Defections: The Question of Free Will and People’s Mandate

Mathew Antony
President, AIPC Maharashtra

Defections in Politics and the Stakes

Defections in politics is a phenomenonas old as the time of tribal societies, witnessed by monarchies,dictatorships,and alsonew age democracies. While historically the power play in tribes often experienced the switching of sides by the second in command of leaders, monarchies have seen immediate family members taking over from ruling family members in bloodied coups or otherwise, dictators have been poisoned or killed by their very own, and democracies have faced overnight jumping of party ships by politicians for material benefits or power or executive office.

We, the common citizens of any country, may often wonder about defections when they happen, their reasons, and ethical and legal underpinning. If we don’t think about these aspects, thenwe should.As participants of democracy as well as stakeholders who send our representatives to participate in the democratic process, how many times do we avail our right to question the decisions made by the legislators or parliamentarians on switching sides? They do this all the time without any consultation with us,but with the authority they have earned with our mandate. Isn’t there something wrong with this? Shall we remain ignorant and silent, allowing our elected representatives to use our vote for satisfying their lust for power and other material gains?

Defections, Free Will, and Democracy

Defections, like dissent, is and will remain an essential part of democracies, as it is linked to the free will and right for independent decision making of alegislator/parliamentarian or any elected representative. Some defections may be based on genuine issues, ideological differences, and regional/ethnic identity-related matters, as a serious political stand. However, what we are witnessing in India since 1948 and in a very blatant manner is a phenomenon of self-serving defections triggered by lust for power and greed: from 1967's "Aaya Ram Gaya Ram" kind of few incidents to the presentspate of business like shifts and "don'tcare attitude" of those making these shifts, openly embracing unprincipled and opportunisticmoves, which pose a dangerous threat to our democracy.

Defections in India and Globally

While in India such legislators have been nick named as "Aaya Ram Gaya Ram”, in New Zealand they are called "Waka-Jumpers" (Waka is a large Maori canoe), and in Nigeria the act is called "carpet crossing".There are laws against defection in countries like India, Bangladesh, and Maldives. In the UK and Canada, crossing the floor means leaving one party entirely and joining the other. The famous cross-over in the UK was that of Winston Churchill from conservatives to liberals and back to conservatives in 1904 and 1924. In the US congress, the representatives have many times voted against their party lines on issues without facing expulsion or changing parties.

In the last one month we have seen three major defection scenarios in the country. The first was the defection which brought downthe coalition government in Maharashtra, where the lead alliancepartner Shiv Sena faced its historical defection,engineered by the BJP making explicit abuse of power, misuse of central agencies, unaccounted illicit money, and more.The battle continues onthe ground as well as in the court at the time the article is being written. In Goa, the BJP made an attempt to make the entire set or 2/3rd of MLAs of the Indian National Congress Party shift to its side; the attempt was thwarted, resulting in the expulsion of two senior leaders. In Tamil Nadu,two factions, EPS and OPS, of AIADMK,the late J Jayalalithaa's party, are fighting to claim the party’s ownership. This matter is also with the court.

Internationally, we are witnessing a similar phenomenon, but a more mature face of itperhaps, where dissent and free will of the majority is leading to leadership changes in parties, for example, the recent developments in the UK. The free will of elected representatives, as well as the party workers wasgiven a process-oriented opportunity, effecting a leadership change.

This has relevance in my concluding remarks that talk about the need foran inner party culture to make independent decisions.

History of Defections in Independent India

It is important for us to understand a short summary of defections in politics in India. The birth of democracy in India came with the freedom struggle;with Independence, the country became the live lab of operating democracy. The Indian National Congress under whose banner the entire freedom struggle was fought, was not only a political party then but also a collective spectrum of people with diverse political and ideological views who united for the national movement ofthe country’s freedom.

There was no viable (or otherwise) alternative to the Congress and it enjoyed a luxurious majority in the first three general elections, and though not an equally luxurious onebut a majority in the fourth general elections. As history tells us, Indian National Congress has also been the birthplace of almost all the opposition parties of this country.

The history of political defections started from 1948 and came to its then peak between 1957 and 1967, only to become almost a regular behaviour pattern from then on. As mentioned by noted law professor Paras Diwan, around 97 MPs and MLAs defected from Congress during this period and 419 defected to Indian National Congress. We can see the reverse trend happening now with such similar ratios of shift towards BJP.

The state governments started witnessing defections after the fourth general elections.States where no major political party had a majority, unprincipled defectionswith the lure of money and executive positions changedthe prevailing phenomenon of singular defections to mass, unpleasant, and unethical defections. The best reference case is the Haryana Assembly in 1967 when an independent candidate Gaya Lal changed parties four times in a day; that’s when the term"Aaya Ram Gaya Ram" was floated and widely accepted. The worst of unprincipled defections in Indian political history stared from 1967: the "Farm House" politics led by Chaudhury Devi Lal with his 1000 acre private farm-covered-fortress to hold the MLA's and MP's.That “Farm House politics” has now given way to "Super Luxury Resort/Chartered Flight '' politics with unbelievable sums of money and positions being doled out.

The Anti-Defection Law

This culture of defections made the political leadership attempt to draft an anti-defection law to stabilise governments and enable them to complete their terms. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi attempted to do that but the initiative could succeed only during the term of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1985, whenthe 10th Schedule to the Constitution was added as the 52nd Amendment to the Constitution (TheAnti DefectionLaw). It was followed with further amendments in 2002.

The political intent and motive of making the anti-defection law, led by the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was very clear. While introducing the bill in the parliament on 30 January, 1985, he said, "This bill is the first step towards cleaning our public life".

Article 19 for Politicians or Right to Recall for People?

