Monday, February 6, 2023
HomeOpinionLaws can’t stop Indian politicians from defecting. But there’s someone who can

Laws can’t stop Indian politicians from defecting. But there’s someone who can

Naming and shaming is more powerful than any legal remedy.

Text Size:

The scandalous collapse of the Karnataka government has reinforced an old demand for tightening of the anti-defection law. Sadly, the cure is worse than the disease.

On the face of it, the demand is understandable. The manner in which the government led by H.D. Kumaraswamy was brought down is a national shame. Not because this government was anything to be proud of. Conceived in bad faith and lived through mutual suspicion and everyday drama, the Congress-Janata Dal (Secular) coalition government was a farce. But the way it has been toppled is worse. It confirmed the belief that money, backed by powers-that-be in Delhi, can buy anything, reducing the citizens into helpless or gleeful spectators. Hence, the moral outrage. There is no doubt that this was a mockery of the anti-defection provisions inserted into the Constitution.

The first reflex, therefore, is to demand more stringent provisions to prevent defection. The trouble is that the existing provisions are already quite stringent, if not draconian. The current law allows a political party to order its representatives to vote in a specified way on any kind of motion. This includes not just the trust vote, but any vote that the party leadership chooses to issue a ‘whip’ on. Non-compliance invites disqualification from the membership of the concerned legislature. The only exception is to allow for a genuine split in the party. Earlier, the threshold of recognising a split was set at one-half of the strength of a party. It was made tougher and the bar was raised to two-thirds in 2003. This is as stringent as it gets, or should get.

Also read: What an Indian law can do to MLAs defecting in Karnataka & Goa – nothing

Loopholes in existing law

Any rule has loopholes. The current anti-defection rules allow two-thirds members of a legislative party to officially break from the parent party. Congress MLAs in Goa used this provision to join the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and their counterparts in Telangana used it to join the ruling Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS). Now, the only way to tighten the provisions further would be to raise the bar to 100 per cent, in other words, make it illegal for any elected MLA or MP to leave their party under any condition.

The other loophole was invented by the BJP in Karnataka during the first Operation Kamal after the 2008 assembly election. The MLAs could resign from the legislature, switch sides, re-contest under a new symbol and come back to the assembly from a different party. This time too, the BJP has used this route. There is no pretension of an ideological or political split. It is defection, plain and simple, engineered through the resignation route. There is no doubt that big money has changed hands. There is no doubt that the by-elections that follow will be anything but fair. The only way to legally prevent this would be by making it illegal to resign. Those who resign could be disqualified from contesting elections for a certain period. This is what reformers want now.

This reformist temptation must be resisted. We should perhaps tweak the existing law a bit to put some restrictions. For example, a legislator who resigns and is re-elected can be prevented from holding any ministerial berth or any public office for one year since re-election. But any other ‘strengthening’ of the anti-defection provisions won’t achieve the purpose. It could lead to worse problems and complications.

Also read: Time to review anti-defection law, powers & functions of governors and speakers

Can’t prevent defection

There are no fool-proof remedies against defection. No degree of tightening of the loopholes can prevent a willing legislator from switching sides. A more stringent law can only increase the cost of defection. That leads to a corresponding increase in the price expected and demanded to switch sides. If the law were to be amended to disallow any split in the party under any condition, it would mean that every defector would take the resignation route. If every resignation is punished with disqualification, the defectors will start demanding higher price to compensate them for the loss. All this would no doubt discourage defection, but cannot prevent it altogether.

Even if we succeed, there is a heavy price that we would pay for this success. Late Madhu Limaye, a veteran socialist, was perhaps the lone voice to warn us against the dangers of anti-defection legislation. He had said the law would mean the end of intra-party democracy and a legislator’s independence. History has proved him right. Anti-defection law and its subsequent tightening have led to party leaderships tightening their stranglehold over elected representatives. Parliamentary proceedings are a single-command performance. The clique or the family that controls the party letterhead controls the lives of MLAs and MPs. If they fall out of favour of the party bosses, elected representatives count for nothing. Those who elected them also count for nothing.

Also read: What happens in Karnataka now? Speaker Ramesh Kumar’s actions, or inactions, will decide

Electors can show the way

Today, the dissenters within a party have two options: rebel or resign. If the law were to be amended to disallow even two-thirds of a party’s MLAs or MPs from parting ways, it would lead to a ridiculous situation where the entire legislature party could be made to do what no one wishes to. And if the law were to be amended to punish those who resign, the last option available to a dissenter would be closed. We would shut the doors for defection, but by shutting the doors on whatever remains of intra-party democracy, we would fight the evil by creating a bigger evil.

What, then, is the real solution? I am afraid the only solution to such problems in a democracy is to go back to the people. Naming and shaming is more powerful than any legal remedy. The only way to prevent defection altogether is to get the voters to punish the defector. No political leader wants an early termination of his or her career. So, if s/he knows that switching sides would make it impossible for him/her to go back to the electorate and get re-elected, s/he would not contemplate it. As long as the defectors of Karnataka can hope to get re-elected by the people, you cannot prevent defection. You cannot insulate a democracy from the people. In politics, search for fool-proof remedies is a fatal temptation.

