Anti-Defection Law: Remedy or itself the Disease?

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    Recent political developments in Maharashtra and some other states have brought the Anti-Defection Law into focus, stirring much discussion on the efficacy of the legislation. But the law has a fascinating history. Did you know that this law was enacted not by a coalition government but by one which had the largest majority in Indian history?

    In 1985, when the 52nd Amendment in the form of the Anti-Defection Law was hastily pushed through in Parliament, the Rajiv Gandhi government enjoyed an overwhelming majority – 414 of the 533 seats in the Lok Sabha. Ashoke Sen, the then Law Minister, while piloting the Bill, had smugly declared in the Lok Sabha that it was not the Congress that was worried since defections had plagued the Opposition more than his own party.

    The Amendment, which inserted the Tenth Schedule into the Constitution, was virtually the first piece of legislation passed by the Rajiv Gandhi government in the very first session of the Eighth Lok Sabha. It was moved on the morning of 30th January 1985 and passed the same evening, after a lengthy debate.

    The phenomenon of elected representatives crossing from one party to another is recent. Even during the freedom movement, differences of opinion had led to splits in political parties several times. Despite this, the framers of the Constitution did not consider it necessary to include any provision to prevent party hopping. In fact, the term ‘political party’ was not even written into the Indian Constitution when it came into force in 1950.

    Origin of the Law

    There were many political defections in the 1950s and early 1960s. But the worst-ever performance of the Congress in national as well as state elections in 1967, led to much introspection in the party.

    On 11th August 1967, a private member’s resolution was moved by prominent Congressman P Venkatasubbaiah in the Lok Sabha against political defections. As a result, a Committee on Defections was set up under Home Minister Y B Chavan at the end of 1967, to recommend ways to deal with the problem. The committee was made up of MPs representing eight political parties and independent groups and several eminent jurists.

    It submitted its report six months later, in September 1968, and its most important recommendation was the recognition of the primacy of political parties in elections. A strong and stable government was possible only when a representative was “bound to the political party under whose aegis he wins an election” as he owed allegiance to its programme. Flowing from this, a defector was defined as a person who was elected on the reserved symbol of a political party but voluntarily renounced his membership of the party.

    But when it came to action against defectors, the committee recommended the relatively mild punishment of debarring a defector from occupying a ministerial position for a year or till he or she was re-elected. Suggestions to disqualify defectors instituting the mechanism of recall were not accepted and the door was virtually kept open for defections on the plea that splits, mergers and amalgamations achieved ‘political consolidation’. Demands by some members that punitive action should not be confined to defectors but also to the parties that admitted them were ignored.

    A Note of Dissent

    The only important point in the committee’s report was the incisive note of dissent mentioned by Bhupesh Gupta of the Communist Party of India (CPI). In his rather long note, the leading CPI member said that it was not defections but disintegration of the Congress party that was responsible for instability. He noted that defections had been occurring regularly since the first general elections but the Congress had become alarmed about it because defections had ceased to be one-way traffic.

    After the 1967 general elections, the Congress had received 139 defectors but had lost 175 members to the Opposition. But, Gupta claimed, it was the Congress that was mainly to blame for the unholy political “horse trading” since it had more inducements to offer defectors. It also enjoyed power at the Centre and was in a position to use that power, including the office of the governor, to achieve its partisan ends.

    Disagreeing with the measures suggested by the committee to check defections, Gupta said that the only way to stop defections was to introduce the instrument of recall, allowing people to ‘recall’ their elected representatives and to give governments that were victims of defections the right of dissolution of the House.

    But the committee’s report did not result in legislative action till about six years later, when an Amendment Bill was introduced in 1973. It was referred to a joint select committee and never passed during the term of the Lok Sabha that ended in 1977. Even an attempt by the Janata Party government following the ouster of Indira Gandhi to pass the law ended in failure, while the Janata Party itself was rent by defections.

    The issue remained on the backburner during the entire tenure of Indira Gandhi’s second time in office after 1980 till her assassination four years later. It was revived only after her son Rajiv became prime minister after elections, with the Congress winning 414 seats in the Lok Sabha.

