Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Is Indian Anti-Defection Law Undemocratic?

Defections and splits in parties have always been a feature of Indian Politics. Every time the National Parliament or state legislatures return a less-than-certain outcome, out come the "suitcases" and allegations of horse trading drown out every other public discourse. In the mad circus that follows, parties spirit their legislators away, hide them, suborn them, and then triumphantly parade them before the world.

In response to this madness, the Fifty-Second Amendment to the Indian Constitution introduced, for the first time, anti-defection measures into Indian Law. As the preface to the Amendment Bill states:
The evil of political defections has been a matter of national concern. If it is not combated, it is likely to undermine the very foundations of our democracy and the principles which sustain it. With this object, an assurance was given in the address by the President to Parliament that the Government intended to introduce in the current session of Parliament an anti-defection Bill. This Bill is meant for outlawing defection and fulfilling the above assurance. (Emphasis mine)
The Amendment introduced provisions to ensure disqualification of a member of a House belonging to a political party if:
(a) If he has voluntarily given up his membership of such political party; or

(b) If he votes or abstains from voting in such House contrary to any direction issued by the political party to which he belongs or by any person or authority authorised by it in this behalf, without obtaining, in either case, the prior permission of such political party, person or authority and such voting or abstention has not been condoned by such political party, person or authority within fifteen days from the date of such voting or abstention. (Emphasis mine)

(-from the Tenth Schedule of the Constitution)
Now in theory, this would discourage party backbenchers from changing party affiliations at the drop of a hat and thus be good for democracy. In theory. Communism works, in theory. If you look carefully, what these laws do is make the political party essential to the legislative process. This was not the case prior to the Amendment. The only earlier Indian law that recognised political parties was the Elections symbols order of 1968. Our Constitution meant for MPs and MLAs to vote according to their consciences and the will of their constituents, not according to party fiat.

My MP, Shivajirao Patil, belongs to the Shiv Sena. Now in a perfect world, he would be my constituency's representative in Parliament, and that his vote in Parliament would reflect this. However, I cannot expect him to take decisions based on what he thinks best for the constituency or his better judgement. He will vote according to the line his party takes. His vote in Parliament will be decided by his party boss, Bal Thackeray. The votes of other MPs will likewise be decided by their party bosses. And that, in these days of crumbling inner-party democracy, means that decisions are ultimately made by people who are accountable to no one.

In a large country like India, direct democracy is not possible. We must have a representative democracy. But Representative Democracy demands legislators who actually represent their constituents. Indian legislators don't, they represent their parties. This means that a government is responsible to its people only at election time, not all the time as one would hope. Legislation in India cannot be overturned by popular opinion, it is decided solely by Party "High Commands". This is why anti-defection legislation is so popular among parties. And the best thing is, legislators now cannot vote against such laws, because it is against the policy of most parties and would invite anti-defection penalties.

The reality is, anti-defection law in India has seriosly weakend our Democracy. Anger against defections by MPs and MLAs has been used by political parties to appropriate more power at the expense of the people.

Update: Found an article that says essentially the same thing: Read Dissent isn't Defection.

Posted in Politics and Economics.


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