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Democracy without dissent?

July 29, 2003

Part I: Democracy at the whipping post

A few years ago, I put together a selection of questions that citizens can ask candidates (or party workers) who come to our doors seeking our votes. Such visits present rare opportunities for otherwise ignored citizens to remind the politicians that they serve at the people's pleasure. Many of the questions were predictable ones -- about financial transparency, exclusion of criminals, etc; these have now acquired the force of law. Other questions related to economic and social policy, alliances with other parties, and internal elections to party leadership positions.

Importantly in the list, I included one other query. Namely, "If you believe that your party leader's position on a particular legislative matter is harmful to your constitutents' interests, will you vote against the proposed statute, even if you are instructed by your leadership to do vote in favor?"

Most politicians would rather avoid this sort of interrogation; to answer in either the affirmative or the negative would be equally disastrous to one's political fortunes. Having ticketed their way into office, our netas are extremely unlikely to challenge their leadership, much less vote against orders over a matter of principle or conscience. Usually, this question is answered with an assurance that "our party leader would never instruct lawmakers to vote against the interests of constituents," which is no reply at all.

The importance of this question to representative democracy was in plenty of evidence in the weeks before the Iraq war began. With the British public highly sceptical of the motives for the conflict, Prime Minister Tony Blair took his case to Parliament, asking the people's elected representatives to endorse his -- and US President Bush's -- view that ousting Saddam Hussein by force was necessary. In an unprecedented act of rebellion against their leader, over 120 MPs belonging to the ruling Labour party turned down Blair's exhortation; the resolution passed only with the support of hawkish members from the Opposition party.

The odd thing about that vote -- from an Indian perspective -- isn't the dissent of the unconvinced members; that freedom they derive from the British people, and need little assurance of it from the prime minister. Indeed, on countless matters before the House of Commons, legislators often break from the majority within their party for a variety of reasons. Instead, the remarkable thing is that such wholesale disagreement with the prime minster posed very little danger that the Labour party itself would splinter. Having made their preferences known, lawmakers simply moved on to other battles.

Such differences among members of the same party are commonplace in many democracies, and party leaders must work to overcome them. George Bush, for example, had to accept a considerably reduced tax ut package because a few crucial members of his own Republican party flatly refused to give his original larger plans a pass.

In India, powerful leaders rarely seek the endorsement of MPs and MLAs, for a simple reason: the laws do not permit their fellow representatives much room for opposition in the first place. The Tenth Schedule -- the anti-defection legislation of the mid-1980s -- made it nearly impossible for lawmakers to oppose their party whips. If less than a third of the legislators of any party violate their leadership's directions on voting, they may be disqualified from the legislature! With the threat of expulsion constant, every measure introduced in Parliament is voted up or down completely along party lines; debate and dissent are mostly for show.

That we've endured eighteen years of such meaningless representation, it seems, isn't bad enough; now Parliament proposes to turn this ugly measure even worse by amending the Tenth Schedule. By the new proposal, the 1985 anti-defection law's prohibition will be taken to its extreme; the exemption provided for a third of a party to dissent from its leadership without fear of disqualification will be removed. Moreover, individual legislators disqualified for dissent will not be permitted to hold ministerial posts for the remainder of the Lok Sabha's tenure.

The ostensible purpose is to eliminate defections, but that objective can be achieved without resorting to constitutional amendments. If party leaders are annoyed that their 'ticketed' candidates are too quick to jump horses in mid-stream, all they have to do is pick their candidates more carefully. The representatives' roles are not limited to blind obedience to one party leader or another; theirs is a constitutional obligation to uplift the great republic. Rewriting the rules of electoral politics to ensure subservience to a few key figures is disgraceful. Why have representatives from Salem or Shillong if the ones from Lucknow and Amethi are the only ones who count?