    Political Turmoil in Two States

    Rajiv Gandhi, the young prime minister seemed to be in a hurry to show that he had left the baggage of the past behind him. The Anti-Defection Law offered the first opportunity to do so as the last three months of Indira Gandhi’s rule had brought criticism due to events in Jammu & Kashmir and Andhra Pradesh, where elected governments were brought down with the help of defectors.

    In Jammu & Kashmir, the government of Farooq Abdullah was toppled in July 1984 in a predominantly family quarrel over the legacy of Sheikh Abdullah. The government was toppled with the help of a dozen defectors led by Abdullah’s brother-in-law Ghulam Mohammad Shah, who formed a government with the outside support of 26 Congress MLAs as the National Conference lost its majority in the Assembly. This happened despite the existence of an Anti-Defection Law in the state. The Speaker’s decision, however, was challenged in the courts and the government could carry on, and did carry on, for nearly two years.

    The second state that suffered a similar fate a month later was Andhra Pradesh, where Chief Minister N T Rama Rao was removed by Governor Ram Lal in August 1984. He was replaced by his Finance Minister Nadendla Bhaskara Rao who led a breakaway group of the Telugu Desam Party, taking advantage of the chief minister’s absence.

    At the time, NTR was away in the United States, where he had gone for heart surgery. In both cases, Indira Gandhi had tried to install Congress-supported state governments, apparently in view of the approaching general elections.

    But, in both cases, the action of the Centre attracted a great deal of criticism for the Congress for encouraging political corruption.

    Rajiv Gandhi: A Break With The Past

    In 1985, Rajiv Gandhi decided that bringing in the Anti-Defection Law, for which much spadework had already been done, was a good opportunity to convince the electorate that the party had turned over a new leaf, under a forward-looking, clean leader, particularly in view of the Assembly elections in 14 states later that year.The new India would not only have to be led by ‘Mr Clean’ but also make a break with the past shenanigans of the Congress and other parties, particularly after his mother came to power in 1966.

    But this meant that there was a great deal to be lived down, as the statistics on floor crossings revealed. When the Anti-Defection Law was introduced into the Lok Sabha on 30th August 1985, it was followed by a heated debate among MPs.

    Law Minister Ashoke Sen himself admitted that there were more defections in the state Assemblies during the single year following the Fourth general elections in 1967 (542) than in the period starting with the First elections in 1952 to the Fourth in 1967 (438). That MPs had been lured to cross over by inducements was clear from the fact that as many as 118 of the defectors were given ministerial positions. The number of defections in the Lok Sabha too, though much smaller, was rising.

    To show that he was indeed making a clean break from the past, Rajiv Gandhi said in Parliament during the debate that the matter had been pending for seven years, implying inaction on the part of previous governments. Taking the high moral ground, he said that the amendment had been one of the first tasks to be taken up by his government as it was moved by the desire to cleanse public life.

    Attempting to explain the haste in passing the amendment, Rajiv Gandhi said that a lot of damage had already been done. “This Bill should have come yesterday, should have come last year, should have come 7 years ago.”

    But there were a number of objections raised by the Opposition. S Jaipal Reddy, at that time a member of the Janata Party, pointed out that since the decision on defection had been left to the Speaker, it would give a great deal of power to the “ruling clique” which controls the majority of the ruling party. “In the ultimate analysis, the Speaker is at the command of the ruling clique of the party.”

    That the internal functioning of political parties would have an impact on the system was brought out by Suresh Kurup of the CPI (M), who cautioned that if parties do not function democratically, powers will be concentrated in one hand. The other important matter that he mentioned was that for the electoral system to be truly democratic, the system of proportional representation should be introduced.

    Ironically, this Anti-Defection Law brought in by Rajiv Gandhi in 1985 did nothing to stop defections as it had a provision for recognizing a ‘split’ in the party. In 2003, Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s National Democratic Alliance government brought in an amendment (91st Amendment), according to which all defectors were required to resign and seek re-election if they wanted to return to the Legislature, regardless of their numbers.

    But the developments in recent years in Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and now Maharashtra show that even this is not enough to stop defections. The story of India’s Anti-Defection Law continues to evolve.

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