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Not Even Our Parliamentarians Have Complete Freedom Of Expression, Thanks To This Law

By Paarth Manjarekar:

A view of the Indian parliament building is seen in New Delhi July 21, 2008. India's parliament begins debate on a vote of confidence in Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's government on Monday that will decide the fate of a nuclear deal with the United States and could trigger a snap election. REUTERS/B Mathur (INDIA) - RTR20DZA
Image Credit: Reuters/B Mathur.

There exists today, in the constitution of India, an apparent and wide loophole. We chose the parliamentary democracy so our Members of Parliament can be free and the system of accountability of Cabinet ministers is upheld. The Cabinet ministers (part of the Council of Ministers) with the portfolios of and authority over finance, defence, home, foreign affairs and such, form the nucleus of union administration. The primary feature of democracy is that these ministers cannot govern as dictators and are collectively responsible to the Lok Sabha. The members of this House can pass a ‘no-confidence’ motion against any or all of the cabinet members in the event that they assume dictatorial tendencies or act against the constitution or the interests of our great nation.

The Anti-Defection Law (introduced in the 52nd Amendment Act of 1985), bars ministers from having their own personal thought and opinion, and makes it obligatory for them to vote according to their Party’s decision.

Made operational in the year 1985, the law provides that an elected member of the union or the state parliament stands to be disqualified from his post if he does any of the following:

1. voluntarily gives up membership of the party, while still in the parliament or,
2. votes or abstains from voting in such House contrary to any direction issued by his political party.

This means that were you to be a member of a party ‘A’, which has a certain stance on a bill or a policy, you as a member of parliament simply do not have the right to your own opinion regarding that bill or policy. You are obligated, in order for you to keep your job, to agree with the party, regardless of your experience, education, or learning.

In its essence, the law provides for ‘Party Rule’ where, in open contradiction to the very essence of democracy, the MP, an elected representative of the free people of India, is himself/herself not free to act in accordance with public sentiment. Neither is he/she allowed to make independent decisions based on his/her own moral and/or educated opinion and must succumb to the decision of the Party.

In theory, it is an open contradiction of the concept of democracy. The reasons for it still being in existence are somewhat convoluted. It is the duty of the highest, most competent judicial authority in India, the Supreme Court, to ensure that there is no breach of democratic policy in the working of the government. This body is independent and, ideally, impartial with certain special powers. Why then, would this authority let such a bill continue to stay in existence?

There are certain benefits to the anti-defection law, mainly disciplinary. Rogue ministers, having a grudge, or those who won by virtue of their party’s circumstantial popularity and not on their own merit are not given much power to sway a parliamentary vote. Observing impartially, we can see that if it is the party ideology the public votes for, the anti-defection law makes it a mechanical process for that same ideology to be incorporated into laws and legislations. Furthermore, the anti-defection law gives recognition to the different political parties in the parliament as separate groups.

That being said, its implications and applications are far from fair.

It was in October, in the year 2010, when the speaker of the Karnataka state assembly, then dominated by the Yeddyurappa government, under the Anti-Defection Law, disqualified a total of 16 MLAs from the assembly (11 BJP, 5 independent), to survive a no-confidence vote (a vote to establish no confidence of the house in the ruling party, which leads to the resignation/removal of the ruling party). This is only one example of this law being misused and shows the extent to which it can be misused.

In August 2012, the then Meghalaya Speaker P.K. Kyundiah suspended the voting rights of five independent members. The House was to take up a no-confidence motion against the B.B. Lyngdoh-led Meghalaya United Parliamentary Party (MUPP) government led. It is within the authority of the speaker of the house, a representative of the ruling party, to disqualify members under the anti-defection law. Such a speaker, being a representative of the majority party, is limited only by judicial review.

Coming now to the most important point. This bill has successfully turned the Parliament, a forum for debate and discussion, into a room of robots, where the laws are made by backroom deals among the leaders of the party. There is no incentive for our MPs to sit in session!

In such a situation, the cabinet members become fearless to push their party’s agenda to the fullest, be it religious, regional, an obligation to an industry or industrialist, or a greed for power; a desire to decide what people can and cannot eat, drink and watch, or the arrogance to decide which of us can marry and which among us can’t; to defend or promote communal violence, or even to alter constitutional procedure, and so on.

All this, because the members of the Lok Sabha, the only body with the power to dissolve the union cabinet, has no choice today. All they can do is vote for their party or lose their job, their vote having counted for nothing!

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