Ravi Shanker Kapoor
On March 13, Madhya Pradesh animal husbandry minister Lakhan Singh Yadav, higher education minister Jitu Patwari, and some other MP Congress leaders alleged that they were manhandled by the Bengaluru Police. This allegedly happened outside a resort in suburban Bengaluru. They apparently wanted to contact ‘rebel’ MLAs residing at the resort; the cops, they said, stopped them from doing so. Whatever may be the truth, it is indisputable that resort politics has proved to be a bane of Indian democracy.
Whenever there is a hung Assembly or hung Lok Sabha, political debate is inundated with terms animal trainers, wranglers, and horse whisperers. Consider the words used in political discourse in such situations—flock, herd, poaching, shepherd, horse trading, etc. All these pertain to the domestication of animals. And these are used, rightly, because the elected representatives are ‘herded’ by the party bosses so that the rivals don’t ‘poach’ their ‘flock.’ Good ‘shepherding’ is lauded in top echelons of politics.
And if they don’t behave themselves, there are ‘whips’ to discipline them. It needs to be mentioned here that the institution of parliamentary whips, though borrowed from Great Britain, has been rendered practically illiberal and anti-democratic in our country.
In the first half of the last century, when our political leaders were fighting the greatest empire on earth, they enjoyed far greater freedom of thought and action than they do now. There were conservatives and Leftists, moderates and radicals, Gandhians and revolutionaries. They expressed their views freely and acted upon them. There was Subhas Chandra Bose disputing with Mahatma Gandhi; he even had the gumption to (successfully) challenge Gandhi’s candidate for the Congress president’s post.
Is it possible for a Congress leader to challenge the supremacy of Sonia and Rahul Gandhi today? Or, for that matter, for a Bharatiya Janata Party leader to question the decisions, let alone the leadership, of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah? Our political leaders won the freedom for the nation—and lost their own to party managers over the years.
It is unfortunate that all our parties, with the exception of the BJP, have become family enterprises. Right from the Congress to the regional parties all over the country, it is one family or the other that dominates, rather owns, it. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and communist parties are also exceptions, but in the case of AAP, it is too early to become family-owned and communists are anyway fading.
At any rate, all parties are tightly controlled by the top leadership; the ‘high command’ culture, which once was the defining feature of the grand old party, pervades the entire political spectrum. All that is ugly in Indian politics comes to the fore whenever there is political instability, as it recently happened in Madhya Pradesh.
It also happened during 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 realize 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 73 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. Top journalists and other opinion makers frequently use words like ‘flock’ and ‘herd’; yet, they remain blissfully unaware of the subconscious acceptance of the degradation of democracy. Or is it the mechanical use of words, without reflecting for a moment the etymology involved?
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 of 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. L.K. 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 recognized 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.
It is not the first time that political shenanigans have been reported from a state; it has happened in the past; it will happen later, if corrective measures are not taken. The situation is worsening. On March 18, for instance, the BJP offered to parade the 16 Congress MLAs, who have rebelled, before the Supreme Court judges hearing the case. The saffron party wanted to prove that the Congress’s charge of coercing its legislators was wrong. The rebellion, under Jyotiraditya Scidia who joined the BJP, had destabilized Kamal Nath’s government in Madhya Pradesh.
Thankfully, the apex court disallowed this. Justices D.Y. Chandrachud and Hemant Gupta correctly said, “We do not want to play the role of Speaker. Since the chief minister had said he was ready to face the House, we do not want to come in the way of the legislature deciding who enjoys confidence of the House. But, our endeavor is to strike a balance by ensuring that the 16 MLAs are genuinely free to take decision as per their wishes.”
Tagore aspired that his country should awake into the “heaven of freedom.” This is certainly not that country. In India, everything that could have gone wrong has. Come to think of it, today nobody is even talking about the monstrous illiberality of the anti-defection law, the legislation that enslaved people’s representatives, that transformed the Rashtrapati Bhawan (courtesy a former president of the Republic) and Raj Bhawans into post offices, that injected so much corruption in politics.
Worse, intellectuals and politicians of the country are discussing and debating the efficacy of the anti-defection law—whether it should be amended, made stricter, etc. Can liberty survive in a country whose thought and political leaders are unable to comprehend even the reality of draconian legislation?