February 8, 2023

Is Anti-Defection law right? – Views of Justice M. N. Venkatachaliah

“Legislation may begin where an evil begins”. Justice Holmes

A political party functions on the strength of shared beliefs. Any freedom of its Members to vote as they please independently of the political party’s declared policies will not only embarrass its public image and popularity but also undermine public confidence in it which, in the ultimate analysis, is its source of sustenance-nay, indeed, its very survival.

The ‘52nd Constitutional Amendment Act, 1985’ added the ‘10th Schedule’ in the Constitution. Paragraph 2(1)(b) of the Tenth Schedule gives effect to above principle and sentiment by imposing a disqualification on a Member who votes or abstains from voting contrary to “any directions” issued by the political party.

In a sense anti-defection law is a statutory variant of its moral principle and justification underlying the power of recall. What might justify a provision for recall would justify a provision for disqualification for defection. Unprincipled defection is a political and social evil. It is perceived as such by the legislature.

The Tenth Schedule does not impinge upon the rights or immunities under Article 105(2) of the Constitution. The freedom of speech of a Member is not an `absolute freedom.

The main purpose underlying the Constitutional (Fifty-Second Amendment) Act and introduction of the Tenth Schedule is to curb the evil of defection which was causing immense mischief in our body-politic.

Evil of political defection

The people of this country were not beguiled into believing that the menace of unethical and unprincipled changes of political affiliations is something which the law is helpless against and is to be endured as a necessary concomitant of freedom of conscience.

“Legislation may begin where an evil begins”. Referring to the judicial philosophy of Justice Holmes in such areas, Pohlman again says: “A number of Holmes’s famous aphorisms point in the direction that judges should defer when the legislature reflected the pervasive and predominant values and interests of the community. He had, for example, no “practical” criterion to go on except “what the crowd wanted.”

line of political parties

Parliamentary democracy envisages that matters involving implementation of policies of the Government should be discussed by the elected representatives of the people. Debate, discussion and persuasion are, therefore, the means and essence of the democratic process. During the debates the Members put forward different points of view. Members belonging to the same political party may also have, and may give expression to, differences of opinion on a matter.

Not unoften the view expressed by the Members in the House have resulted in substantial modification, and even the withdrawal, of the proposals under consideration. Debate and expression of different points of view, thus, serve an essential and healthy purpose in the functioning of Parliamentary democracy. At times such an expression of views during the debate in the House may lead to voting or abstinence from voting in the House otherwise than on party lines.

But a political party functions on the strength of shared beliefs. Its own political stability and social utility depends on such shared beliefs and concerted action of its Members in furtherance of those commonly held principles. Any freedom of its members to vote as they please independently of the political party’s declared policies will not only embarrass its public image and popularity but also undermine public confidence in it which, in the ultimate analysis, is its source of sustenance – nay, indeed, its very survival. Intra-party debates are of course a different thing. But a public image of disparate stands by Members of the same political party is not looked upon, in political tradition, as a desirable state of things.

“Loyalty to party is the norm, being based on shared beliefs. A divided party is looked on with suspicion by the electorate. It is natural for Members to accept the opinion of their Leaders and Spokesmen on the wide variety of matters on which those Members have no specialist knowledge. Generally, Members will accept majority decisions in the party even when they disagree. It is understandable therefore that a Member who rejects the party whip even on a single occasion will attract attention and more criticism than sympathy. To abstain from voting when required by party to vote is to suggest a degree of unreliability. To vote against party is disloyalty. To join with others in abstention or voting with the other side smacks of conspiracy.”

Clause (b) of sub-para (1) of Paragraph 2

Clause (b) of sub-para (1) of Paragraph 2 of the Tenth Schedule gives effect to this principle and sentiment by imposing a disqualification on a Member who votes or abstains from voting contrary to “any directions” Issued by the political party.

The provision, however, recognises two exceptions: one when the Member obtains from the political party prior permission to vote or abstain from voting and the other when the Member has voted without obtaining such permission but his action has been condoned by the political party. This provision itself accommodates the possibility that there may be occasions when a Member may vote or abstain from voting contrary to the direction of the party to which he belongs.

Relationship between the electoral constituencies and their elected representatives

The working of the modern Parliamentary democracy is complex. The area of the inter-se relationship between the electoral constituencies and their elected representatives has many complex features and overtones. The citizen as the electorate is said to be the political sovereign. As long as regular general elections occur, the electorate remains the arbiter of the ultimate composition of the representative legislative body to which the Government of the day is responsible.

Speaking of the claims of the political party on its elected Member Rodney Brazier says:

“Once returned to the House of Commons the Member’s party expects him to be loyal. This is not entirely unfair or improper, for it is the price of the party’s label which secured his election. But the question is whether the balance of a Member’s obligations has tilted too far in favour of the requirements of party. The armoury of intimidation includes the menaces that the Member will never get ministerial office, or go on overseas trips sponsored by the party, or be nominated by his party for Commons Committee Memberships, or that he might be deprived of his party’s whip in the House, or that he might be reported to his constituency which might wish to consider his behaviour when reselection comes round again…..

Does the Member not enjoy the Parliamentary privilege of freedom of speech? How can his speech be free in the face of such party threats? The answer to the inquiring citizen is that the whip system is part of the conventionally established machinery of political organisation in the house, and has been ruled not to infringe a Member’s parliamentary privilege in any way. The political parties are only too aware of utility of such a system,, and would fight in the last ditch to keep it.[1]

Indeed, in a sense an anti-defection law is a statutory variant of its moral principle and justification underlying the power of recall. What might justify a provision for recall would justify a provision for disqualification for defection. Unprincipled defection is a political and social evil. It is perceived as such by the legislature. People, apparently, have grown distrustful of the emotive political exultations that such floor-crossings belong to the sacred area of freedom of conscience, or of the right to dissent or of intellectual freedom.

The anti-defection law seeks to recognise the practical need to place the proprieties of political and personal conduct– whose awkward erosion and grotesque manifestations have been the base of the times – above certain theoretical assumptions which in reality have fallen into a morass of personal and political degradation. We should, we think, defer to this legislative wisdom and perception. The choices in constitutional adjudications quite clearly indicate the need for such deference. “Let the end be legitimate, let it be within the scope of the Constitution and all means which are appropriate, which are adopted to that end…” are constitutional.

Reference

Views as expressed by Justice M. N. Venkatachaliah in Kihoto Hollohon v. Zachilluhu, (1992)


[1] See; Constitutional Reform – Reshaping the British Political System by Rodney Brazier, 1991 Edn. pages 48 and 49]