Monday, March 18, 2013

The scourge of the regional parties….why we need an anti-defection law for alliance partners

The DMK yesterday threatened to pull out of the UPA unless it agreed to the DMK’s terms on Sri Lanka. Not only does the party want the country to vote in favor of the US resolution, it also wants the Indian government to negotiate with the US to make the resolution itself tougher. So this is arm twisting twice over! The DMK couldn’t  care two hoots about whether this is in India’s interests or not – the chance that a similar resolution might force the UN to look into Kashmir, or that China could get in deeper into the island nation. All it cares for is its local politics. And for that, it is ready to destabilize the nation.

Another story shows the SP threatening to quit supporting the UPA (externally) because one of the UPA’s motormouths and known morons Beni Prasad Verma attacked Mulayam. I thought politicians had tougher skins! But I was wrong.

The main opposition party is hardly insulated from such threats. Nitish Kumar has more or less bulldozed his way out of the NDA thanks to a man inappropriately acronymed NaMo (why inappropriate? Because, the word indicates humility; but the person doesn’t). The NDA is not in power, but the reasons for Nitish’s threats to withdraw are unacceptable. The right to choose the PM if the NDA wins should be the BJP’s. The Congress has latched onto Nitish wooing him with meeting his demands. Again, a regional satrap is dictating terms to the supposed “big brother”. Who’s big and who’s small is clear!

Clearly, there is a need to rein in the regional parties. To bring a degree of accountability to their conduct. Power tussles are part of politics alright, but at what point do they become detrimental to even basic governance? What is that point at which a line just has to be drawn? The line drawn should be “by law”. In all cases, the ruling dispensation’s right to rule for 5 years must be protected.

The anti-defection act – which controls defections of MPs from one party to another – is a good model to follow for controlling the scourge of the regional parties. Passed originally by the Rajiv Gandhi government (which was lucky enough to get 401 seats), the 52nd Constitutional amendment provided for the disqualification of MPs, under certain circumstances, if they defected to another party. The amendment was intended to stop members from threatening their own parties with quitting and joining the rival grouping. Certain exemptions were provided; for example, if more than 1/3rd of the members quit and merged with another party, members would not be disqualified. Since this rule was considered too lax, in 2003, the 91st Constitutional amendment increased this to 2/3rds. Has this curbed the “ayaram gayaram” culture in Indian politics? I think it has, though loopholes do exist.

Should we not have a similar law regulating alliances, now that we are fairly and squarely in a period where there is no escape from them? The restrictions should apply to pre-poll and post-poll alliances; basically to all parties who are responsible for running the government. The restrictions must also apply to “outside supporters” since they are equally responsible for the sustenance of the government. The objective clearly is to bring stability to the ruling group and allow it to complete its fully 5-year term. And to protect it from the constant threats of the so called “allies”.

There will also be a need for constitutional prescriptions for intra-alliance working mechanisms. The All-party coordination-committee meetings must be made mandatory with meetings fixed at regular intervals. A mechanism similar to a “whip” must be created, so that on issues where the alliance partners cannot agree on a unanimous opinion, the whip ensures that the majority opinion prevails. The definition of “majority” here is important. It has to be kept at 75% or some such high number, since the single largest party typically has more than 50% of the alliance’s numbers by itself. Since the majority view is being carried, its not like democracy is being throttled or something. An “aggrieved” party cannot quit the alliance simply because its views were not considered. The position of the “Convener” of the alliance thus becomes crucial and should be vested with constitutional authority.

On the one hand, I think this will ring fence the ruling alliance from the tantrums of the regional satraps. Had this law been in place, Mamata Banerjee would not have been able to force her hand so many times – like on relations with Bangladesh. The DMK would not be able to do so now as well on the Sri Lanka issue. Genuine democracy would prevail, since the DMK would have to “convince” a majority of the others in the alliance to back its position.

On the other hand, this provision will also make life easier for the regional parties. The DMK is doing what it is doing simply because its opposition, the AIADMK, has upped the ante and is demanding that India vote with the US. The AIADMK has nothing to lose; for it is not in governance at the center. If the central government toes its line, it can claim credit for the action. If it doesn’t, it can raise a jingoistic banner of protest. Assuming the DMK is doing this because of local political reasons, the anti-defection act would give it a chance to say “We tried…..but the law doesn’t allow us to quit”. It would help them go to their people fretting and fuming against the center, and yet the government would not come down.

The flip side of such an anti-defection act is that government formation in the first instance would become more difficult. Today, post-poll alliances are patched together quickly, with parties knowing that they has enough levers in their hands to protect their interests (the main one being to threaten to withdraw their support). In a post anti-defection law era, the party would have to think ten times before signing up. Will this impede government formation? Or will this lead to a solid “Common Minimum Programme” being agreed upon before the alliances are committed? Given the poor condition of politics right now, I think its worth a shot.

The real truth is that tantrums and arm twisting have become the mantra of governance in today’s world of fractured verdicts. Regional parties have become too powerful for anyone’s good. Even foreign affairs are being trifled with; maybe one day the country’s defence and its nuclear policy will become victims of regional chauvinism. It’s definitely time to consider an anti-defection act for alliance partners….

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