The whip hand

The latest developments on the Women’s Reservation Bill once again highlight the role of the whip system in India. In this case, most political parties issued whips to their MPs to either vote for or against the bill, depending on their party line. Once the whip is issued, the MPs from each party will necessarily have to obey the whip or else risk losing their seat in Parliament. The Janata Dal (United) had serious differences within itself, and finally decided not to issue a whip, and to

instead allow each of their MPs in the Rajya Sabha to vote according to his/ her individual conscience on this bill.

In practice, the whip is “an official appointed to maintain discipline among, secure attendance of, and give necessary information to, members of his party.” Party whips are

persons who are expected to be a channel of communication

between the political party and the members of the party in the legislature. They also serve the function of gauging the

opinion of the members, and communicating it to party leaders. The actual whips issued to members can be of three types: one-line, two-line or three-line, depending on the number of times the text is underlined, reflecting the urgency and importance of the whip.

Issuing whips is an age-old practice in several mature democracies. In the US, the party whip’s role is to gauge how many legislators are in support of a bill and how many are opposed to it — and to the extent possible, persuade them to vote according to the party line on the issue.

In the UK, the violation of a three-line whip is taken seriously — occasionally resulting in the expulsion of the member from the party. Such a member can continue in Parliament as an independent until the party admits the member back into the party. In India, the amendment which added the Tenth Schedule to the Constitution, commonly referred to as the anti-defection law, can potentially result in the MP losing his seat in Parliament if he votes against the party whip. There is no data on the frequency of whips issued in India; and, since most bills here are passed by voice vote, it is quite impossible to say whether a party supported or opposed a bill, except by what one might be able to infer from the speeches made by its MPs. Since 1985, there have been a total of 19 cases where MPs lost their seat in Parliament for disobeying the party whip.

Several practitioners are of the view that the whip should be applicable only to motions where the survival of the government is in question, and not to ordinary legislation. In the UK, political parties sometimes announce a “free vote”, in which MPs are allowed to vote as they wish on certain issues. Speaking on the practice of issuing whips in India, the chairman of the Rajya Sabha recently said that “we need to build a political consensus so that the room for political and policy expression in Parliament for an individual member is expanded. This could take many forms. For example, the issuance of a whip could be limited to only those bills that could threaten the survival of a government, such as money bills or no-confidence motions. In other legislative and deliberative business of Parliament, this would enable members to exercise their judgment and articulate their opinion.” There is a private member bill now pending in Parliament which seeks to amend the anti-defection law to ensure that it not be applicable to ordinary legislation that does not threaten the survival of a government.

Most observers would agree that the landmark Women’s Reservation Bill could not have possibly been passed had political parties not resorted to the use of whips. The idea of “forced consensus” may be a tempting tool to use at such times. But all of us know that such short cuts are detrimental to the long-term health of our democracy. In a country like the US, where primaries determine who would be the candidate for any seat in the legislature, party leaders cannot use the instrument of issuing party tickets to ensure greater party discipline. But in India, since party leaders determine who is nominated for the next election from any constituency, there is already a great incentive for MPs to obey the party line on most occasions.

This implies that MPs will differ from the party line only in exceptional circumstances. The anti-defection law and the whip system reduce the MPs to a mere headcount on the floor of the House, and further deter them from exercising their judgment on major issues. The longer route of building consensus on most issues amongst the majority of the legislators concerned, however arduous, must be the way forward.