Lawmakers elected by people are herded, flocked, and shepherded by party bosses. Is it democracy?


During the high-voltage drama in Karnataka, a lot of terms pertaining to domestication were used—flock, herd, poaching, shepherd, horse trading, et al. Perhaps the English language was expressing itself the situation more aptly than its users were; they were shying away from speaking the truth: that people’s representatives have been tamed by party bosses.

Let’s begin with the words that have recently gained currency. There is “flock.” According to Merriam-Webster, it connotes, among other things, “a group of animals (such as birds or sheep) assembled or herded together”. Similarly, “herd” is “a typically large group of one kind kept together under human control, a herd of cattle” and “a congregation of gregarious herds of antelopes”. “Shepherd” is “a person who tends sheep”. And to “poach” is “to take game or fish illegally”.

The journalistic usage is very suitable, for lawmakers are “herded” by the party leadership concerned, so that the rivals don’t “poach” their “flock”. Sound “shepherding” is a prerequisite for success in politics.

Come to think of it, the lawmakers elected by the people of India are herded, flocked, and shepherded by party bosses. Is it democracy? And is it freedom? When the British ruled the country, our political leaders had much more freedom of thought and action than they have today. They differed with each other on not just nuances but also on fundamentals; more importantly, they didn’t keep their opinions to themselves. Subhas Chandra Bose famously disagreed with Mahatma Gandhi; he even managed to defeat Gandhi’s candidate and became the Congress president. Congress leaders refused to heed to Gandhi’s advice and elected Bose, their respect for the former notwithstanding.

That was then, when they were fighting for national liberation. They won freedom for the nation—and lost it to party bosses. It happened over the years, as an illustration of the boiling frog syndrome. That was the inexorable logic of dirigisme, something that afflicted both the first Prime Minister and the incumbent one.

The 52nd Amendment to the Constitution in 1985, commonly known as the anti-defection law, enslaved Members of Parliament (MPs) and of state Legislative Assemblies (MLAs). The Statement of Objects and Reasons of the Fifty-Second Constitution Amendment Bill, 1985 read: “The evil of political defections has been a matter of national concern. If it is not combated, it is likely to undermine the very foundations of our democracy and the principles which sustain it.”

It was the classic case of remedy being worse than the malady. Ostensibly enacted to end “legislative anarchism”, it ended up making lawmakers puppets in the hands of party bosses. As per the law, MPs and MLAs lose membership of the legislature: if they quit the party on whose ticket they got elected; vote or abstain from voting in the House against the wishes of the political party to which they belong; or if they get expelled from such political party “in accordance with the procedure established by the constitution, rules or regulations” of such party.

To keep any lawmaker(s) disciplined, there are “whips”, another anti-democratic and illiberal term. True, our political masters didn’t invent this institution; they borrowed it from the country on whose system provided the template for our democracy—Great Britain. The website of UK Parliament says, “Whips are MPs or Members of the House of Lords appointed by each party in Parliament to help organise their party’s contribution to parliamentary business. One of their responsibilities is making sure the maximum number of their party members vote, and vote the way their party wants.”

Typically, the “high commands” of our major parties have transmogrified the institution to maintain intra-party discipline into a shackle that enslaves the representatives of people. Critically, while in the UK a Parliamentarian disregarding a three-line whip loses his party but not House membership, in India he loses both. This practically ensures his complete subservience to the party bosses—in all parties. It is interesting to note here that while the Congress brought the anti-defection law, it was made more anti-democratic—the condition for split was made from one-third to two-thirds—when Atal Behari Vajpayee was the Prime Minister.

The then Law Minister Asoke Sen had justified the anti-defection legislation, saying that it would “cleanse the political life of this country of the dirt accumulated over the years”. Even the most sanguine political observer can say that the politics has been cleansed, and yet nobody has even thought about taking a long, hard look at the illiberal law. Which is not surprising, for individual liberty, even that of lawmakers, is fast becoming a lost cause

So we have a political arena in which spectacles are best described in a phraseology borrowed from that of trainers.

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