In a recent judgement, the Karnataka High Court upheld the disqualification of five independent MLAs from the Assembly. These MLAs, who had previously served as Ministers in the Yeddyurappa government, were disqualified along with 11 others after they withdrew their support to the government. The disqualifications raise some important questions on the working of the anti-defection law. While the law was framed in 1985 with the specific intent of 'combating the evil of political defections', over the years several unanticipated consequences have come to the fore. The primary among these is the erosion of independence of the average legislator. The need for an anti-defection law was first felt in the late 1960s. Of the 16 States that went to polls in 1967, Congress lost majority in eight and failed to form the government in seven. Thus began the era of common minimum programmes and coalition governments. This was accompanied with another development - the phenomenon of large scale political migrations. Within a brief span of 4 years (1967-71), there were 142 defections in Parliament and 1969 defections in State Assemblies across the country. Thirty-two governments collapsed and 212 defectors were rewarded with ministerial positions. Haryana was the first State where a Congress ministry was toppled. The Bhagwat Dayal ministry was defeated in the Assembly when its nominee for speakership lost out to another candidate. Congress dissidents defected to form a new party called the Haryana Congress, entered into an alliance with the opposition and formed a new government under the Chief Ministership of Rao Birender Singh (also a Congress defector). Haryana thus became the first State to reward a defector with Chief Ministership. Another Haryana legislator, Gaya Lal, defected thrice within a fortnight. The now well know terms 'Aya Ram' and 'Gaya Ram' that are often used to describe political turncoats owe inspiration to him. It was to address this issue that the anti-defection law was passed in 1985. This law amended the Constitution and added the Tenth Schedule to the same. The Supreme Court, in Kihota Hollohon vs. Zachilhu (1992), while upholding the validity of the law held that decisions of disqualification shall be open to judicial review. It also made some observations on Section 2(1) (b) of the Tenth schedule. Section 2(1) (b) reads that a member shall be disqualified if he votes or abstains from voting contrary to any direction issued by the political party. The judgement highlighted the need to limit disqualifications to votes crucial to the existence of the government and to matters integral to the electoral programme of the party, so as not to 'unduly impinge' on the freedom of speech of members. This anti-defection law has regulated parliamentary behaviour for over 25 years now. Though it has the advantage of providing stability to governments and ensuring loyalty to party manifestos, it reduces the accountability of the government to Parliament and curbs dissent against party policies. In this context, Manish Tewari's private member bill merits mention: he suggests that anti-defection law be restricted to votes of confidence and money bills. Such a move will retain the objective of maintaining the stability of the government while allowing MPs to vote freely (subject to the discipline of the party whip) on other issues. This brings us to the question - Is the anti-defection law indispensable? Is defection peculiar to India? If not, how do other countries handle similar situations? It is interesting to note that many advanced democracies face similar problems but haven't enacted any such laws to regulate legislators. Prominent cases in UK politics include the defection of Ramsay Macdonald, the first Labour Prime Minister, in 1931. He defected from his party following disagreements on policy responses to the economic crisis. Neither Macdonald nor any of his three cabinet colleagues who defected with him resigned their seats in the House of Commons to seek a fresh mandate. Australian Parliament too has had its share of defections. Legislators have often shifted loyalties and governments have been formed and toppled in quick succession. In the US too, Congressmen often vote against the party programme on important issues without actually defecting from the party. India might have its peculiar circumstances that merit different policies. But, the very fact that some other democracies can function without such a law should get us thinking. Sources/ Notes:  PRS Conference note: The Anti-Defection Law – Intent and Impact  Column by CV Madhukar (Director, PRS) titled 'Post-independents' in the Indian Express
The Uttarakhand Assembly concluded a two-day session on November 30, 2022. The session was scheduled to be held over five days. In this post we look at the legislative business that was carried out in the Assembly, and the state of state legislatures.
13 Bills were introduced and passed within two days
As per the Session Agenda, a total of 19 Bills were listed for introduction in the span of two days. 13 of these were listed to be discussed and passed on the second day. These included the Uttarakhand Protection of Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Bill, 2022, University of Petroleum and Energy Studies (Amendment), Bill, 2022, and the Uttarakhand Anti-Littering and Anti-Spitting (Amendment) Bill, 2022.
The Assembly had proposed to discuss and pass each Bill (barring two) within five minutes (see Figure 1). Two Bills were allocated 20 minutes each for discussion and passing - the Haridwar Universities Bill, 2022, and the Public Service (Horizontal Reservation for Women) Bill, 2022. As per news reports, the Assembly passed all 13 Bills within these two days (this excludes the Appropriation Bills). This raises the question on the amount of scrutiny that these Bills were subject to, and the quality of such laws when the legislature intends to pass them within mere minutes.
