There has been much outrage over the manner in which the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) won the confidence motion in the Maharashtra state assembly on 12 November. The state election results led to a hung assembly with BJP, the single-largest party, falling well short of the majority mark. It has 121 members instead of the 145 required for a simple majority in a house of 287. This led to a situation where BJP had to either mend its broken friendship with Shiv Sena with 63 seats or seek support from the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) with 41 seats—the party that was in power earlier. In the absence of Sena offering help, the only way BJP could have won the vote of confidence was by accepting NCP’s support. This was ironical because BJP’s main electoral plank was to criticize the corrupt nature of the NCP-Congress rule in the state.

The last thing that the electorate in Maharashtra wanted was a new government that owed its existence to either the Congress or the NCP. The two parties, which ruled the state as allies for the past three terms, were given a resounding thrashing at the hustings, getting just 83 seats between them.

It was clear that no party could have formed the government on its own. Yet, the speaker of Maharashtra’s assembly declared that BJP won the confidence motion on the basis of a voice vote.

In the context of the Maharashtra elections, it would not be inaccurate to summarise that the speaker used a voice vote to silence political accountability. If there had been a voting in the house, the electorate would have known exactly where each party stood. In the absence of such clarity, each party can weave its narrative the way it suits its interests.

Does BJP intend to run its government with the tacit support of NCP? If so, would it not affect how BJP goes about looking at the alleged scams in the NCP-Congress rule? A case in point is the so-called irrigation scam, where close to 70,000 crore was spent without any real improvements in the irrigation facility in the state. The state irrigation minister belonged to NCP.

From the voter’s perspective, a voice vote has similar implications for the opposition parties as well—Shiv Sena and Congress in this case. BJP now has until May 2015, the earliest when a no-confidence motion can be brought against it, to get Shiv Sena to join the government by making it an offer that the Sena cannot refuse.

Till such time that every political party gets what it wants in this vulgar behind-the-scenes bargaining, each can, and probably will, justify its actions by claiming to safeguard the interests of the people of the state.

But it is not the first time in India that a confidence motion has been decided by a voice vote. According to an analysis by PRS Legislative Research’s M.R. Madhavan, of the 35 confidence motions (including no-confidence motions) in independent India, as many as seven have been settled by a voice vote. This is more than just a tad farcical since the question of a confidence motion comes up only when it is abundantly clear that no one party has a clear majority.

Why would we not have it mandatory in the rules to have a division of votes in the case of confidence motions? Some would point out that the rules allow for any member of the house to ask the speaker for a division of votes immediately after a voice vote if they are not convinced. If such a call is made, the speaker is obligated to conduct a voting. So, members from Sena or Congress could have asked for a voting if they wanted. According to several reports, they say they did. The speaker, on the other hand, says there was no such call.

So, in the absence of a clear directive in the rules mandating a division of votes in confidence motions, as things stand, political parties can weave their own explanations with room for alterations later.

The lack of recorded voting militates against political accountability and it is not hard to see why. Unless a party votes there is no way for the voter to nail a lie or a volte-face.

The lack of frequent recorded voting in India does not just afflict confidence motions alone.

In the last Lok Sabha (2009-14), the parliamentarians discussed 243 substantive issues. In five of these issues, the rules demanded a mandatory division of votes. But out of the remaining 238 issues, only 17 resulted in voting.

Ordinarily, one would expect that such a low proportion of voting would correlate with high levels of consensus on policy issues among the members of the house. But we know that isn’t true. The last Lok Sabha had one of the worst records when it came to disruptions in the house. On the face of it, there was little consensus among political parties. Yet the voting records suggest otherwise.

Perhaps the wide gap between what political parties do inside the assembly and what they say outside has to do with the fact that as an electorate, Indians haven’t always kept a keen watch on their political representatives.

To be sure, every time we did, the results were starkly different. A case in point is how the BJP conducted itself in the aftermath of the fractured verdict in Delhi state assembly elections in December 2013. BJP, with 32 seats, fell short of four members in achieving a simple majority. But instead of going for a voice vote, it quickly distanced itself from government formation by taking a principled stand that it did not have the numbers.

As it turned out, the Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) then formed the government with support from Congress despite having run the whole election campaign against Congress’s corrupt rule. That turned out to be a costly mistake for Kejriwal and AAP. Not only did the ill-fated government fall under the weight if its own contradictions, but it also resulted in voters getting disillusioned and punishing AAP in the April-May Lok Sabha elections. By most estimates, BJP is expected to win a majority in the fresh elections scheduled to be held in 2015.

The key point is that unless the electorate raises the costs of political opportunism, politicians will continue to undermine accountability. The main reason why BJP and Congress did not come together to form a government in Delhi or Maharashtra is because the cost of such opportunism is prohibitive. The perceived costs of taking support from NCP are perhaps lower.

The awareness and political involvement of voters in Delhi has resulted in the same political parties behaving in a more principled manner. Will the voters of Maharashtra do the same favour to themselves?

Policy Puddle comments on public policy developments.

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