A reform drive

Print edition : May 23, 2003

At an all-party meeting in New Delhi on March 7. Although all political parties have in principle welcomed the government-proposed Constitution amendments, the parties in the Opposition are not likely to give them a smooth passage. -

The three constitutional amendments proposed by the Union Cabinet, especially the ones to check defection and reduce the size of Ministries, may face roadblocks put up by the Opposition, which remains suspicious of the government's motives.

THE proposed amendments to the anti-defection law, like many such moves with noble intentions, have in principle been welcomed by all political parties. But it is difficult to say how many parliamentarians will actually put their final seal of approval on a piece of legislation that would curb their own powers.

Voices of dissent are already heard from various quarters, and this could delay the passing of the legislation. However, it is heartening that the proposed legislation has the support of all parties, though less by design and more by default. Hence the law that actually seeks to cleanse the political system could come into being sooner than later.

While the Left parties, though appreciative of the move, have questioned the motive of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government in bringing this Bill now, the Congress(I) has chosen to react with caution. But it is obvious that the Congress(I) is a house divided on this issue. Its Deputy Leader in the Lok Sabha, Shivraj Patil, refused to comment on the merits of the proposal, saying that he did not have the details from authentic sources. But party spokesman Abhishek Singhvi said it was not a wise move to disqualify members automatically when they changed loyalties because it would stifle inner-party democracy.

The Samajwadi Party (S.P.) too believes that automatic disqualification of members on defying the whip or on changing sides could lead to "dictatorial practices" inside parties, but at the same time the party wants some law to tackle the "aya Rams and gaya Rams" of politics.

With such differing opinions, it is difficult to see how a consensus could be achieved on this Bill. Without a consensus, the Bill's passage in the Rajya Sabha, where the Opposition has a majority, would become doubtful.

It is to be hoped that the Bill does not meet the fate of the Women's Reservation Bill, which, though welcomed by all parties in principle, has been stuck for the past three years at the introduction stage itself just because political parties cannot agree on the fine print. The Union Cabinet's landmark decision came on April 23. The political reforms Bill seeks to curb "bulk defections", which have become the norm rather than the exception. The Cabinet meeting, which was chaired by Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, also decided to amend the Constitution to limit the size of Ministries to 10 per cent of the total strength of the two Houses of the legislature. A decision was also taken to bring a Constitution amendment Bill to make the 2001 Census the basis of the ongoing process of delimitation of parliamentary and Assembly constituencies.

Briefing reporters after the Cabinet meeting, Parliamentary Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj said that the three amendment Bills would be presented in the current session of Parliament. The Bill amending the anti-defection law (10th Schedule of the Constitution) will seek to delete Para 3 of the Schedule, which pertains to exemption from disqualification of members in the case of party splits caused by one-third of them. Sushma Swaraj said that under the new provision, if any MP or MLA voted against the party whip, he or she would stand automatically disqualified. Under the existing provisions, if the violation of the whip is done by one-third of the strength of the parliamentary or legislature party, there could be no disqualification. Similarly, she said, crossing over to other parties would also result in automatic disqualification of the member concerned and he or she would have to seek a fresh mandate on a new symbol. She said that the government had decided on bringing the amendment to check the "gross misuse" of that provision, as defections were taking place in the garb of splits.

The Dinesh Goswami Committee on electoral reforms, the Law Commission report and the Constitution Review Commission had recommended the deletion of Para 3, she said. The Constitution Review Commission, in fact, specifically recommended that "defectors - whether individually or in group - must resign. In effect, they lose their membership of legislature". This recommendation follows the principle that changing loyalties changes the basic presumption of a mandate and the member must seek a fresh mandate on a new symbol if he/she decides to shift loyalties.

As for restricting the size of the Council of Ministers, Sushma Swaraj said that the government had decided to bring a Constitution amendment Bill to ensure a ceiling of 10 per cent of the total strength of either a unicameral or a bicameral House. However, in the case of smaller States such as Sikkim, Mizoram and Goa, which have less than 40 members in their Legislative Assemblies, a maximum number of seven Ministers was proposed, she said. This provision would apply to the Central government also. She said the purpose of the amendment was to prohibit by law the current practice of having jumbo-size Ministries, owing to political pulls and pressures. The National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution had also made such a recommendation, she said.

On the delimitation exercise, Sushma Swaraj said the government had decided to bring a Constitution amendment Bill to provide for the readjustment of parliamentary and Assembly constituencies, including those reserved for the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes, based on Census 2001 but without affecting the number of seats allocated to States in the legislative bodies. This followed a consensus arrived at an all-party meeting, held in March, that the exercise should be based on the 2001 Census as the 1991 Census was outdated, she said. Since the Delimitation Commission was constituted through a Constitution amendment, any change in the base year would require parliamentary approval. Therefore the Cabinet approved a draft Bill to amend the Constitution for this purpose, she said. She said if the 1991 Census was taken into consideration, the number of S.C./S.T. seats would have gone up by eight, whereas the 2001 Census meant that it would go up by 15.

