Political Harlotry: Time for New Anti Defection Law

LG Sinha’s day at Mubarak Mandi
Political Harlotry: Time for New Anti Defection Law

Following the NCP split in Maharashtra and MLAs crossing over to the BJP, like seen in the Shiv Sena, this week we reproduce an article first released on 19 November 1996. While later the 91st Constitutional Amendment Act in 2003 sought two-third of members for a ‘merger’, the crossing over hasn’t stopped. Perhaps, it is worth to consider: ‘All those who wish to change parties must be required by law to seek a fresh mandate after making allowance for honourable dissent. No scope should be left for buying and selling of legislators. Political harlotry must be ended firmly if our people are not to lose faith in the legislatures — and, indeed, in democracy itself.’

Prostitution was legally banned in India some four decades ago. But political harlotry continues to grow and flourish brazenly. What is worse, traffic in MPs and MLAs coming to be accepted as a way of life. Time was when the people at large were shocked by defections. Floor crossing was sharply denounced as undermining the very foundations of our democracy and a fraud both on the letter and spirit of the Constitution. Today, even eye-brows are not raised. Indeed, those who defect are beginning to strut about as smart guys. There is no sense of shame any more in cheating the voters and trading in turn-coats.

Harsh words, indeed. But these have been provoked by the abominable happenings in the Gujarat Assembly in recent weeks and all the so-called splits and mergers that have taken place at the Centre over the few years. Sadly, the basic philosophy of the Westminster model is still not adequately understood. Parliamentary democracy is essentially a civilised form of Government based on the party system. It has to be run in accordance with certain basic rules of the game. However, what we have been witnessing is cold-blooded murder of most democratic norms and values.

Self continues to be placed shamelessly before the party and the country. Politics has been reduced to a horrendous exercise in personal aggrandisement, with no holds barred. We are once again face to face with an era of reckless horse-trading and instability, as during 1967 and the turbulent years that followed. Between the fourth and the first general election in 1967 and 1972, there were nearly 2,000 cases of defection and counter defection from among 4,000 and odd members of Lok Sabha and the Assemblies in the States and the Union Territories. By the end of March 1971, approximately 50 per cent of the legislators had changed their party affiliations. Several of them did so more than once. One MLA defected as many as five times to be a Minister for five days!

An anti-defection law was no doubt enacted in 1985 to end political harlotry by amending the Constitution and adding to it a new schedule — the Tenth Schedule. This helped to put an end to Aya Rams and Gaya Rams individually. A defector stood disqualified and lost his seat in Parliament or Assembly if he voluntarily relinquished his membership of the party on whose ticket he was elected or if he voted or abstained from voting in the House contrary to any party whip or direction. But defections have grown by leaps and bounds, thanks to a provision which permits splits and mergers. No punishment is attracted so long as a member defects in a group and the group represents à faction resulting from a split in the original political party. And further, that the group consists of not less than one third of the members of such a legislature party.

Regrettably, our people’s genius of driving a coach and six through any legislation has willy nilly reduced the anti-defection law to a mockery. The Speaker of the Lok Sabha and the Presiding Officers in the States were expected to put an end to floor-crossings by upholding the letter and spirit of the law. Importantly, they were to permit only such splits as honestly reflected a natural and principled development in politics. Instead, they have interpreted the Tenth Schedule and their powers in a way so as to circumvent and thwart the law and virtually subserve the interests of the rulers of the day.

This happened initially in the Ninth Lok Sabha when Chandra Shekhar and 57 other MPs walked out of the Janata Dal led by V.P. Singh on 6 November 1990 claiming that more than one-third of the Janata Dal’s 140s had split in accordance with the Tenth Schedule. This occurred again in the Tenth Lok Sabha when 20 MPs of the Janata Del, including Ajit Singh and Ram Lakhan Singh Yadav, walked out of the Parliamentary Party on 7 August 1992, claiming a split of more than one-third of the Janata Dal’s total of 59 members.

V.P. Singh sought disqualification of Chandra Shekhar and 57 other MPS on the ground that 25 of them had already been expelled on 5 November 1990, a day before the split. This, he contended had brought down the residual strength of the group claiming to split to only 33, which was as than one-third of the Janata Dal’s residual strength of 115-140 minus the 25 expelled. Rabi Ray, then Speaker, however, chose not to go into “the legality of the expulsions” or whether the original Janata Dal as a party had met before the split in its Parliamentary wing. Instead, he spoke of “several lacunae” in the law and “of claims and counter-claims” and bailed out Chandra Shekhar and others by giving them the “benefit of doubt.” Explains a confidant: “Rabi Ray did not wish to thrust a fresh general election on the country after just one year!”

Shivraj Patil, Speaker of the Tenth Lok Sabha, did one worse even as he also talked in terms of “some weak points” and “detects” in the anti-defection law. He averred that it was not the job of the Speaker under the Tenth Schedule to see whether a split had taken place in the original party or not. The Speaker was only required to ascertain whether the group consisted of not less than one-third of the members of the legislature party. That was not all. He also did something incredible. He recognised a split within a split when Ram Lakhan Singh Yadav and seven others broke away from the original split by Ajit Singh and 19 others even though a decision on the latter’s action was still pending. Equally incredibly, the Speaker, who took almost ten months to give his decision in the crucial matter, also ruled that law must get precedence over morality!

Sadly, the menace of defections has received great encouragement from the two rulings all over the country. Time was when legislators defected in ones or twos. Now they cross over in droves in the name of splits, most of which are spurious and have little to do with principled splits in the original party. Witness the recent split in the BJP’s legislature party in Gujarat. What is more, many fears expressed in Parliament have come true. Apart from encouraging bogus splits, it has led to fragmentation of political parties and brazen corruption. It has also empowered Governors to engineer defections and play games in the formation of Governments, as has been happening in UP during the past few weeks.

All this has brought about a distressing turmoil and instability in our party system. Almost every leader sees nothing wrong in engineering splits in the other parties in their single-minded pursuit of power, purse and pelf. P.V. Narasimha Rao started with a minority Government in 1991. But by the end of 1995, he had managed to convert his minority Government into a majority Government and become a darling of his party. Some of his loyalists even lionised him as the “greatest ever!” Ends now increasingly justify the means, howsoever evil. Few pause to ponder over the havoc all this is causing.

Where do we go from here? Candidly, the time has come to take a fresh look at the existing law. It is not enough to punish floor crossings by individuals. A new and simple legislation should be enacted to punish not only an individual rape but also gang rapes. All those who wish to change parties must be required by law to seek a fresh mandate after making allowance for honourable dissent. No scope should be left for buying and selling of legislators. Political harlotry must be ended firmly if our people are not to lose faith in the legislatures — and, indeed, in democracy itself. Enough of hypocritical jingoism.— INFA


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Political Harlotry: Time for New Anti Defection Law