"To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time."
"The dog did nothing in the night-time."
"That was the curious incident."
Those are some of the most famous lines in detective fiction, from Arthur Conan Doyle's short story 'Silver Blaze'. Sherlock Holmes was pointing out to the Scotland Yard man that the absence of something expected is as much a clue as the presence of something unexpected.
How does this apply to politics? There was widespread cross-voting in the Lok Sabha on July 22. Whether or not money exchanged hands is, as I write, still a matter of speculation and allegation; however it is a proven fact that several MPs either voted against the party whip or abstained from voting.
So here is the curious incident: Have those parties taken steps to have the errant MPs removed from the Lok Sabha under the Anti-Defection Act?
Several were expelled from their parties on disciplinary grounds. But -- this is the important point -- expulsion from the party does not mean automatic disqualification from the Lok Sabha. They are separate processes altogether. So, which parties have initiated such action and which have not?
Before I go on, here is the list of MPs that defied their parties, choosing to vote against the government: Kuldeep Bishnoi (Congress), Chaudhary Munawwar Hasan (Samajwadi Party), Jai Prakash (Samajwadi Party), Raj Narayan (Samajwadi Party), Ateeq Ahmad (Samajwadi Party), Professor S P Singh Baghel (Samajwadi Party), Afzal Ansari (Samajwadi Party).
And here is the list of MPs that defied the whip, opting to vote for the government: Hari Har Swain (Biju Janata Dal), Somabhai Gandalal Koli Patel (BJP), Kunnur Manjunath Channappa (BJP), H.T. Sangliana (BJP), Chandrabhan Bhaiya Singh (BJP), Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh (BJP), M. Shivanna (Janata Dal-Secular), Ramswaroop Prasad (Janata Dal United), L Ganesan (MDMK) Gingee N Ramachandran (MDMK), Baleshwar Yadav (National Loktantrik Party), W Wangyuh Konyak (Nagaland Peoples Front), Dr M Jagannath (Telugu Desam), and Ale Narendra (Telangana Rashtra Samiti).
Vanlalzawma (Mizo National Front) abstained, and D K Audikesavulu (Telugu Desam Party) apparently cast an invalid vote.
Finally, the following MPs were absent from the Lok Sabha altogether: Mamata Bannerjee (Trinamool Congress), Babubhai Khimabhai Katara (BJP), D C Srikantappa (BJP), Harisingh Nasaru Rathod (BJP), Manorama Madhwaraj (BJP), Dr P Pookunhi Koya (Janata Dal-United), Sukhdev Singh Libra (Akali Dal), and Tukaram Ganpatrao Renge Patil (Shiv Sena).
Obviously, an MP from a single-member party cannot be expelled. The BJP has accepted that D C Srikantappa was genuinely unwell (he has since passed away).
Then there are those who are protected by the Anti-Defection Law itself, which accepts a one-third split as legitimate. If two out of four MDMK members defy the whip, they are protected, and so is the sole Janata Dal-Secular MP because the party has only three MPs in the House. (Ridiculous but true: M Shivanna is the Janata Dal-Secular whip in the Lok Sabha, so he defied a whip that he himself circulated!)
But what happens to the other twenty MPs or so? If they are unseated then by-elections must be held. Why 'must'? Because the law says vacancies must be held within six months.
Everyone knows we are currently in election season, but the law says the life of this Lok Sabha extends up to May 2009, nine months away. And the Election Commission is anchored to the law, it cannot be moved by the shifting political tides.
The only way that these by-elections can be postponed is if the Lok Sabha itself is dissolved. Will the Manmohan Singh ministry choose to wield the brahmaastra of dissolution before the nuclear deal is settled and before the current backbreaking level of inflation eases off?
This puts the Manmohan Singh ministry in a terrible bind. On July 22, the government had 275 votes, 256 MPs voted against the government, and 10 MPs did not cast a vote. As things stand, the Treasury benches will lose more MPs than the Opposition, effectively putting it in a minority. Left with no answers, the government's response is trying to postpone the monsoon session of Parliament from August to November!
(I remember the P V Narasimha Rao ministry renaming the Inner and Outer Circles of Delhi's Connaught Place as Rajiv 'Chowk' and Indira 'Chowk', thus saying a circle is a rectangle. Having defied the laws of geometry, the Congress now feels it can declare that early winter is the monsoon season!)
But wait, disqualification is not an automatic act, it is a process that needs to be initiated.
Appendix IV of the 'Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business in Lok Sabha' says 'the leader of the legislature party concerned' must inform the Speaker 'as soon as may be after the expiry of fifteen days from the date of such voting or abstention, and in any case within thirty days from the date of such voting or abstention.'
The Lok Sabha voted on the confidence motion on July 22. That means the aggrieved parties must initiate action by August 6 and no later than August 21.
Up to the date of writing, the BJP, the Janata Dal-United, and the Biju Janata Dal have announced their intention to notify the Speaker, meaning that they want action taken against the MPs who defied the whip. The Akali Dal has issued a show cause notice to Sukhdev Singh Libra and the Shiv Sena has promised action against Tukaram Ganpatrao Renge Patil.
So much for the National Democratic Alliance partners, what about the ruling United Progressive Alliance? The Congress has expelled Kuldeep Bishnoi, and the Samajwadi Party has thrown out Chaudhary Munawwar Hasan, Jai Prakash, Raj Narayan, Ateeq Ahmad, Professor S P Singh Baghel, and Afzal Ansari. But it has not approached the Speaker to have them disqualified from the Lok Sabha.
Why not? Every party in the Lok Sabha debate claimed to be speaking on behalf of 'the people.' So why not let 'the people' themselves have a say in the shape of twenty or more by-elections? What are the Congress and the Samajwadi Party, those watchdogs of the common man's interests, so silent?