The election manifestos of the Left parties have called for an amendment to the anti-defection law so that any elected representative who leaves the party he or she represents has to vacate his/her seat forthwith). However, the Left sees a motive in the BJP-led government's initiative in this regard at this point of time. Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary Harkishan Singh Surjeet, told Frontline that in his opinion, what motive led the BJP was, more than the desire to reform the system, the need to save its own house from disintegration in Uttar Pradesh. "Its MLAs in U.P. are a frustrated lot. Especially the Thakur MLAs, who are upset with the recent events in the State. The party is worried that they might switch sides in the near future. Hence this move to save its own skin," said Surjeet. He, however, made it clear that the Left parties welcomed all the three proposed amendments as they fulfilled their long-standing demand.

The S.P. is apprehensive that the move would encourage dictatorship within the party, but sees no other option to curb the malaise of defections. However, it is difficult to imagine how many MPs would actually forgo an instrument like Para 3 which helps them to settle political scores or topple governments through bulk defections. It has been seen to be happening too often in the past, more so in Uttar Pradesh, where the BJP is a partner in the government, than anywhere else. In fact, the Mayawati-led government in Uttar Pradesh is surviving today because it has managed to engineer splits in the State Congress(I) unit and from some other smaller parties.

Abhishek Singhvi, himself a lawyer, says automatic disqualification of members either for defying the whip or for changing sides is "not a wise move" because it would encourage "dictatorial practices inside political parties and infringe on the elected members' fundamental right to free speech". According to Singhvi, what was required was a focussed approach to "plug the loopholes" in the existing provisions, instead of systemic changes. In his opinion, the loopholes could be plugged using three measures: (1) the Speaker should be bound by a time-limit of seven to ten days to declare his decision on a case of defection or a split; (2) an external, non-partisan body like the Election Commission should be authorised to decide on issues of disqualification; and (3) the one-third limit may be increased to a higher limit for a split to be legal.

In fact, the proposed amendments have ignored a very important recommendation of the Constitution Review Commission: that the power to settle questions of disqualification on the grounds of defection should be taken away from the Speaker of the House and be vested with the Election Commission. Recent legislative history illustrates (Uttar Pradesh is a case in point) partisan behaviour by Speakers when it comes to interpreting and applying the anti-defection law. By ignoring this very important aspect, the proposed amendment has already lent itself to charges of manipulation and political manoeuvring. It is this part of the amendment that could run into trouble, especially since there was no effort by the government to arrive at a consensus before deciding to go ahead with its cleansing drive.

Right now, there is a lot of confusion in Opposition circles, as they have no clue about the government's strategy. The S.P. and Left party leaders wonder whether the Bill would actually be tabled in this session. They said that though in principle they agreed with the idea, they would be able to disclose their respective stands only after they saw the draft Bill.

That the Congress(I) is likely to use this "no consensus" argument to make things difficult for the government became obvious when Shivraj Patil asked: "What amendments, what Bill? We are not aware of anything. The government has not taken us into confidence. We will decide only when the Bill comes up for discussion."

The proposal to limit the size of Ministries to 10 per cent of the House strength, though welcomed by all parties in principle, may invite objections from the Chief Ministers of the smaller States. There are already signs of such an eventuality when Rashtriya Janata Dal president Laloo Prasad Yadav said that such a crucial decision should have been taken only after consulting the Chief Ministers. Some politicians believe that such strict restrictions on the size of Ministries may not be pragmatic in today's era of coalition politics. Political observers are also of the opinion that since ministerial sops are essential tools for a coalition government's survival, it may not be practical to implement the decision. They point out that the limit was first suggested by the first Administrative Reforms Commission headed by Morarji Desai and endorsed by subsequent commissions, including the Constitution Review Commission, but never enforced. This gives credence to the apprehension that it may once again be honoured more in the breach than in the observance. When MPs cutting across party lines joined hands to thwart the Bill to check the criminalisation of politics, it was left to the Supreme Court and the Election Commission to take the initiative (the legislation was finally passed by Parliament in December 2002). The move to restrict the size of Ministries too could meet the same fate.

On Census 2001 becoming the basis for delimitation, there could be no objection whatsoever, because it is only logical that one begins with the latest numbers available. Otherwise, as Singhvi puts it, "We could become outdated even before we begin."

The proposed amendments will no doubt have far-reaching consequences for the political system, but with none of the Opposition parties declaring its official position on them, it remains to be seen how far things will proceed.

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