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  Opinion   Columnists  01 Mar 2022  Mohan Guruswamy | Anti-defection law and inner-party democracy

Mohan Guruswamy | Anti-defection law and inner-party democracy

The writer, a policy analyst studying economic and security issues, held senior positions in government and industry. He also specialises in the Chinese economy
Published : Mar 1, 2022, 6:48 am IST
Updated : Mar 1, 2022, 6:48 am IST

Political parties are extra or non-constitutional arrangements to organise people on the basis of shared ideas, interests or philosophies

Unlike some others, India’s Constitution doesn’t recognise the institution of political parties. It’s the same in other serious and major democracies.  (Representational image: PTI)
 Unlike some others, India’s Constitution doesn’t recognise the institution of political parties. It’s the same in other serious and major democracies. (Representational image: PTI)

The debate on electoral reforms focuses almost entirely on the funding of political parties and expenses incurred in campaigning as if just taking care of these will ensure the cleaning up of the nation’s polity. We are as usual barking up the wrong tree. Funding is a problem, but it’s the lesser of the problems. The question of inner party democracy and the constitutional functioning of political parties almost never figures in any discussion. We never seem to consider whether many of our parties are in fact political parties or just disorganised assemblies driven by primitive impulses.

When Rajiv Gandhi introduced the “anti-defection” bill in Parliament soon after his huge 1984 electoral victory, Madhu Dandavate welcomed it, exclaiming in the Lok Sabha that he felt he was “hearing the voice of Jawaharlal Nehru again”! He soon realised the bill was only meant to keep the party under the jackboots of a coterie. It prompted him to append his name to a petition challenging the law. His switch provoked many to acidly comment the poor man thought he was hearing Nehru’s voice when in fact it was that of Indira Gandhi!

He justified it by saying it was not the right time to oppose the bill then as public sentiment was in favour. Only Chandra She-khar and Madhu Limaye had the vision and courage to attack the bill for what it was — an attempt to institutionalise the illegitimate power of undemocratically installed party leaderships over the people’s elected representatives. The original bill was then somewhat modified to distinguish between a split and a defection, though it didn’t address the main reasons for opposing the bill.

Unlike some others, India’s Constitution doesn’t recognise the institution of political parties. It’s the same in other serious and major democracies. The term “political party” doesn’t appear even once in any of them. Political parties are therefore extra or non-constitutional arrangements to organise people on the basis of shared ideas, interests or philosophies. Members of Parliament or legislatures are the people’s representatives. That they are or aren’t members of a political party is only incidental. The elected members are meant to represent and protect the interests those who elect them and not that of a handful of leaders.

It follows that if a representative defies a party whip, the most the party must be allowed to do is remove the member from the party. Expulsion of the member from the House can only be the right of the House or the people. Each time that power is invoked it must be for a specific reason, such as receiving a bribe, that may be seen as unbecoming of a member, or bringing disrespect to the institution. In India, we don’t give people the right of recall, possibly as it's not practical. Even if a mechanism and a set of conditionalities is codified to set the process of recall into action, who among the present crop of MPs would be willing to legislate this?

The argument that most members are elected because of the party has some validity, but only if it’s a properly constituted and functioning party. If the political party is to be incorporated in our Constitution as a constitutional institution, it must first be so legislated. Besides a few parties like the BJP and the CPI(M), which have a somewhat strained system of inner democracy assured by intermittent party elections, and passably collective decision-making, most other parties are very poor examples of democracy at work. We know how the Congress conducts its “elections” or takes decisions by deferring them to the “high command”. “Leaders” like the Badals, Thackeray, Lalu Yadav, KCR, Stalin, Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati consider these niceties to be sheer hypocrisy, and don’t have even a single-page constitution to legitimise the workings of their outfits. Yet these “fuhrers” have the authority and legitimacy to issue diktats or whips to suit their private interests and whims. Remember how a nominated Congress president, Sitaram Kesri, issued a directive to the CPP’s elected leader, P.V. Narasimha Rao, ordering him to send his resignation within 24 hours. Consider the implications. A leader chosen by elected representatives is dismissed by a handpicked courtier’s coup?

There are other implications to consider as well. What if a member of a party promising people the nationalisation of all property is directed to vote for a rich man’s dream budget? Suppose the member was to vote as per the party’s commitment to the people and not as per the convenience of its leaders? Who is more important? The people who elect them or the people who select them for party tickets? The argument that if members aren’t restrained by law, anarchy will prevail, may have some validity to it. This can be met by ensuring whips are restricted to confidence votes alone, with the rider that representatives voting against a whip must seek the people’s confidence within a stipulated period, say six months. To deny a ministership to a “defecting” member is silly as it implies that a ministership is somehow a reward to enjoy, and not a call to service or recognition of ability. Not all ministers are corrupt. Also, all this hair-splitting about what percentage constitutes a defection is equally silly.

That the Election Commission recognises these parties and recognises their leaders’ authority is a matter of shame and evidence of its utter helplessness, indifference or ignorance, or all these basic issues. To give the anti-defection laws even the thinnest veneer of political and philosophical legitimacy, it is first essential that inner-party workings conform to the letter and spirit of democracy. Par-ties have shown they are incapable of doing this by themselves. The EC had earlier made some noises in this regard. But adding to the cacophony isn't enough. It must speak out loudly and insist Parliament empowers it to oversee regular party elections and their compliance with the provisions of their constitutions. That’s why Narendra Modi has placed flunkies there.

State funding of parties has often been discussed as another solution. But can we allow the State to fund all these parties, which don’t have any inner-party democracy or democratic structures, most with husband-and-wife “high commands”, if not father-son or mother-son “high commands”? No Indian party has anything like fair and free inner-party elections. Giving them state funding will only enable public money to serve private purposes. With our democracy now preferring cobbled-up coalitions to single-party dominance, the issue of defections will always loom large. But will anyone now speak up? Of course not. Kissa kursi ka hai!

Tags: anti-defection law, political parties