There are many reference case studies and examplesto evaluate the number of defections which have taken place in India.Therelevant questions we need to consider as stakeholding participants in the democracy are the following:

Doesthe Anti Defection law trespass on the freedom of expression and choice, given under Article 19 of the Constitution? The Supreme Court in a ruling has adjudicated on this question of law, saying that in certain matters of larger concern, the whip and other aspects have to be followed and freedom is not infringed under such circumstances.

The question of principle and ethics now comes into the play.

The elected representative who campaigned during the elections under an identified political ideology and thereby winning the confidence of the voters and subsequently the elections, unilaterally, without making any consultation with his/her/them/their voters switches the political party, many a times, which the particular representative might have opposed during the elections.

Is there a breach of promise and trust by the elected representative? From my perspective, yes, there is a definite breach of trust as we have not authorised the representative to make any other political choice other than what we have chosen him for. His only duty in the elected house is to represent the specific needs of the constituency and the larger needs of the Nation, in alignment with the ideological commitment under which he won the people's mandate.

Do We Need the Right to Recall?

This makes me pose this question.

Do we need to make amendments to the Representation ofPeoples Act 1950, whereby provisions should be made for the elected representatives to mandatorily consult their constituency before choosing to switch the political party under which they got elected, in the event they have a change in mind?

Do we need to introduce a Right to Recall option for the electorate to recall their elected representatives, if they have made a choice against the majority of the voters’ choice under which they have assumed the office or responsibility?

The subject was debated in the constituent assembly, reasoning that the same voters who have elected these peopleshould have the right of remedy as well in the event of something going wrong. However, the Father of the Constitution,Dr.B.R.Ambedkar, was of the opinion that democracy in India at that stage of infancy was not strong or mature enough to handle such raw democratic power, which he feared might get misused. Hence the power of removal was limited with impeachmentprocedures for constitutional appointments and the no confidence procedures for parliament, assemblies, and other local elected bodies. However, the right to recall the sarpanch and gram pramukhs got introduced in a few states.

In 1974, CK Chandrappan, a communist MP from Kerala introduced the private bill in parliament and was supported by late prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee but it failed to get passed in the house. The election commission and the law commission also had adverse commentaries for the same.

However, as our nation progresses and matures along with our democracy,deterrents for unprincipled defections have to be raised as that is the role of a vigilant electorate and hence, Right to Recall' should gather attention. A conversation and mature debate, and, if possible,a decision is needed on this.No politician will ever openly admit that their defection is for satisfying personal greed or lust.The idea of Right to Recall shouldgain momentum and strength as a people's movement that can put a hold to the prevailing culture of risk-free defections for politicians.

Dissent and Mitigating the Risk of Defection

The critical side of the Anti-Defection law is that it disallows the choice of dissenting views and it largely favoursa ruling government with a majority, the whip being used as a threatening tool to oppress a dissenting view.

Of course, the space for adissenting view is a concern. An international reference in such a matter is the US Congress where the elected representatives vote on issues as per their independent choice, at times even against the party lines, without attracting defection, expulsion, or seclusion.

The US and UK are considered to be mature democracies,whereas we think of making the Whip mandatory for vote of confidence and No Confidence motions. On all other matters, the conscience or personal voting exercise option should be given, provided that a failure of any bill, other than that of a specific confidence or no confidence motion, should not be qualified to decide the majority or minority of the government, thereby avoiding the crisis of the fall of a government.

Collective or Inclusive Decision Making

Exercising free will or How can the political parties improve the principle of inclusiveness , in their day to day operations and thereby derisking the possibilities of defection.

This is a proactive way of handing or minimising the possibilities of defection, largely on any ideological grounds, allowing the elected representatives to cast their opinion and votes on specific issues, bills in parliament and assemblies, thereby taking a collective call on the issues rather than depending on the otherwise personal view and choice of the elected leader of the party in the House.

Many a times, what we witness is an emotional bond with the leader whose decision is considered as the whip which often takes the form of a proprietary decision rather than a collective or inclusive one. Butin a fast paced, young country, to nurture our democracy, Indian political parties needs to find ways toinclude diverse opinions in a consultative approach, with the leader being the voice of that collective, cumulative representation.

A large portion ofemotion and pride needs to be replaced with objective analysis of issues collectively as a party without relating it to the party leader's popularity. Of course,this takes away the comfort of that proprietary,topdown decision makingfreedom and forces you to be inclusive, accommodative as well as tolerant to dissenting views, but it also ensures that the possibilities of collateral damage of deflections are negated or minimised.

The choice to exercise freewill, in itself, is a deterrent and a great tool of accountability, which will nullify all excuses of the elected representative to make another avoidable defection for the lust of power, money, and other benefits.


A cultural transformation is needed among politicians and in the political environment to minimise or reduce defections. We often use the word political culture while referring to people or groups who share the same ideology. In this usage the culture of a political group relates to things like the books they read, the work they do, the bills they introduce and the environment they create.It can also refer to the values they hold in common or that are binding to them.

In the most practical sense, it is the political culture of a nation, followed by the culture of the political parties that is the foundational and fundamental force that drives the success or failure of a democracy. If a country’s founding values are not imbibed in its political culture or if it supports unhealthy behaviours, even the best resources and the finest strategies at its disposal will be of no value or use for the benefit of the country or its people.

The key to political transformations to avoid destructive, unprincipled, self-centred deflections lies in the transformation of its political culture where values, dissent, and reason form its foundation rather than any material or other benefits..

Mathew Antony is a practicing lawyer in the High Court of Bombay and the President of All India Professionals Congress, +919870323964.
The views expressed by the author are his personal views and do not reflect the views of any of the organisations, in which the author holds any Honorary responsibility.


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