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Anti-defection law: Free market of politics and business

Monday, 14 April 2014 - 2:17pm IST | Agency: dna

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The way in which the World Bank does business with countries across the globe is a good indicator of their ranking. It ranks nations according to how easy it is to run a business there. Places like Singapore (rank 1) and USA (rank 4) are at the top of the charts while Myanmar (rank 182), South Sudan (rank 186) and Chad (rank 189) are at the bottom. India is ranked a poor 134 in this league. On the other hand, if there were an ease of doing politics index, India would do very well indeed. With 1,616 political parties at the last count, there doesn’t seem to be a problem with starting a party.

The next important part after the ability to start and run a business is whether the playing ground is level or uphill for the new entrant. If a business can’t successfully compete against incumbents, it is not going to make for a healthy economy. Anti-monopoly rules, transparent tendering by governments and open market access is what is needed for these. Mostly the protection is all for the small guy (or girl) against the bullying of the big.

The political equivalent of such protection would be the ability of a person to disagree with members in a party or dissent against the party’s official position without fearing repercussions. A monopoly on ideas and discourse is what would scuttle the free market of politics. In India, we have the exact opposite of what would protect individuals from the tyranny of the many (or mostly the tyranny of the one ‘high command’) – the anti-defection law. It creates a legal monopoly and a barrier to entry such that the complete politics of the country is broken.

The anti-defection law was added to the constitution with the 52nd amendment brought in 1985 by the Rajiv Gandhi government. It disqualifies any member of the house who switches his party post elections or votes (or abstains) against the party whip. So if you have seen the vote rallying by party whips in House of Cards (BBC or the Netflix version), it is not needed in India. The whip’s command is backed by a constitutional amendment. This law has been made even stronger with another amendment in 2003 by the NDA government. Support for this law is across party lines.

In effect, this is a mockery of the representative democracy that we have. The 543 members we send to parliament get reduced to voting as per the six or seven leaders that exist. Frankly, why not cut to the chase and have these six people sit together to vote on all laws? Each person’s vote could be weighted by the number of constituencies won by their party. Why the drama, when elected representatives can’t exercise their fundamental power to vote on issues in the parliament or assemblies?

Originally, the anti-defection law was created to prevent corruption, or the popular term in this context: horse-trading. However, we can now reflect on the last 30 years and see if corruption has increased or decreased. The only choice for a dissenter has been to start a new party, and hence we have seen the trend in these years of the plethora of parties centred on just one person. In a freer, more competitive world these small parties would have been strong factions inside larger parties and influencing the decision making there. In addition, the factional leaders would be competing against each other and challenging incumbent party leaders to produce better quality work overall. These single leader parties are ideally suited to become dynastic parties.

Narendra Modi’s new ad campaign, which tells voters to vote for the BJP and that every vote is a direct vote for him, is an honest acknowledgement of the current reality – the MP that we will send to the parliament is just a proxy for his own vote. The other parties pretend that this is not the case while being completely unanimous in this stand. Even new parties like the AAP or the Loksatta don’t want to change this law.

This brings us to the central dogma of any politics – who guards the guardians? Is it proper for the political parties to create laws that regulate and incentivize them? We already see other travesties like the MPLAD scheme and the multiplying lifetime perks to legislators. Who would mind deciding their own pay hike?

In the world of business, we would never allow businesses to get away with such brazen anti-competitive rules and collusion amongst interested parties. And would we ever create a setup where the businesses create their own regulations? The anti-defection law is the ideal amendment to get challenged in the Supreme Court as having destroyed the basic structure of our constitution.


Saurabh Chandra is a Bangalore-based tech entrepreneur with an interest in public policy. You can follow his tweets on @saurabhchandra.

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