In fact, at one extreme, requiring lawmakers to toe the line the leadership draws could turn every piece of legislation into a question of confidence in government. That consequence can only lead to even further collapses of elected governments. It seems incredible that the current crop of legislators might vote for a bill that would, if enacted, completely remove their own ability to disagree with their party heads.

Nonetheless, with the introduction of the bill in Parliament, this possibility is very real.

That the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government should propose to amend the Tenth Schedule is a great irony, for misguided anti-dissent legislation is at the very heart of the party's rise to power. Many of today's ruling parliamentarians were mere sideshows in 1986, when Rajiv Gandhi held the sword of disqualification over the heads of dissenters within the Congress Party. But without exception, they will remember the woman against whose legitimate interests the anti-defection law was first deployed.

When Shah Bano petitioned the lower courts for continuing maintenance from her former husband, she could little have imagined that her name would become synonymous with the rightists' charge of 'Muslim appeasement' by so-called secular parties. After three rounds in the courts, the Supreme Court finally found in her favour, noting for good measure its deep regret that some of the interveners who supported the appellant [ie, the man; Shah Bano was the respondent in this case], took up an extreme position by displaying an unwarranted zeal to defeat the right to maintenance of women who are unable to maintain themselves.]

That broad swipe at the despicable conduct of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board, however, didn't cut any ice with a government bent on maintaining its political support from minorities, engineered through the machinations of religious figure-heads. Making possibly the worst judgement of his forgettable tenure at the helm of the Congress Party, Rajiv Gandhi turned to his landslide majority in Parliament to help the extremists reassert control over everyday Muslim life.

The anti-defection law made it impossible for dissenting Congress MPs to vote against this mad pandering to the extreme Muslim conservatives. Arif Mohammed Khan's vociferous support of the Supreme Court's ruling was brushed aside; in his place Rajiv paraded more pliable Muslim members as the true spokesmen for minority rights. Under threat of expulsion from the party and consequent disqualification from Parliament, lawmakers fell quietly behind the prime minister's orders, and the shamelessly named Muslim Women's (Protection of Rights upon Divorce) Bill was passed.

From there, one might observe, it has been plainly downhill, and 'appeasement' has become the catch-phrase of rightists' criticism of the secular parties. Unfortunately, the nation is poised to compound the original error with an even more egregious legislation governing the right of individual legislators to dissent from their party whips. The proposed amendments to the Tenth Schedule wouldn't just diminish that right, they would make party whips the only figures of any importance and practically remove all dissent.

The term 'party whip', by some accounts, dates back to fox-hunting; and was used to refer to the minders who managed the hunting party's pack of hounds, keeping them focused on the pursuit. Acting at the behest of the leadership, the party whip's primary role is to similarly mind representatives, keeping them informed of House business and requesting their presence during voting on important issues. British parties still use the three-line whip in their internal correspondence, underlining thrice the issues on which the party expects its members to be present and vote.

A second role that whips play usefully in many democracies is to obtain the views of party members on important issues and report back to the leadership. In large legislatures, especially, party leaders cannot personally acquaint themselves with the views of every MP, and must rely on whips to gauge support within the party on imminent legislation.

The proposed legislation shows how this role has been completely reversed in our legislatures; whips are engaged in telling party members how their minds ought to be made up on the issues, not in soliciting their views! The very purpose of electing representatives -- to make choices that represent the constitutents' interests -- has been savaged in the first round of anti-defection legislation. This second assault on it would make the parliamentary system itself irrelevant. Various party whips could simply sit around a table and indicate their own preferences on issues up for voting; with all legislators required to obey their party whips, debate and dissent would lose all meaning.

Tolerance for dissent is an important sign of political maturity. By accepting the right of members to disagree on individual issues, political parties distinguish themselves from gangs, where all matters are reduced to the question of loyalty. The right of each lawmaker to disagree with party bosses follows directly from the right of the people to hold independent opinions, which they express through their representatives. Parliament's proposal to revise the Tenth Schedule has tied this fundamental guarantee of our Republic to the whipping post.


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Ashwin Mahesh

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