The recent Jharkhand episode brought to the fore a number of grievances that citizens continually harbour against our political parties and their widely prevalent methods of power grabbing. None other than President Kalam sprang a surprise by speaking plainly about the condition of legislators' politics today. Here are a few lines from his speech to parliamentarians at a recent awards ceremony for legislators.
"I am sure, I have your permission to speak some bare truths... Our polling processes have been, of late, under severe strain ... The arithmetical compulsions of incremental numbers and the alleged tradability of certain legislative seats, won perhaps through means allegedly dubious and undemocratic, have many a time created doubts on our democratic system in the public eye...". Kalam then urged all parliamentarians towards an introspection and behooved them to live up to expectations "enshrined so diligently and optimistically by the founding fathers in our Constitution."
Note the reference to the Constitution, we'll come back to it in a moment. But here is the President - not a regular citizen or a columnist in the media - saying quite plainly that the high office-holders (he includes himself, perhaps to make the pill a little less bitter for his audience) aren't very noble after all. Although he didn't use the term, the President was referring to that well known metaphor that has come to epitomise much of what is wrong with our political system - 'horse-trading'.
Kalam was right in exhorting legislators to live up to the expectations of the Constitution. Except, his speech overlooked one important detail. The Constitution itself is by now bent to our political realities, and must be amended before any glorious expectations it places before legislators can become real.
Horse-trading is despised because representatives elected on the platform of one political party are encouraged to switch their allegiances for no other reason except to get a share of power from such arrangements. The major parties have always detested this, and therefore got together to amend the Constitution - not once but twice - to prevent such defections. As a result of such anti-defection laws, the kinds of defections that prevented government formation or triggered collapsed in earlier decades are not possible today. And yet, it their eagerness to amend the Constitution to penalize defecting legislators with disqualification, our Parliamentarians traded two different horses for each other, with an outcome that is perhaps more perverse than the problem itself.
This is the problem with our anger against horse-trading; it has clouded our judgement on lawmaking itself. Think about this, how many Congress MPs were against the original Patents Bill or for the revised one? How many BJP MPs want to support a Rural Employment Guarantee? How many MPs, regardless of party will vote their conscience for a strong right to information law? These questions are not asked in our otherwise mighty parliamentary system. Instead we only ask wholesale questions - does the BJP as a whole support the guarantee, will the Congress as a whole pass a Patents Bill, etc. This is not representative voting, it's simply deal-making between the top few leaders who are the only ones who matter. The larger band of our MPs or MLAs have virtually no voice.
On the other hand, everyone likes to believe that legislators are elected to represent the people of their constituency in lawmaking. While this is theoretically correct, in practice it is simply not true in our country. Don't believe us? Try this. If you live in a Congress constituency, or in a constituency represented by any of the parties in the ruling coalition, ring up your representative just before a vote on some Bill the UPA government has sponsored, which you don't like. Ask him or her to represent you, i.e., vote against the Bill. You could try this in assembly constituencies too. We predict a uniform answer - your representative cannot vote against the legislation introduced, even if s/he thinks poorly of it.
We are already paying a price. Can you remember five pieces of legislation from the last two decades that were introduced in Parliament and subsequently defeated by a popular vote of the MPs present? Can you remember any legislation that was introduced in Parliament, but only supported by a few of the ruling MPs, and therefore had to be passed with support from some opposition MPs? These things are far more common in other democracies, but in India most often, there is only partisan voting. The ruling majority introduces legislation to be passed, and not to be tested by vote.
Why is it so important for legislators to be independent? Simple - to represent you. In the parliamentary system, each voter only gets to select a local MP or MLA, and the leader of the majority party or alliance heads the executive. Under this system, legislators are forced to vote according to the directives issued by party leaders, who is usually elected from a different constituency and therefore not selected by you.
Some people argue that this is not a problem - all legislators' views are considered before the party line is developed, and therefore once the party line is identified, there should be no need for dissent during actual voting. But if that were true, it should be the case in other democracies too, not just in India. When Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon sought legislative approval for his plan to pull his country out of the Gaza strip, he sought support from individual MPs of opposition parties, and some members of his own coalition voted against him. Similarly, when British Prime Minister Tony Blair took the UK to war with Iraq, over 150 MPs of his ruling Labour Party voted against it, and it was only with opposition support that he got his way. Despite the corporatisation of US politics, US legislators from both major parties - Republicans as well as Democrats - have routinely voted on a variety of domestic matters according to their consciences, and in a way that they think represents their own local constituents.
In virtually every other democracy, the vote of each legislator is important, and courted by those who advocate particular laws. In India, this is not so; it does not matter what the MP from Sivaganga or Chandigarh independently thinks, it only matters what the party leadership requires her or him to think while voting.
This diminishing of the status of our legislators as individual lawmakers is deeply connected to the culture within political parties where legislators are often herded together to support or oppose plenty of agendas that otherwise have very little to do with lawmaking itself. In addressing the horse-trading problem, our anti-defection law has only diminished our legislators further. They have rendered a key pillar of our version of democracy meaningless - one must either buy the whole package offered by a political leader, or dissent in full and split away to avoid the risk of being disqualified.
In turn, this has has two consequences. One, parties themselves break up all the time, because there is very little room for deeper discourse and coexistence with dissent. Second, the only legislators who can afford to vote without much fear of disqualification are the independents, and in tightly balanced legislatures their support becomes key. It is to obtain this support that parties now engage in the sort of power-seeking President Kalam referred to as 'bare truths' and 'alleged tradability'.
But that the Tenth Schedule has virtually sanctioned appallingly low value for our legislators' independence is equally a 'bare truth', and it needs more attention. We must bring respect in the Constitution back to the legislators, before we expect our legislators to look up to its lofty ideals. Parliament must amend the Tenth Schedule to limit disqualification of legislators only for legitimate defection -- i.e. defying of a party whip during confidence motions - and rescind the outlawing of dissent on legislative business, such as preparing and voting on a bill.
If you want to see an end to horse-trading, demand the right of individual MPs and MLAs to vote freely, and seek a richer bi-partisan consensus with other party MPs without risk of debarrment from their parties or disqualification from the legislatures. You won't get the former without the latter.