Yoicks! Time for law of jungle to 'whip in' MPs

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By CHARU SUDAN KASTURI in Delhi
  • Published 20.07.08
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New Delhi, July 20: Needing to rein in parliamentary poachers, India’s political parties have turned to a tough, centuries-old technique borrowed from England’s hunting fields.

They are issuing “whips” to MPs to vote in keeping with the party line on the Lok Sabha trust motion, or else face the threat of disqualification under the anti-defection law.

The term “whip” — which refers both to the directive and the party official authorised to issue it — comes from the traditional British sport of foxhunting, carried out from horseback with the help of hounds to full-throated cries of “yoicks!”

“The expression ‘whip’ in the parliamentary context has its origins in hunting terminology,” says the UK House of Commons website.

“The term ‘whipper-in’ is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as ‘a huntsman’s assistant who keeps the hounds from straying by driving them back with the whip into the main body of the pack’.”

The first mention of the whip in parliamentary records, the note says, was made in a letter dated November 18, 1742. India adopted the concept along with the Westminster style of parliamentary democracy after Independence.

Now, amid charges and counter-charges of horse-trading in the run-up to the July 22 trust vote, almost all parties have made use of this law of the jungle.

The Samajwadi Party may be leaking MPs, but not for the want of a whip. The Congress, Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), BJP and the Akali Dal have also issued whips, as have the four Left parties.

Each has employed the strictest form of the directive, known as the “three-line” whip. Any violation may be considered equivalent to defection and can lead to disqualification unless the recalcitrant MPs make up two-thirds of their party’s strength in the House.

A whip essentially has three components, explained constitutional expert and Supreme Court lawyer P.P. Rao.

“It contains the date on which the trust vote is taking place, and two orders — to be present on the day of the vote, and detailing which way the MPs should vote,” Rao said.

“India has had the concept of the whip even before the anti-defection law, but the potency of the whip has now increased.”

This time, though, the three-line whip may not be too potent a weapon since less than 10 months are left for the polls anyway, and some MPs may not mind disqualification if crossing over increases the chances of returning for five more years.

RJD chief whip Ram Kripal Yadav has to ensure that his party’s 24 MPs dutifully turn up and vote for the government on Tuesday, but said he was not worried about poaching.

“I am not too tense. Barring two MPs who are in jail and another one who has a court case, all are in Delhi, ready to vote,” he said.

Trust (or no-trust) votes aren’t the only times a party whip is called upon to act, though, CPM Lok Sabha chief whip Rupchand Pal explained.

“A whip has work round the year,” said the man who had the delicate job of ensuring his party’s whip did not reach Speaker Somnath Chatterjee, at present unwilling to be “whipped-in”.

Chief whips have to assign parliamentary chores to MPs, such as who is to join which committee and who is to speak when, Pal said. Also, they sometimes issue whips when crucial bills come up for a vote.

In these cases, parties often issue the less potent “one-line” and “two-line” whips, violation of which doesn’t necessarily bring action.