A persistent menace
The recent spate of defections in Bihar have brought back the focus on weak anti-defection laws that undermine the strength of the Indian electoral process
Barely has the Rajasthan Assembly anti-defection drama faded that the 'Aaya Ram, Gaya Ram' syndrome has exploded in Bihar. The spate of resignations and counter resignations followed by crossovers of MLAs has once again exposed the readiness of some of the elected leaders to quit their parties at the drop of a hat. In a dramatic somersault Janata Dal (United) minister Shyam Rajak joined the opposition Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) while three RJD MLAs switched to the JDU ruling party of Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, ahead of Assembly polls likely in October or November.
That the current anti-defection laws are a cruel joke on democracy is no exaggeration. Nor is there any single way to stop the menace of 'Aaya Ram, Gaya Ram' revolving door sport of legislators. There are, naturally, plenty of honourable exceptions but alas they are seldom in command of affairs.
Power to corrupt the social contract of democracy is multipolar. In the current context, its firepower comes through the triple-barreled gun of naked money power, undisclosed, opaque electoral bonds, and manipulation of the ballot box through EVMs (electoral voting machines) replacing paper ballots.
The nexus of politics and money bags constitutes the biggest threat to the stability of any party forming a government. In times when loyalty to political belief and ideology is in short supply, the anti-defection law has to be extra strong.
For a start, any MLA or MP once elected on any party ticket/ ideology or manifesto wishing to change his/her party should be barred from any crossover or switch over to any other legislative group for a full assembly or parliamentary term, or the remainder of the term, for change of mind or loyalty. The only door open to such people should be the exit door from the legislature for full or the remainder of the term of that House. Sitting out of the legislature for the full or remaining term should be the only option. A five-year sit-out for MLAs/MPs or a six-year sit-out for Rajya Sabha MPs, or remainders of their terms, would put the fear of god into their minds before thinking of switching loyalties. Of course, there will always be some exceptions who might have a change of mind after getting elected on a party/political platform or manifesto. Such exceptions can be brave enough to pay the price for their beliefs and would certainly be held in high public esteem for their beliefs. That need not mean an end to their political ambitions. They could contest at the next election with their new manifesto or programme after the end of the five or six-year assembly or parliamentary term.
The second biggest threat to the stability of governments, again linked with money bags, comes from donations to political parties. The story of political donations is long with murky layers. There was the provision, via Section 29C of the 'Representation of the People's Act' (RPA), which allowed parties not to declare the name of the donors contributing less than Rs 20,000. So faceless donors pumped in plenty of money into the accounts of major political parties, the BJP and the Congress — by donating amounts like Rs 19,000 or anything slightly less than the top limit, as pointed out by the Association of Democratic Reforms. The ceiling was later reduced to Rs 2,000 under an amendment to the 'Income Tax Act' but failed to remedy the situation as donors resorted to depositing money in multiple amounts of slightly less than Rs 2,000 only to beat the law.
The introduction of electoral bonds since 2019 has changed the ball game altogether. The earlier modes of political funding with amounts of just under Rs 20,000 or latterly just under Rs 2,000 were abandoned and replaced with the juggernaut of electoral bonds giving donors complete freedom to put in any amount of money with complete anonymity about the identity of the donor. The only one in the know of the affairs is the State Bank of India where the bonds are held and encashed to the recipient political party. Nor is the State Bank allowed to disclose any details to anybody. No disclosures even under the Right to Information (RTI) legislation.
The petty cash limits of Rs 20,000 or Rs 2,000 of earlier years are done away with. The new instruments or bonds are issued in multiples of Rs 1,000, Rs 10,000, Rs 1 lakh, Rs 10 lakh, and Rs 1 crore. Gone are days of small donations. The jumbo donations became legally operative from January 29, 2019. The Supreme Court has yet to start hearing any challenges or appeals against this instrument of free flow of crores or billions of rupees to the recipient political outfits.
Wild allegations about recipient parties are rife and there is no stopping them. Clearly the two major central parties — BJP and Congress — are the critics' targets. It's anybody's guess who got the most money through this route. Some say the last election has been 'stolen' with this money supply. There is no way to prove or disprove such charges and counter-charges while the very existence of democracy is in the balance.
Even as democracy in the land grapples with the twin challenges of political defections and money bags through unaccountable electoral bonds, there continues to lurk a third major doubtful, long-held operation of EVMs — electoral voting machines. The manipulation of EVMs by strong arm and tech-savvy field staff at polling booths in thousands of villages remains a real threat to a fair and just outcome of the voting result. The alternative of paper ballots, albeit slow and cumbersome, is far more dependable and doubt free. The preference for paper ballots in Britain and other established democracies is not to be lightly wished away for the quick fix of easily manageable EVMs.
The writer is a freelance journalist and author of 'India and Britannia' and other writings. Views expressed are personal