Sixty years ago the architect of the Constitution, B.R. Ambedkar, said something that holds true of India even today. Democracy in India is only a top-dressing of a soil that is essentially undemocratic. The circumstances under which the Women’s Reservation Bill was passed in the Rajya Sabha last week and its possible ramming through the Lok Sabha in the months ahead amply prove his assertion.
The Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party both issued a three-line whip to their members of Parliament (MPs) in the Rajya Sabha. This was to ensure a vote in line with the party diktat. A three-line whip is an instruction from party leaders to MPs to be present in the House and vote in a certain manner. Violating a three-line whip invites expulsion from the party and, in turn, from the House.
Whips have a certain rationale to them. If a party has made a certain promise to the electorate, then it has the mandate to implement that promise either by executive or legislative means. Under those conditions, an enforced vote may seem logical. Ordinarily there is sufficient consensus within parties that such coercive measures are not needed. This need only arises when there are serious fissures within a party on a given legislation. That is where the trouble begins: MPs have certain rights from being the representatives of the people in their constituencies. These rights may clash with the larger objectives of their party. There also may be occasions in which the legislation being debated may harm the individual interests of MPs. In such conditions, the use of a whip to overcome objections of MPs does not resolve anything. Instead, it is deeply undemocratic as it does not allow MPs to voice their opposition through the most potent weapon in their hand: their vote in Parliament.
In the case of the Women’s Reservation Bill, all these issues, rare as they are under normal circumstances, clashed with each other. In this case, the parties were addressing a larger constituency, the women of India. But individual MPs saw the Bill as a threat to their political existence. If one-third seats in each Lok Sabha will be reserved for women on a rotating basis, party candidatures and elections become a lottery not very different from a casino gamble. MPs are sure to react the way they have: threatening rebellion.
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