Deccan Herald
Stanley Carvalho

What is the use of the anti-defection law if it cannot stop defections?

The recent defection by eight Goa Congress MLA’s into the BJP fold is not only a disgraceful act of betrayal and a mockery of democracy but goes to prove that defections continue with impunity and is here to stay.

Do we, the people, let ourselves be taken for a ride by the turncoats or do something to make our elected representatives accountable for our precious votes cast?

Barely six months after the Goa MLA’s were declared elected on Congress tickets, they shamelessly defected to the BJP on September 14. Ironically, soon after elections, these MLAs signed affidavits pledging party loyalty and promised before God and the Constitution that they would not defect post-elections. Not only the voters in those constituencies in Goa but many across the country were shocked and sore at the crossover of the MLAs.

This is not the first, and unlikely to be the last, bout of defections, given the lure of big money, power and the loopholes in the anti-defection law. We, the people of India, were witnesses to what happened recently in Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and elsewhere, all to the BJP’s advantage.

A step back in time shows us that defections have been rife in Indian politics since independence. As early as 1948, the Congress Socialist Party broke away from the Congress with its members resigning from the Assemblies. Defections took place in Uttar Pradesh in 1950, in Andhra Pradesh in 1953 and in Haryana in 1967, which was so rampant that a slogan ‘Aaya Ram, Gaya Ram’ was coined to describe habitual defectors.

As defections continued, after some fits and starts, the Anti-Defection Law came into force in 1985 under the prime-ministership of Rajiv Gandhi, a step towards giving stability to governments, ending defections and cleaning public life. The Bill promised to punish defectors by taking away their seat in Parliament or State Legislatures.

Unfortunately, however, despite the law, defections continue as our MLAs and MPs jump ship with sickening regularity, thanks to an amendment to the Bill in 2003 when Atal Behari Vajpayee was the prime minister. As per the 1985 Bill, a ‘defection’ by one-third of the elected members of a political party was considered a ‘merger’ but the 2003 amendment changed that and now at least two-thirds of the members of a party have to be in favour of a ‘merger’ for it to have validity in the eyes of the law.

So, in effect, the anti-defection law does not apply if the defectors account for more than two-thirds of the party they are quitting. What’s more, the decision to disqualify MPs or MLAs lies with the speaker of the house, who more often than not, belongs to the ruling party or the party benefiting from the defections. Needless to
state how impartial the speaker can be!

And thus, defections have continued unabated.

It is pertinent to highlight the analytical report of the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), an NGO which works in the area of electoral and political reforms. In its report last year, it noted that 443 MLAs and MPs switched parties between 2016 and 2020 and re-contested polls in those years. The BJP was the biggest gainer, the report said, adding that the governments in Madhya Pradesh, Manipur, Goa, Arunachal Pradesh
and Karnataka fell during these years due to the defection of MLAs.

ADR pointed out that the most plausible cause for defections was the absence of value-based politics, lust for money and power, a strong nexus between money and muscle, and absence of laws on the functioning of parties.

“Until these trends are not reined in, our current electoral and political situation is bound to deteriorate further. The ‘Conduct of Politics’ necessitates fairness, freedom, reliability, equality, integrity, honesty and credibility. It will be a mockery of democracy if we fail to plug these loopholes because of which defections/changing/switching of party by MPs and MLAs are happening,” the report said.

It is high time this scourge of floor-crossing or party hopping is put to an end. What is the use of the anti-defection law if it cannot stop defections?

First and foremost, loopholes in the law must be plugged and stringent punishment imposed on defectors. If an MP or MLA, elected on a party ticket defects to another party, he/she should be suspended and not allowed to contest elections or hold public office for at least five years. For committing a breach of faith, he/she must seek a fresh mandate from the people.

It must also be ensured that the speaker of the house should act swiftly and impartially in the disqualification proceedings. It would be even better if an external, independent body is set up to deal with defections as suggested by a former judge of the Supreme Court. Only stringent laws that hold legislators accountable for defections can guarantee that we the people, the electorate, cannot be taken for a ride, that our votes are sacred and significant and importantly, that the electoral process is not a farce in the world’s largest democracy.

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