All that is ugly in Indian politics came to the fore in the month-long drama of government formation in Maharashtra. Ideological promiscuity, political chicanery, dissolute deals, improper decisions — everything was tried and done. The ugliest, however, was the degradation of people’s representatives — herding them to hotels and resorts, treating them as cattle and chattel.
It is shocking, and saddening, that such spectacles don’t shock us. We have become so accustomed to the herding of Members of Legislature and Parliament that we find it normal that party bosses should treat the former in such a manner. Unsurprisingly, we don’t even realise that our representatives are no longer free men and women; they are the slaves of party bosses who can herd them anywhere they deem fit. This after 72 years of Independence!
Technically, in the parliamentary form of democracy, the executive is responsible to the executive; in practice, though, it is the other way around. Parliamentarians and Members of Legislative Assembly have to obey the diktats of their respective party leaderships. Democracy stands on its head: while lawmakers are directly elected by the people and thus should be answerable to them (the people), in practice they become answerable to, indeed servants of, party managers. And servants, like slaves and sheep, can be herded or shepherded around as per the convenience and requirements of apparatchiks.
This has been going on for decades; the English language continues to betray the fact that democracy is being degraded. Such expressions as ‘the chief minister is trying to keep his flock together so that the Opposition doesn’t poach on them’, ‘MLAs have been herded to a resort,’ and ‘the party has issued whip to the MLAs’ are regularly used in political parlance. Flock, herd, poaching, shepherding, whip — this is the lexicon of animal trainers, not political commentators. Yet, top journalists and other opinion makers frequently use these words, blissfully unaware of the subconscious acceptance of the degradation of democracy.
How did we reach here? The original sin was the 52nd amendment to the Constitution in 1985, the anti-defection law in common parlance; it made MPs and MLAs the slaves of party bosses. The Statement of Objects and Reasons of the Fifty-second Constitution Amendment Bill, 1985 read: “The evil of political defections has been a matter of national concern. If it is not combated, it is likely to undermine the very foundations of our democracy and the principles which sustain it.”
The new legislation, ostensibly enacted to end “legislative anarchism”, provided that a lawmaker would cease to be a member of the legislature: if he resigns from the party on whose ticket he was elected; if he votes, or abstains from voting, in the House “contrary to any direction” issued by the political party to which he belongs; or if he has been expelled from such political party “in accordance with the procedure established by the Constitution, rules or regulations” of such party.
The author of the law, the then law minister Asoke Sen, claimed that it would “cleanse the political life of this country of the dirt accumulated over the years.” Corruption in politics will end with this law.
One need not be a political analyst to know that venality and unscrupulousness has increased since the law was enacted. The remedy has proved to be infinitely worse than the malady. Indeed it engendered another malady: enslavement of elected representatives.
It is interesting to notice that the Opposition at that time resisted the Bill. LK Advani of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was prophetic in his lamentation that this would “muffle dissent forever in a party like the Congress (I)…”
It is another matter that when his party was in office in 2003, and he was deputy prime minister, the BJP-led government decided to make the law even more stringent. The 1985 law recognised a “split” in a party if at least one-third members of the legislature party decided to form or join another political party. The BJP-led government, however, introduced the 91st amendment to the Constitution in 2003, making the requirement for split or merger stiffer: since then, at least two-third members of a legislature party need to leave the party. Evidently, Advani & Co forgot the ‘muffle dissent’ rhetoric.
Hypocrisy, however, is not the monopoly of the BJP. Speaking at the Kerala Literature Festival in Kozikhode, Kerala, on February 5, 2017, Congress MP and former Union minister Shashi Tharoor said the anti-defection law negatively impacted democracy as it diminished the voting power of people’s representatives. “The anti-defection law has a negative impact on democracy. A people’s representative does not have the right to vote according to his conscience. He has to vote on what his party says,” PTI quoted him in its report.
The same old story: introduce illiberal laws when in power, and slam such legislation when in the Opposition. Meanwhile liberty gasps for breath — in politics, as elsewhere. Tagore aspired that his country should awake into the “heaven of freedom”. This is certainly not that country.
(The author is a freelance journalist. Views expressed are personal)