Thursday, August 21, 2008

Anti-defection: A law endangering democracy

The anti-defection law is suppressing dissent and has only raised the price of switching loyalties. We need to dispassionately understand the real cost of driving political negotiations underground, I write in this article "A law endangering democracy", published in the Mint, on 21 August 2008.

Many were outraged at the display of cash in Parliament, during the trust vote, last month. But far worse was that the Prime Minister could not make his concluding statement, and that even if he had, it would have made no impact. Our anti-defection law has made parliamentary debates pointless, as in the process of substantive debate, if members of Parliament, or MPs, change their mind and defy their party whip, they face disqualification. With debates being defunct, inducements in cash or kind become the necessary tools to sway legislators.

In a parliamentary democracy, numbers are important, but democracy is much more than just a numbers game. Democracy is not just about today’s majority, but also about protecting the smallest minority opinion, so that it has the freedom to become the majority opinion of tomorrow by engaging in informed debate and peacefully persuading people.

Some of the participants’ performance during the trust vote in Parliament was quite commendable. There was candour and compassion, precision and passion, angst and wit in some speeches. Sadly, the debate was a mere formality. The anti-defection law makes a mockery of parliamentary democracy by marginalizing debate, because legislators cannot afford to dissent without risking disqualification from the House, if they differed from the stated party line. Under this law, parties can expel the legislator who defies the party whip, and on complaint from the party, the Speaker has the power to disqualify the legislator from the House itself.

With parliamentary debate turned into a mere numbers game, closed-door negotiations and not- so-hidden inducements take precedence. Disruptions, rather than substantive debate, become the only form of opposition possible. If we are disgusted by this degeneration of political practices, we must allow our politicians to publicly and legitimately debate political ideology, negotiate electoral prospect, and be persuaded by ideas, even cash or kind, if necessary. And we must respect the voters’ wisdom to hold their representative to account at the next election.

Under the Tenth Schedule, any legislator who “votes or abstains from voting in such House contrary to any direction issued by the political party to which he belongs”, can be penalized with disqualification. There have been quite a few instances of disqualification from Parliament, under this law — in 1991, eight Janata Dal MPs for siding with the Chandra Shekhar government; in 1993, four MPs from a faction of the Janata Dal for backing the Narasimha Rao government; and, more recently, three Bahujan Samaj Party MPs for defecting to the Samajwadi Party.

This law was created to try and stop MPs from switching loyalties, and stabilize the polity by purging the “Aya Rams and Gaya Rams”. For the first time, stress on political discipline through party whips was established. But this has come at the cost of the idea of Westminster-style parliamentary democracy. Party affiliation is only incidental in our first-past-the-post electoral system, as elected representatives are obligated to represent all in their constituency — those who voted for their and those who may not have.

Today, the single biggest factor contributing to the desecration of Parliament is the anti-defection law. First, it has not prevented switching of loyalties; only the price may have increased. Second, it violates one of the basic features of our Constitution — democracy. Parliamentary debate itself has, thereby, become largely redundant. Third, it violates the basic element of representative democracy by empowering the party, and undermining the relationship between elected representatives and their constituents.

Ironically, the bigger political parties, which believed this law will help them keep their flock together, have become the biggest victims of blackmail and worse at the hands of the tiny parties and independents. Since merging with a bigger party makes exit so much tougher for individual members, the smaller entities have discovered the advantages of driving hard political bargains by retaining their independent identities.

At the founding of the Republic, B.R. Ambedkar warned: “Constitutional morality is not a natural sentiment... We must realise that our people have yet to learn it. Democracy in India is only a top dressing on an Indian soil, which is essentially undemocratic.” The sentiment may have reflected the then political reality, and a lot of credit for nurturing India on the road to a stable democratic future lay with the founding fathers, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel, Ambedkar, Maulana Azad, C. Rajagopalachari and other political giants. The table has turned, 60 years on. The people have adopted democracy. But the political leadership seems hard- pressed to keep pace with their democratic aspirations. And its lack of appreciation of the true meaning of debate and dissent in democracy is at the root of much of our political ills.

We need to dispassionately understand the real political cost of the anti-defection law, and the price of driving political negotiations underground. Politics is the most noble of occupations which nurtures free and open societies. By bringing politics to the open, respecting dissent and revitalizing debate, we will help restore the majesty of democracy.