The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- The problem of hopelessly divided legislatures

The decision of the Central cabinet to impose President's rule in Goa and Bihar and to allow Arjun Munda to form government in Jharkhand may show magnanimity or decency, and may defuse tensions. But it would be unrealistic to assume that such high-mindedness would prevail every time. The Supreme Court's specification of the timing and procedure in the proceedings in the Jharkhand assembly may appear to be a good antidote to the chaos that prevailed. But it did breach the privilege of the house as pointed out by the speaker pro tem. If the house had not been so bitterly divided and charged, it would have seriously discussed the issue he had placed before it.

The constitutional rule that legislatures administer themselves with rules they themselves make is designed to protect people's representatives against breach of privilege by any other power; it should not be jettisoned lightly. The most intrusive power in a previous age was the monarch; today it is the courts. Just the fact that the courts get a better press in today's India should not decide the issue against legislatures.

There is only one state left ' West Bengal ' where the same party keeps getting an absolute majority in election after election. There are some where two parties dominate; there, power alternates between the two. Tamil Nadu is a good example. But in some of those too, the number of seats each gets is sometimes too close for a clear decision; Goa is a good example. And then there are states where the political structure is fractured and the legislature divides between a number of parties none of which is close to a majority; Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are obvious instances. Thus cases of deadlock are frequent, and will continue to be so. Deadlock at the Centre is unlikely to end soon.

Whenever there is a deadlock, there will be horse-trading in our conditions. The benefits of being in power are substantial, especially in the states of the north and east where there is little autonomous growth and where interception of government funds and selling of government jobs are major industries. Some rules have been devised for these cases. For instance, the governor is supposed to call the leader of the largest party ' although if the largest party has only a quarter of the seats and the next one has one or two less, this rule will not help much. He is supposed to give the leader as little time as possible to face the assembly. But the less time he is given, the less likely a leader is to muster a majority even if he does not try to buy legislators, and the less likely is the emergence of a government. So these rules are inadequate.

Whoever is called first is given a first chance to form government; he also forms an interim government straightaway. Hence the governor is liable to be suspected of bias and favouritism. Certainly in the recent crises, the spotlight has been on the governors, because they had been recently appointed by the UPA government; their partisanship was implicitly assumed. But the house in Goa was patently too disorderly, and the one in Jharkhand was too fractious to yield a clear decision on who should rule; the governors got the blame for what were impossible circumstances. This is not to say that they were right ' just that there was no right decision.

The problem of hopelessly divided legislatures was very much on the horizon once the hegemony of the Congress broke down in 1977. To tackle it, Rajiv Gandhi passed the anti-defection law, which requires that for legislators to leave their party without losing their seats, at least a third of the party's strength had to secede. The law reflected its maker's lack of intelligence. It gave all secessionists an incentive to belong to smaller parties. A single, independent legislator could change sides any number of times without losing his seat. As long as a party had no more than three members in a legislature, each of them could secede without any risk. The smaller a party, the safer were its members if they wished to secede. There were other fissiparous forces; but Rajiv Gandhi reinforced them. And now we see the result.

The BJP won power with the support of over a dozen small parties; and once it did so, it fell in love with power. So it appointed a commission to suggest ideas about amending the Constitution, and hoped it would come up with a formula for making it more difficult to pull down governments. Lal Krishna Advani was strongly in favour of the German rule, that a government could not be voted out unless another government was voted in by a majority. Although Germany has this rule, it has never led to a situation where a government no longer had a majority but continued to rule despite it. No government can survive if its finance bills are voted down by a legislature; so if Advani's dream had been realized, the government could still have fallen because it had no authority to collect revenue. It just happens that Germany has only four major parties that divide comfortably into two blocks. The Christian Democrats and the Free Democrats comprise the rightist block, whilst the Social Democrats and the Greens form the leftist block. The parties have taken care to form coalitions that last the entire four years' term of a Parliament.

However, it is not entirely a matter of chance. The Germans have tried to ensure that their Parliament would not be cluttered up with small parties by having a section in their constitution whereby a party that gets less than 5 per cent of the vote gets no seats. They also elect half the seats under the first-past-the-post system that we follow; but they elect the other half on the basis of proportional representation. First-past-the-post is supposed to be more likely to lead to a majority than proportional representation. But proportional representation gives an advantage to parties and to bigger against smaller parties.

A combination of proportional representation and an elimination rule can be devised which would unfailingly result in a majority for a single party. The simplest rule would be to say that only the parties that get the largest and the second largest proportions of the vote would get seats, and that all others would be eliminated. Even proportional representation with a 10 per cent cut-off would result in a clear majority for some party most of the time.

Proportional representation also strengthens parties vis-'-vis individual politicians. And whereas money given to a politician signifies corruption, money given without a cause to a party does not: that, anyway, is the convention. Proportional representation is good for the Congress and the BJP.

Hence instead of squabbling like children, indulging in noisy agitations and neglecting their democratic duties, the Congress and the BJP should combine to amend the Constitution and make it more favourable to big parties, and hence more conducive to stability.

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