It is not at all unusual anywhere for politicians to change their party affiliations. In fact there are those who believe this is in keeping with the exercise of an individual’s fundamental freedom to dissent which gives democracy its unique meaning and power. But it is highly unusual for politicians already elected on the ticket of one party to the Assembly or Parliament, as the case may be, to defect to another party during the term of the Assembly or Parliament. Once upon a time political defection was a norm and this practice was pushed to the farcical limit by politicians all over India, so much so that it was deemed fit to introduce a law to moderate defection, and indeed in 1985 by the 52nd Amendment of the Constitution, the 10th Schedule, also known as the Anti-Defection Law, was introduced. This law prohibits legislators from defecting to another party. Earlier, they could do so if a group of them formed one third of their original party, but even this clause has been removed by the 91st Amendment of the Constitution in 2003. Now, only a group of legislators forming two thirds of their original party can merge with another party without being penalised. In other words, merger by two or more parties is legitimate, but defection by individuals is allowed only if the defecting member first gives up his legislative seat. There is one exception. The Speaker can give up membership of his original party without attracting Anti-Defection Law penalties. When he or she ceases to be the Speaker, she can re-join her original party, again without penalty. This makes sense, as the Speaker is supposed to be a neutral arbitrator and is expected not to remain ideologically affiliated to his original party while in office, and be completely impartial in his rulings.
In what is unprecedented in post-Anti-Defection Law era, the barely one month old 11th Manipur Legislative Assembly has already seen two cases of defection, both of which by MLAs elected on Congress tickets, and choosing to join the BJP, now leading the coalition government in power. This is all very fine and they must have done it knowing fully the price they would be paying. Now it is time for the rule of law to be invoked to have the two defectors disqualified so that by-elections can be held to the seats they thus vacate. The defectors probably are confident they will win back their seats and that is why they made their bold gambles, and we can only wish them best of luck. Let them contest on the tickets of the new party they have pledged their allegiance and win back the seats. Only such a route can clear all the legal clouds over the sacrosanct democratic institution of law making. It will be terribly demeaning for this revered institution to be dragged to the court of law because the rule of law, in this case the 10th Schedule, has not been adhered to in its letter and spirit. The ruling BJP should now be eager to consolidate its moral legitimacy to rule, rather than look for short term gains by short-circuiting the due process of law and legislative norms.
It probably is a legitimate strategy for political parties to have the ranks of their opponents depleted and the best way this can be done is by getting their members to leave the party. From this standpoint, perhaps it can be seen as the way of politics to have opponent MLAs defect, but our plea once again is to make these manoeuvres clinical, clean and unambiguous. That is, have the defectors resign from their parties and consequently disqualified from the Assembly, so they can seek re-election on the plank of their changed loyalty. Or else the defectors should work to have the requisite number when they break away from their original party so that a legitimate merger can be duly concluded with the party they wish to support. The latter scenario is unlikely given the numbers, unless Manipur MLAs too think the Arunachal Pradesh route is acceptable. Since there is no likelihood of mass defection that can avoid attracting the Anti-Defection Law, the Speaker should make it a point that the rules of the game are adhered to strictly so that the reputation and esteem of the exalted pillar of democracy he is custodian of does not end up compromised or tarnished. He must swiftly deliver justice, and if he is convinced the loyalty switches we have seen so far indeed qualify penalisation under the 10th Schedule, he must go ahead and disqualify them from being members of the Assembly so that by-elections can determine who has the popular mandate in the vacant constituencies. There is another complication if the Speaker delays his judgment. Since the two MLAs who have since defected to the BJP were elected on the Congress tickets, if they are allowed to join the ruling coalition, it also can be interpreted as the Congress joining the coalition, with the further complication that the Congress under the circumstance will become the largest party in the ruling coalition.