Indian democracy has a unique problem: Its government can either be grass-roots-representative or politically stable, but not both. The reason is that the individual legislator is legally powerless in front of the party “high command”, making the executive unaccountable. And if regional parties rise to increase accountability, stability suffers. One of the biggest culprits is the anti-defection law.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
After winning a huge majority in the 1984 general election, Rajiv Gandhi passed the 52nd amendment to the Constitution in 1985. This made legislators liable to be suspended if they did not always vote according to their party whip—unless one-third of a party’s bench defected and formed a new party. This was done ostensibly to prevent them from opportunistically changing parties. Since this still did not prevent wholesale defections, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government outlawed this entirely through the 91st amendment in 2003.
So if there is any reform which a majority of the Opposition and a small but significant minority of the ruling party support, it still cannot go through despite having an overall majority in the House. For instance, many members of both the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) and the NDA were sympathetic to insurance reform during the previous government’s tenure—but the party bosses were undecided.
Therefore, the executive is neither checked nor pushed by the legislature once the government is formed—defeating the concept of separation of powers. All decisions of party leaders are just rubber-stamped by Parliament. Any dissent, and the legislator is threatened with?removal—that?is,?his?entire?constituency might go unrepresented.
Yet the British parliamentary system, on which Indian democracy is explicitly modelled, allows intra-party dissent. Tony Blair took the support of some Tories for the Iraq war, over opposition from his own party members. The American system has even had legislature controlled by a different party than the executive, besides many intra-party differences—“green” Republicans and “gun” Democrats are not hard to find.
In India, too, there were open debates within the Congress during Jawaharlal Nehru’s time, on issues such as Hindu personal law and land reforms. But party power soon became concentrated: Dissenting party leaders left the Congress, eventually leading to a proliferation of regional parties. Anti-defection laws only strengthened this trend after the 52nd amendment: Instead of one or two legislators leaving, an entire army would defect.
Such regional parties, while helpful at the state level, create instability at the Central level. Hence the dilemma: Without dissent being legalized, there can be one strong party (with a few coalition partners at most) forming a stable government, but with no real check; or there can be a huge and noisy coalition which will be more grass-roots-?representative, but is likely to provide myopic and unstable governance.
The circle can only be squared by empowering the individual legislator. If local leaders can feel that they will not be held hostage to “top-down” politics, they will be much more comfortable in a national umbrella alliance party. Two or three such parties will develop from political mergers over time— and, hence, we can have both stable and representative governance.
Moreover, repealing the current campaign spending restrictions on individual candidates—which are not applicable to party expenditure, hence making the candidate even more dependent on the party—and introducing US-style primaries or transparent ballots to select political offices would further strengthen the individual legislator and “bottom-up” democracy.
There are many second-order benefits of legalized dissent. First, legislators would not be able to attribute some past unpopular vote to their party’s fiat while trying to take the moral high ground. They will have to put their vote where their mouth is. Second, there will be better debates in Parliament: The wisdom of crowds would be at work, with new ideas coming from any legislator, right or left. Third, since none of those ideas will be “owned” by a party, less partisan debate will be possible. Fourth, a popular leader would prefer to be committee chair in Parliament— something they have shirked while Parliament remained weak—instead of making the cabinet more generalist and redundant.
Some argue that dissent on policy votes, but not party defection, should be legal. It sounds reasonable, but what if a deeply unpopular prime minister cannot be voted out by his own party members, thanks to anti-defection provisions, yet is not able to pass any law because of now legalized dissent? Moreover, there is nothing undemocratic if legislators change party affiliation mid-way—they may simply be representing a changing grass-roots reality. Nonetheless, even a law that bans only defection, but not dissent, would still be a huge improvement over the status quo—and it is the need of the hour.
At the end of the day, allowing legislators to speak for themselves adds the right checks to our parliamentary democracy. These checks may slow decisions, but they also prevent many rash decisions and back-room dealings. The legislator must be allowed to represent his constituents and conscience, not his party bosses.
Harsh Gupta writes for Pragati—The Indian National Interest Review, a publication on strategic affairs, public policy and governance. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org