The author is the national president of Swaraj India. Views are personal.

Subscribe to our channels on YouTube & Telegram

Support Our Journalism

India needs fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism, packed with on-ground reporting. ThePrint – with exceptional reporters, columnists and editors – is doing just that.

Sustaining this needs support from wonderful readers like you.

Whether you live in India or overseas, you can take a paid subscription by clicking here.

Support Our Journalism


  1. Over the seven decades of our experience with democracy has revealed its many flaws, the largest being poor electoral process and defection.

    Ours is not a representative democracy under the-first-past-the-post system. As a result parliament or assembly representation is not indicative of prorata vote share of political parties. By taking example of parliament election results of Kerala..UDF secured roughly 45% of popular votes but won 95% of seats, LDF secured about 40% of popular votes but won only 5% of the seats. BJP front garnered about 15% of votes but won nil seats. The MPs representing Kerala is not reflective of the will of the people as revealed in vote share%.

    I suggest the following to remedy this anomaly, eliminate defection practices, money power and by-elections.

    1. State as a whole is considered as a single constituency.
    2. No candidates in the fray. Only symbols of registered parties on the EVMs.
    3. Pre-poll and post poll alliances can be formed as is now.
    4. Election result will show total votes and % of each symbol/ party. Based on the %, the parties will be entitled for prorata seats from each state. Suitable algorithm can be developed to deal with fractional values by aggregating at pre poll alliance level etc.
    5. Each party will nominate persons to occupy the assembly/ parliament seats. Death, defection, resignation of a nominated person will lead to the concerned party nominating another person.

  2. Why don’t the voters then punish the defectors? They can get all the information about the defectors from the media.

  3. Yogendra Yadav’s suggestion for re-election is an unwanted financial burden on the state. Re-election will cost 500 times more than the horse trading involving few crores. I am not surprised that Yogendra Yadav has lost rational thinking.

  4. Let’s not be too academic and too legal and let’s have simple solution.
    We are a Parliamentary Democracy which is based on party system. Lawmakers are elected on a party ticket, with the party ethos, ideology and programmes for a term of five years. Any defection or split must totally be banned, with the option to only resign from the legislature and get reelected. There must not be any mid term election for him and the seat may remain vacant till expiry of his term – why should the state take so much of trouble and incur so much of expenses for him. The said constituency’s interest may be looked after by any of the neobouring lawmaker. At the time of general election let everybody be free to resign from the party and opt for another of his choice.
    This is simply because role of so-called conscience or ideology is almost zero in these defections and splits and only money and power remain factors. Otherwise how many defections and split took place to join and sit as opposition? Yes, during Nehru’s time people not agreeing to him left Congress, either formed their parties or join the opposition. Gone are the days!
    Parties have to be given the supremacy even at the cost of Party’s tyranny. One must be honest to the party they joined with all his senses and they have to be with them at least till the end of the term. This the cost of some goodness that we have to pay!

  5. All parties follow nearly identical policies of freebies subsidies reservation loan waivers. So there must be only one party- leftist party. If this happens there won’t be defections.

  6. Aren’t these the same Yogendra Yadavs/pseudo-seculars/so-called liberals, who shout and protest for ‘Freedom of Choice’, ‘Freedom of Expression’ and ‘Freedom of Everything’? Cannot these representatives who want to move away from corrupt parties, have freedom?

    Pure hypocrisy!!

    • So true! As long as these MLAs were shifting from other parties to Cong-culture parties, it was fine. As soon as they shift to BJP, put curbs. But, they should remember if such curbs are put in place, they would apply to everyone Cong as well as BJP. I think current anti-defection laws are stringent enough.

  7. Ideally there should be no anti defection laws. Legislators should be freely allowed to cross parties and let the electorate decide if it is willing to tolerate such practices. Once the law of diminishing returns sets in, both the electorate and political parties will stop accepting political defections. At the most there can be a rule that defectors, irrespective of their numbers, have to resign and seek re-election. Secondly maybe it’s time to experiment with a fixed term legislature, rather than frequent re-elections.

  8. The voters would re-elect because many who vote rarely follow ethics in their own lives. Moreover the leader can always say that he wanted to serve them as minister but his original party declined his chance etc. Everyone now want their MPs or MLA’s to become minister without realising that they can do a lot even without being in cabinet.

  9. Electoral history shows that defectors easily get re-elected from their new party, so Yadav’s solution is redundant. Perhaps the only solution would be to debar defectors from standing for any election for a period of about a year, and not to be given any Govt office either.

    • All the views expressed by the author are utopian and not practical. The Indian electorate, whom, many sitting In their air conditioned room think ,are gullible and illiterate, have the wisdom to choose correct persons. That is why democracy has survived in this nation for the last seven decades.

Comments are closed.