The Karnataka elections and subsequent events have raised important questions regarding horse-trading in politics, the anti-defection law, pros and cons of post-poll alliances, as well as the discretionary powers of the governor.
The dirty dance of politics has brought to light the various challenges facing Indian democracy. With regional parties gaining importance across states, we have moved towards a truly multi-party system, with fractured mandates becoming the norm. In such a scenario, it is essential to have a set of rules which prevents a repeat of the natak of Karnataka.
Horse-trading, which has become a catchphrase in Indian politics referring to political defections and buying and selling of MLAs or MPs, has been around for a long time. It started in Haryana in 1967 when a Congress MLA named Gaya Lal defected thrice in a span of 15 days — twice in nine hours! Congress leader Rao Birender Singh presented him before the Chandigarh press with the historic words that “Gaya Ram is now Aya Ram”, an expression that has come to describe political defections in India.
In order to curb the menace, an Anti-Defection Act was passed by Parliament in 1985. The 52nd amendment to the Constitution added the Tenth Schedule which laid down the process by which legislators may be disqualified on grounds of defection to another political party. According to the Act, an elected member is disqualified if he/she voluntarily gives up his/her membership of a political party. Or votes against the party whip or abstains from voting.
However, a “defection” by one-third of the elected members of a political party was considered a “merger”, and did not lead to disqualification. While this failed to curb the menace, the 91st Constitutional Amendment Act, 2003, changed this to at least two-thirds of the members of a party having to be in favour of a “merger” for it to have validity in the eyes of the law. The Act further states that the Speaker’s decision on questions of disqualification on the ground of defection shall be final as all such proceedings shall be deemed to be legislative and thus out of the judicial review. The Supreme Court, however, declared this provision to be unconstitutional (Kihoto Hollohan vs Zachillhu and Others, 1991), making the Speaker’s decision subject to judicial review as he acted as a tribunal while deciding cases under the anti-defection law.
The law, however, does not seem to be doing much to stop MLAs from defecting. This is primarily because MLAs are offered back-door entry to assemblies by rival parties. There is not much that an MLAs loses if he/she defects or abstains from voting. In fact, if figures are to be believed, the MLAs in Karnataka stood to gain Rs 100 crore each! I believe a defecting MLA must be disqualified from contesting or becoming a minister for at least six years. A distinction, though, needs to be drawn between a member leaving a party for ideological differences or greener pastures.
Another issue that cropped up was the ethics of post-poll alliances. Unlike pre-poll alliances, where the voters are aware of whom they are voting for, post-poll alliances present a new set of challenges. With the Congress and JD(S) aggressively campaigning against each other before the elections, the post-poll alliance between the two rival parties is being seen as a betrayal of the trust of the voters by many who call it an “unholy” or opportunistic alliance. But how is the Congress-JD(S) an “unholy” alliance, when the BJP’s similarly post-poll alliances in Goa, Manipur and Meghalaya were “holy” just a few months ago? Public memory is short but not so short. We can’t have double standards.
Is there a way out? When multiple parties contest elections and the results show fractured mandates, there are only two options — re-election or post-poll alliance. Re-elections will lead to humongous wastage of money and polarising hate discourse and still not guarantee a single party coming to power. Post-poll alliances, therefore, present a lesser trade-off.
The third issue that has been highlighted in recent months is that of the discretionary powers of the governor. Government formation now seems to be a race of who can run to the governor the fastest to stake claim to form the government. The athletic qualities rather than the number of seats have become the deciding factor! The questionable conduct of the governors in the exercise of their discretionary power has raised a serious question about whether this power is safe in their hands. Many voices have been raised that the post itself must be abolished.
As far back as 1983, the Sarkaria Commission, set up to examine the relationship and balance of power between state and central governments, dealt with the issue in depth and recommended the following order to the governor in cases of a hung assembly: One, an alliance of parties formed prior to elections. Two, the single largest party staking claim to form the government with the support of others, including independents. Three, a post-electoral coalition of parties, with all the partners in the coalition joining the government. Four, a post-electoral alliance of parties, with some joining the government and some extending outside support.
The Commission rightly makes post-poll alliance, with all parties joining or offering outside support, the last option.
The Punchhi Commission, set up in 2007 to take a fresh look at the relative roles and responsibilities of various levels of government and their inter-relations, reiterated the need to adopt the recommendations of the Sarkaria Commission. Whether the single largest party is called first (ideal), or a post-poll alliance, the process must be uniform across the country. That these recommendations have been brushed under the carpet shows the ruling dispensation of the times in poor light. Since ruling parties always think they are there forever, they sacrifice long-term national interest for their immediate political interest.
The time has come to put a stop to all this. What is required is a set of rules which would curb the menace of defection as well as the misuse and abuse of powers of the governor’s office. The following steps seem imperative: One, the anti-defection law must be made tighter, disqualifying a traded horse for six years, if not more. Two, the governors’ discretionary powers must be abolished and replaced with clear guidelines based on the Sarkaria Commission. Democracy is precious and must be protected from politicians and their rubber stamps at all costs.