The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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With the decision of the Union cabinet to modify the Anti-Defection Act, a new legislation on this matter is surely on the anvil. Although a bill to ban political defection was passed in 1985, the lacunae in its provisions became obvious very soon. Different political parties have treated the bill as an instrument of convenience rather than a safeguard of democracy. It is good therefore that the Centre is now thinking of removing the flaws inherent in the bill.

Defection means the change of political allegiance of a leader after his election. A popular representative can definitely change his views and join a new party if the latter’s ideology appeals to him. However, if during his five year tenure he changes his allegiance to gain some personal or political advantage, it not only reflects his moral degeneration, but also affects the political stability and the democratic set-up of the country.

Indian politics has experienced the phenomenon of defection during the Sixties and its effect can be felt even today. Apart from having a demoralizing effect, it gives rise to political uncertainty and instability necessitating frequent elections and change of governments.

For personal gains

Change of political allegiance is not peculiar to India alone. Leaders like Winston Churchill, Joseph Chamberlaine and Ramsay Macdonald have defected from their respective parties at different times. However, these defections were usually prompted by ideological reasons. In India, defections have been taking place since the pre-independence era. After the 1935 elections, for instance, G.B. Pant, the then chief minister of the United Province, induced a group of members of the Muslim League to join the Congress.

In recent years, however, most popular representatives change political loyalties merely for political gains. This has become concomitant with the idea of coalition politics. In several states the collapse of coalition governments with heterogeneous elements have been caused by the change of allegiance by self-seeking legislators. According to estimates, between March 1967 and March 1970, as many as 1,169 members of legislative assemblies defected, and between 1967 and 1973, the figure was 2,700. In January 1985, the law minister disclosed that in 1970 alone, the number of defectors was 500, and 118 of them subsequently obtained ministerial berths by floor-crossing.

Split personalities

In January 1985, the anti-defection bill was passed at the behest of the Rajiv Gandhi government. According to it, if a legislator gave up his membership of the party which had fielded him in the election, or if he joined any other party or abstained from voting in the house against the party line, he would have to be disqualified. It was clear from this that split or merger was not defection. Only when a single legislator changed his party, or a group of legislators comprising less than one-third of the legislative party broke away from it could the act be called defection.

It was hoped that the introduction of the bill would mitigate the problem of defection. However the clause differentiating between “defection” and “split” proved self-defeating for the purpose of the bill, because it sanctions a split when it is conducted by one-third members of any party. The legal controversy around this is such that the judiciary may be required ultimately to intervene to solve the problem

A few important changes must be brought into the 1985 anti-defection bill. First, the word “defection” must be defined much more clearly and the numerical clause removed. Many Indian political leaders have tried to use the loopholes existing within the bill. The Central government’s proposal of introducing a new bill on defection is a laudable move. But let us hope that some moral values too prevail upon the leaders and the parties so that the opportunist practice of defection cannot find a place in our political set-up.

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