Figure 1: Excerpt of Uttarakhand Assembly's November 2022 Session Agenda
Law making requires deliberation, scrutiny
Our law-making institutions have several tools at their disposal to ensure that before a law is passed, it has been examined thoroughly on various aspects such as constitutionality, clarity, financial and technical capacity of the state to implement provisions, among others. The Ministry/Department piloting a Bill could share a draft of the Bill for public feedback (pre-legislative scrutiny). While Bills get introduced, members may raise issues on constitutionality of the proposed law. Once introduced, Bills could be sent to legislative committees for greater scrutiny. This allows legislators to deliberate upon individual provisions in depth, understand if there may be constitutional challenges or other issues with any provision. This also allows experts and affected stakeholders to weigh in on the provisions, highlight issues, and help strengthen the law.
However, when Bills are introduced and passed within mere minutes, it barely gives legislators the time to go through the provisions and mull over implications, issues, or ways to improve the law for affected parties. It also raises the question of what the intention of the legislature is when passing laws in a hurry without any discussion. Often, such poorly thought laws are also challenged in Courts.
For instance, the Uttarakhand Assembly passed the Uttarakhand Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Bill, 2022 in this session (five minutes had been allocated for the discussion and passing of the Bill). The 2022 Bill amends the 2018 Act which prohibits forceful religious conversions, and provides that conversion through allurement or marriage will be unlawful. The Bill has provisions such as requiring an additional notice to be sent to the District Magistrate (DM) for a conversion, and that reconversion to one’s immediate previous religion will not be considered a conversion. Some of these provisions seem similar to other laws that were passed by states and have been struck down by or have been challenged in Courts. For example, the Madhya Pradesh High Court while examining the Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 2021 noted that providing a notice to the DM for a conversion of religion violates the right to privacy as the right includes the right to remain silent. It extends that understanding to the right to decide on one’s faith. The Himachal Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 2006 exempted people who reconvert to their original religion from giving a public notice of such conversion. The Himachal Pradesh High Court had struck down this provision as discriminatory and violative of the right to equality. The Court also noted that the right to change one’s belief cannot be taken away for maintaining public order.
Uttarakhand MLAs may not have had an opportunity to think about how issues flagged by Courts may be addressed in a law that regulates religious conversions.
Most other state Assemblies also pass Bills without adequate scrutiny
In 2021 44% states passed Bills on the day it was introduced or on the next day. Between January 2018 and September 2022, the Gujarat Assembly introduced 92 Bills (excluding Appropriation Bills). 91 of these were passed in the same day as their introduction. In the 2022 Monsoon Session, the Goa Assembly passed 28 Bills in the span of two days. This is in addition to discussion and voting on budgetary allocation to various government departments.
Figure 2: Time taken by state legislatures to pass Bills in 2021
Note: The chart above does not include Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim. A Bill is considered passed within a day if it was passed on the day of introduction or on the next day. For states with bicameral legislatures, bills have to be passed in both Houses. This has been taken into account in the above chart for five states having Legislative Councils, except Bihar (information was not available for Council).
Sources: Assembly websites, E-Gazette of various states and Right to Information requests; PRS.
Occasionally, the time actually spent deliberating upon a Bill is lesser than the allocated time. This may be due to disruptions in the House. The Himachal Pradesh Assembly provides data on the time actually spent discussing Bills. For example, in the August 2022 Session, it spent an average of 12 minutes to discuss and pass 10 Bills. However, the Uttarakhand Assembly allocated only five minutes to discuss each Bill in its November 2022 Session. This indicates the lack of intent of certain state legislatures to improve their functioning.
In the case of Parliament, a significant portion of scrutiny is also carried out by the Department Related Standing Committees, even when Parliament is not in session. In the 14th Lok Sabha (LS), 60% of the Bills introduced were sent to Committees for detailed examination, and in the 15th LS, 71% were sent. These figures have reduced recently – in the 16th LS 27% of the Bills were sent to Committees, and so far in the 17th LS, 13% have been sent. However, across states, sending Bills to Committees for detailed examination is often the exception than the norm. In 2021, less than 10% of the Bills were sent to Committees. None of the Bills passed by the Uttarakhand Assembly had been examined by a committee. States that are an exception here include Kerala which has 14 subject Committees, and Bills are regularly sent to these for examination. However, these Committees are headed by their respective Ministers, which reduces the scope of independent scrutiny that may be undertaken.