The Tenth Schedule has not stopped defections because it’s a paper tiger with teeth made of soan papdi.

Former Karnataka Speaker Ramesh Kumar who disqualified rebels. Courtesy: PTI
Voices Opinion Wednesday, December 11, 2019 - 13:18

Across India, we love our double-action masala movies. Father and son played by the same actor, with little difference in their mannerisms, may be just a different moustache, yes? We love it when a son who has never met his father but looks identical to him, ends up speaking the same dialogues, or doing the same ‘mass’ actions. Flipping a thundu, tossing a cigarette, laughing a sly laugh... But however similar they are, we know they’re different characters. They have different functions in the story. Appa-hero will thinkify, son-hero will finishify. We, the audience, know that thinkifying and finishifying are not the same thing.

In our politics and governance, though, our leaders have muddled up this difference quite nicely, and in doing so, they’ve gone against the very essence of our Constitution prescribing three branches of government. We’re supposed to have a Legislature, Executive, and Judiciary, with distinct functions. But if you look at it, the Legislature and the Executive have become one and the same for all practical reasons. The problem with this is – when the thinkers and do-ers are the same, neither does their job properly.

And one of the main obstacles to the Legislature doing its job in India is the anti-defection law – or the Tenth Schedule of the Constitution.

On paper, the anti-defection law, which came into force in 1985, stops people from jumping parties at the drop of a hat – and punishes them if they do jump parties, by disqualifying them from the House. This applies both to the Parliament and state Assemblies. However, in practice, it’s like canned laughter in a supposedly funny TV show. The law simply doesn’t work in stopping our legislators from defecting.

Take the most recent case of defections in Karnataka. Seventeen legislators who belonged to the Congress and JD(S) jumped ship – seemingly in suspended animation for a few weeks, before they officially joined the BJP once the Congress-JD(S) government fell in Karnataka. The Speaker – who is the authority in this case – disqualified them. The legislators went to court to challenge this disqualification, but the court upheld it. However, just a few weeks later, all these rebels save three are back in the Karnataka Assembly – this time representing the BJP.

So what was the point of the anti-defection law giving power to parties and the Speaker to “punish” these MLAs for defection? What has essentially happened is a bunch of money and time has been wasted. The court’s time, the Speaker’s time, Karnataka Assembly’s time, your and my time. And a whole lot of money to conduct bye-elections in those constituencies.

Further, the law says any court case can only happen when the Speaker takes a decision on disqualification. This has been twisted by political parties in power as well. In Andhra Pradesh, when the TDP was in power, several legislators from YSRCP defected to the TDP; but while YSRCP chief Jagan Mohan Reddy petitioned the then-Speaker several times, no action was taken to disqualify the legislators. The MLAs continued to sit in the House on treasury benches, and the party couldn’t take the issue to court either.

In effect, the Tenth Schedule has not stopped defections because it’s a paper tiger with teeth made of soan papdi. And in a vicious and blurry cycle of cause-and-effect, it strengthens and is strengthened by the mixing of the legislature and the executive.

Coming back to our double action. Right now, we see little difference between the legislative wing of the government, and the executive wing of the government. That is, the people who are making our laws and those who are implementing our laws are one and the same.

The executing is done by people who win a majority of seats in the Parliament or state Assembly. And unlike in other (flawed) democracies like the US, the laws are also made – physically researched and drafted – by the same people. Our legislators have little power to actually “make” any law. Yes, there are provisions to bring in Private Member Legislations – however, the last time any such law was passed when the makers of our Constitution were still alive and present in Parliament.

And therefore, the only “powers” our legislators have is voting. They can say yes or no to the laws the government – made of the winning parties – brings in.

Except, guess what. They HAVE TO vote according to what they party tells them to do. Because anti-defection.

The Tenth Schedule is essentially stopping our MLAs and MPs – who have been voted in by us, to represent us – from thinking independently about the issues that affect us. It stops our legislators from voting according to their conscience, and according to the interests of their constituents – especially in a diverse country like ours where what is good for someone in UP may not be good for someone in Telangana. It turns them into sheep who simply bleat whatever the “whip” says they should. They’re like the extra in a fight scene who stops his bike to stretch his neck up and see what is happening.

For a country that spends so much time and money on elections – surely, the people we’ve taken our time and energy to vote for should have more power? And therefore, more responsibility? More Spidey-sense about what the people who put them in Parliament want, and not just what their party wants?

I mean, you wouldn’t cast Rajinikanth as father and son in a film, and simply make father-Rajini stand around like a prop in the background, with nothing to contribute to the plot or the action. 

Views expressed are the author's own.