A referee less partisan

Earlier this month, the Speaker of the Karnataka Vidhan Sabha was embroiled in a controversy. The chief minister alleged that the Speaker was offered a bribe of Rs 50 crore. He played a tape which purportedly contains a conversation referring to money being offered to the Speaker for accepting the resignation of 15 MLAs. These allegations triggered a fresh political slugfest as any change in the number of MLAs in the Vidhan Sabha will destabilise the coalition government in Karnataka. The larger question this incident raises is of increasing politicisation of the office of the Speaker of legislatures.

Speakers are central to the functioning of a legislature. They are arbiters who steer proceedings in Parliament and state assemblies. They ensure that our legislative institutions fulfil their constitutional mandate of lawmaking, government accountability and representation. For Speakers to do their job effectively, insulation from political pressure is essential. The passing of the anti-defection law in 1985 gave Speakers the power to expel MLAs and MPs for anti-party activities, both inside and outside the legislature. This law single-handedly ensured that the Speaker, in addition to being a referee in legislative proceedings, also became an active player in the politics of government formation and survival.

Asoke Kumar Sen was the Union law minister who piloted the anti-defection law through Parliament. He reasoned that giving Speakers the power to expel legislators would prevent unnecessary delays by courts, speed things up and give the law more teeth. Some MPs pointed out that this power would involve the Speaker in unnecessary controversies. However, Sen prevailed and the provision found its way into the Constitution. Perhaps he assumed that Speakers would remain immune to political pressures. It took less than three years for this assumption to be disproved.

After the death of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M G Ramachandran in 1987, the ensuing struggle for succession split the ruling AIADMK into two factions. His widow, V N Janaki, was sworn in as the CM. Thereafter, a confidence motion in her favour was moved in the assembly. During the voting, the party whip petitioned the Speaker asking for the disqualification of 27 MLAs from the opposing faction. The Speaker immediately disqualified these MLAs during voting in the House, which resulted in pandemonium. The Speaker’s neutrality was questioned and aspersions cast on his decision. In 2017, Tamil Nadu faced a similar situation. The Speaker expelled certain MLAs for anti-party activities. The expelled MLAs, in their defence, alleged that the Speaker was acting with malice and bias. Another MLA described the Speaker’s decision as a “murder of democracy”.

Over the last three decades, Speakers of Vidhan Sabhas have been criticised for decisions on the membership of MLAs under the anti-defection law and their rulings have been challenged in courts. Often, political pressure to give certain rulings, or not to act in certain cases, has led to the undermining of their constitutional office. There is an urgent need to protect the office of the Speaker from the ill effects of the anti-defection law. There is an easy and a hard way for this to be done.

The easy way is to either limit or take away the Speaker’s powers when it comes to expelling legislators. This could be done by restricting the Speaker to only act against those legislators who defy the party whip while voting on matters that impact government stability. Or as some expert bodies have proposed, the Speaker’s powers in such cases can be given to the President/Governor, acting on the advice of the Election Commission. The hard solution is to get rid of the anti-defection law. It is a law which is systematically hollowing out our legislatures. It has failed in achieving its purpose of political stability. Its provisions have been circumvented and it has stifled voices of our elected legislators.

Mahatma Gandhi, in 1931, observed that, “Democracy is a great institution and therefore it is liable to be greatly abused. The remedy, therefore, is not avoidance of democracy but reduction of the possibility of abuse to a minimum.” The anti-defection law was passed in 1985 right after the 38th death anniversary of the Mahatma. It is time to get rid of the anti-defection law to prevent it from doing any further damage to the office of the Speaker.