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Politics of defection

March 1st, 2011 1 comment

In a recent judgement, the Karnataka High Court upheld the disqualification of five independent MLAs from the Assembly. These MLAs, who had previously served as Ministers in the Yeddyurappa government, were disqualified along with 11 others after they withdrew their support to the government.

The disqualifications raise some important questions on the working of the anti-defection law. While the law was framed in 1985 with the specific intent of ‘combating the evil of political defections’, over the years several unanticipated consequences have come to the fore. The primary among these is the erosion of independence of the average legislator.

The need for an anti-defection law was first felt in the late 1960s. Of the 16 States that went to polls in 1967, Congress lost majority in eight and failed to form the government in seven. Thus began the era of common minimum programmes and coalition governments. This was accompanied with another development – the phenomenon of large scale political migrations. Within a brief span of 4 years (1967-71), there were 142 defections in Parliament and 1969 defections in State Assemblies across the country. Thirty-two governments collapsed and 212 defectors were rewarded with ministerial positions.

Haryana was the first State where a Congress ministry was toppled. The Bhagwat Dayal ministry was defeated in the Assembly when its nominee for speakership lost out to another candidate. Congress dissidents defected to form a new party called the Haryana Congress, entered into an alliance with the opposition and formed a new government under the Chief Ministership of Rao Birender Singh (also a Congress defector). Haryana thus became the first State to reward a defector with Chief Ministership.

Another Haryana legislator, Gaya Lal, defected thrice within a fortnight. The now well know terms ‘Aya Ram’ and ‘Gaya Ram’ that are often used to describe political turncoats owe inspiration to him.

It was to address this issue that the anti-defection law was passed in 1985. This law amended the Constitution and added the Tenth Schedule to the same. The Supreme Court, in Kihota Hollohon vs. Zachilhu (1992), while upholding the validity of the law held that decisions of disqualification shall be open to judicial review.  It also made some observations on Section 2(1) (b) of the Tenth schedule. Section 2(1) (b) reads that a member shall be disqualified if he votes or abstains from voting  contrary to any direction issued by the political party. The judgement highlighted the need to limit disqualifications to votes crucial to the existence of the government and to matters integral to the electoral programme of the party, so as not to ‘unduly impinge’ on the freedom of speech of members.

This anti-defection law has regulated parliamentary behaviour for over 25 years now. Though it has the advantage of providing stability to governments and ensuring loyalty to party manifestos, it reduces the accountability of the government to Parliament and curbs dissent against party policies. In this context, Manish Tewari’s private member bill merits mention:  he suggests that anti-defection law be restricted to votes of confidence and money bills.  Such a move will retain the objective of maintaining the stability of the government while allowing MPs to vote freely (subject to the discipline of the party whip) on other issues.

This brings us to the question – Is the anti-defection law indispensable? Is defection peculiar to India? If not, how do other countries handle similar situations?

It is interesting to note that many advanced democracies face similar problems but haven’t enacted any such laws to regulate legislators. Prominent cases in UK politics include the defection of Ramsay Macdonald, the first Labour Prime Minister, in 1931. He defected from his party following disagreements on policy responses to the economic crisis. Neither Macdonald nor any of his three cabinet colleagues who defected with him resigned their seats in the House of Commons to seek a fresh mandate.

Australian Parliament too has had its share of defections. Legislators have often shifted loyalties and governments have been formed and toppled in quick succession. In the US too, Congressmen often vote against the party programme on important issues without actually defecting from the party.

India might have its peculiar circumstances that merit different policies.  But, the very fact that some other democracies can function without such a law should get us thinking.

Sources/ Notes:

[1] PRS Conference note: The Anti-Defection Law – Intent and Impact

[2] Column by CV Madhukar (Director, PRS) titled ‘Post-independents’ in the Indian Express

Defections in Parliament

February 8th, 2010 1 comment

In the late 1960s and 70s, defections (elected legislators changing parties after the election) in Parliament and State Legislatures became very frequent, so frequent in fact, that the epithet “Aaya Ram Gaya Ram” was coined to describe the same.  To curb this problem which created instability in our legislatures, Parliament amended the Constitution.  They inserted the Tenth Schedule to the Constitution “to curb the evil of political defections”.  As a result, we currently have an anti-defection law with the following features:

1.  If an MP/MLA who belongs to a political party voluntarily resigns from his party or, disobeys the party “whip” (a direction given by the party to all MPs/ MLAs to vote in a certain manner), he is disqualified.   The party may however condone the MP/ MLA within 15 days.

2.  An independent MP/ MLA cannot join a political party after the election.

3.  An MP/ MLA who is nominated (to the Rajya Sabha or upper houses in state legislatures) can only join a party within 6 months of his election.

4.  Mergers of well-defined groups of individuals or political parties are exempted from disqualification if certain conditions are met.

5.  The decision to disqualify is taken by the Speaker/ Chairman of the House.

The table below summarizes provisions of anti-defection law in some other countries.  (For more, click here).  As one may note, a number of developed countries do not have any law to regulate defection.

Regulation of defection in some countries

Country Experi-ence Law on defection The Law on Defection
Bangladesh Yes Yes The Constitution says a member shall vacate his seat if he resigns from or votes against the directions given by his party.  The dispute is referred by the Speaker to the Election Commission.
Kenya Yes Yes The Constitution states that a member who resigns from his party has to vacate his seat.  The decision is by the Speaker, and the member may appeal to the High Court.
Singapore Yes Yes Constitution says a member must vacate his seat if he resigns, or is expelled from his party.  Article 48 states that Parliament decides on any question relating to the disqualification of a member.
South Africa Yes Yes The Constitution provides that a member loses membership of the Parliament if he ceases to be a member of the party that nominated him.
Australia Yes No
Canada Yes No
France Yes No
Germany Yes No
Malaysia Yes No
United Kingdom Yes No