70 years of freedom has been hollowed out
In the rough-and-tumble of the recent Rajya Sabha elections, everybody refused to see the stark reality that stared them in the face: people’s representatives are not free men and women; they are the chattel of party bosses who can herd them anywhere they deem fit for their flock from the evil influences of the rival party.
The terms and expressions that must have been used by slavers have become part of the mainstream political discourse—and nobody is bothered
And this happened against the backdrop of the nation celebrating 70 years of Independence with gusto. Again, nobody noticed the incongruity in the herding and the celebrations held simultaneously.
Technically, in the parliamentary form of democracy, the executive is responsible to the legislature; 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, and party managers. And servants, like slaves and sheep, can be herded or shepherded around as per the convenience and requirements of apparatchiks.
What is really depressing is that the taming of people’s representatives, and therefore the undermining of democracy, has been going on for decades; the language continues to betray the fact that democracy is being degraded. Such expressions as ‘the chief minister is trying to keep his flock together’, ‘MLAs have been herded to a resort,’ and ‘the party has issued a whip to the MLAs’ are regularly used in political parlance.
Worse, the users of these expressions, including top journalists and other opinion makers, remain blissfully unaware of the subconscious acceptance of the degradation of democracy. The terms and expressions that must have been used by slavers have become part of the mainstream political discourse—and nobody is bothered. That is the real calamity.
It was the 52nd amendment to the Constitution in 1985, the anti-defection law in common parlance, that made Members of Parliament (MPs) and of state Legislative Assemblies (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.
A people’s representative does not have the right to vote according to his conscience
The author of the law, the law minister Ashoke Sen, claimed that it would “cleanse the political life of this country of the dirt accumulated over the years.” It didn’t happen but another malady was introduced: people’s elected representatives were enslaved.
The Opposition viewed the Bill very differently, saying that it would confer legitimacy on party despotism. L.K. Advani of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) lamented 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 party decided to make the law even more stringent. The 1985 law recognized a “split” in a party of 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. In a way that was not surprising, for the law minister at that time was Arun Jaitley, the party manager par excellence.
Hypocrisy, however, is not the monopoly of the BJP. Speaking at the Kerala Literature Festival in Kozhikode, 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.
The same old story: go lyrical about 70 years of Independence, while ignoring the taming of people’s elected representatives; sing paeans to freedom, while overlooking the fact that freedom has been hollowed out and the remnant is a shell. Adorn the shell, forget the kernel.
1. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of PGurus.