadu and Punjab which saw violent movements threatening the country’s integrity.
It’s evident then that only a maximal democracy can be optimally interactive. The rule is valid for dispensations at the Centre and in the states; the best platforms for such interactions being the assemblies and Parliament. These sanctum sanctorums that make governments accountable must be preserved the way they are willed by the people.
The anti-defection law, as it exists today, permits legislators with two-third strength of their legislature party to break free without losing memberships. It’s this leeway that’s exploited to alter the House arithmetic by balkanising smaller political outfits. The Constitution’s 10th Schedule says: “...the merger of the original political party of a member of a House shall be deemed to have taken place if, and only if, not less than two-thirds of the members of the legislature party concerned have agreed to such merger.” The Schedule’s Para 4 (2) relating to exemption from disqualification only mentions the legislative wing, not the party organisation as a whole.
In Rajasthan, the Bahujan Samaj Party has challenged in the high court the “merger” with the Congress of its six legislators constituting more than two-thirds of the party’s strength in the House. It’s for the judiciary now to apply the ratio of the 10th schedule to decide the case — the next hearing of which is scheduled for August 11.
Regardless of the court verdict, Parliament must do its bit to buttress the law. For a democracy without Opposition is but a part democracy without choices.
The views expressed are personal