Recording each vote

In the recently concluded session of Parliament, Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha passed 14 Bills each. However, only in the case of one of these Bills — the Constitution Amendment Bill that enables the Goods and Services Tax — do we know how each MP voted. All other Bills were voted by voice vote. This means that when the Speaker put the Bill to vote, MPs supporting it said “Aye”, those opposing it said “No”, and the Speaker judged that the chorus saying “Aye” had more people. Therefore, not only do we not know how each MP voted, we don’t even know who was present in the House.

This session was not a special case. In general, very few Bills see a recorded vote (also called “division”). Only Constitution Amendments do, as they require the support of a majority of the membership of the House and two-thirds majority of those present and voting; therefore, everyone’s vote is recorded and counted. In the five years of the last Lok Sabha, only 19 Bills of the total 179 passed witnessed a division. The 14th Lok Sabha (2004-2009) was even worse, with votes recorded in eight of the 248 Bills that were passed.

Ensuring accountability

Why is this important? In a parliamentary democracy, the government is accountable for its actions to Parliament. In turn, MPs are accountable for their actions to citizens. This means that citizens need to have information on the activity of their elected representatives, including how they voted on each Bill or issue. In the absence of such information, citizens cannot ask their representatives to justify the way they voted on any issue. Witness the election debates in the U.S. and how each Senator contesting for re-election (or another office such as President or Governor) is questioned in televised debates to see the effectiveness of a system where the electorate has such information.

The anti-defection law compounds the issue. Every MP is required to vote according to the party whip, failing which they could lose their seat in Parliament. Therefore, one could argue that recording the vote of each MP is a mere formality as the votes are a foregone conclusion. This line of reasoning is a slippery slope. We can extend the argument to say that any debate in Parliament is irrelevant as the final vote is pre-determined by each party’s leadership. Further, one could argue that Parliament is superfluous — and a small committee consisting of one representative of each party could take all decisions, with their votes weighted by the party membership in the House. This would question the very structure of representative democracy.

We follow a constituency system, that is, each MP of Lok Sabha is elected by the citizens residing in a geographical constituency. The MP has several roles such as making laws, holding the government to account for its actions, and sanctioning government taxes and expenditure. MPs have to act in a manner that they believe is in national interest (or the interest of the people they represent). The anti-defection law turns this logic on its head and requires the MP to just follow the party diktat. The lack of recorded voting disables citizens from questioning the actions of the MP on any issue. This combination strikes at the very root of how a representative democracy is expected to work.

For example, consider the vote related to the bifurcation of the State of Andhra Pradesh. This was an extremely contentious issue, which divided the MPs from that State depending on which region they represented. However, one can assume that all the Congress MPs voted for the bifurcation, including those from coastal Andhra and Rayalaseema, despite having obstructed Parliament for several days in protest against the bifurcation. We don’t know this for sure, as the vote was not recorded. What we do know is that just 203 MPs were present in the Lok Sabha during the final vote on the Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill, which strengthened anti-rape laws following the gang rape in Delhi in December 2012; we know this as someone demanded a division for a proposed amendment to the Bill and the vote was recorded. Therefore, we even know which MPs were absent during this vote.

Recording all votes

How difficult is it to change the system to ensure that all votes are recorded? The rules of procedure require a voice vote on every bill and any other voting motion. If any member challenges the Speaker’s decision, a division must be called. Therefore, if there is a group of MPs that wants to see this change, it can just ask for division at the final stage of voting on every Bill. An alternative will be to amend the Rules.

The infrastructure in our Parliament is geared for easy implementation of recorded voting. All MPs have a voting system at their desk and have to merely press the button to record the votes. This is different from the U.K. House of Commons where the MPs walk out to two different lobbies to record their support or opposition to an issue and a physical count is taken; despite this cumbersome process, their votes on most Bills are recorded.

There could be a significant positive change if all votes are recorded. The need to explain their positions to the electorate will lead to more careful examination and consideration of various issues before MPs vote on them. They will also have a greater stake in intra-party discussions on issues if their votes are determined by the party whip.

If the anti-defection law is revoked, democratic deliberation will be further strengthened. If the government proposes any new law, it will have to convince a majority of MPs instead of just a few party leaders. This will necessitate arguments using evidence and reason as backroom negotiations would be far more difficult with a large number of MPs. In sum, these two changes can improve the quality of deliberations in Parliament. While changing the anti-defection law will require the Constitution to be amended, ensuring recorded voting just needs a few MPs to ask for a division every time there is a vote. One hopes that a coalition of MPs across party lines can take up this reform.

M.R. Madhavan is the President and co-founder of PRS Legislative Research.

The need to explain their positions to the electorate will lead MPs to consider various issues more carefully before voting on them