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Amendment to Anti-Defection Law Seeks to Allow MPs to Vote as per Their 'Conscience'

A BJP MP has moved a private member's bill which seeks changes in the Tenth Schedule so that legislators may vote freely during debates.

New Delhi: At a time when the fear of disqualification under the anti-defection law is a key safeguard for ensuring adherence to core principles of parliamentary form of democracy, a BJP MP has moved a private member’s bill which seeks to dilute this provision provided in the Tenth Schedule to the Constitution, so that members can vote “as per their conscience” during debates on various issues.

Tenth Schedule provides for disqualification for voting against party directive

The Rajya Sabha MP, Vikas Mahatme, has demanded an amendment to the constitution of India to allow MPs or legislators to vote as per their conscience, faith and political belief. The Tenth Schedule was inserted in the constitution in 1985 and lays down the process by which a legislator may be disqualified on grounds of defection by the Presiding Officer on a petition by another member of the House. An act of defection is said to have been committed when a legislator either voluntarily gives up the membership of his party or disobeys the directives of the party leadership on a vote.

The only exception to this law is when a merger takes place. When a party merges with or into another party and at least two-thirds of its legislators are in favour of the merger, then neither the members who decide to merge, nor the ones who stay with the original party face disqualification.

Also read: India’s Politicians Have Turned the Anti-Defection Law on Its Head

‘Allow members to vote as per conscience during debates’

The statement of objects and reasons of the Bill, introduced by Mahatme on November 22, 2019, states that the “Tenth Schedule of the Constitution makes provisions as to disqualifications for membership of either House of Parliament or the Legislature of the State on ground of defection.”

It goes on to demand that members be allowed to vote as per the views they hold at least when the vote does not pertain to a no-confidence motion or a constitution amendment bill.

Mahatme stated that Clause (b) sub-paragraph (1) of paragraph (2) of the Tenth Schedule provides that a member shall be disqualified from being a member if he votes or abstains from voting contrary to any direction given by the party to which he belongs.

Also read: To Avoid Future Karnatakas, the Supreme Court Must Lay Down Clear Principles

‘Uphold right to dissent, freedom of conscience’

Opposing this, the MP moved the Bill, stating that “the foundational assumptions of parliamentary democracy of freedom of speech of the right to dissent and of the freedom of conscience must be respected in order to uphold the principles of public policy essential to the working of a representative government”.

He further said that “an elected member shall be freely allowed to express his views on matters in accordance with his conscience, faith and political belief. Even though loyalty towards the political party is of utmost importance; the will of the constituents, the personal unbiased opinion and mature judgement shall not be undermined”.

In this regard, Mahatme also reminded that “often the view expressed by the Members in the House have resulted in substantial modification, and even the withdrawal of the proposals under consideration” .Debates and expression of different points of view, he said, thus serve an essential and healthy purpose in the functioning of a parliamentary democracy.

Therefore, he stated through the Bill that “so far as his own personal views on freedom of conscience are concerned, there may be exceptional occasions when the elected representative finds himself compelled to consider more closely how he should act in a situation where he may feel that the policy of his party, whether it is in office or in opposition, on a particular matter is not one of which he approves”. And in such times, he said, “such voting or abstention should be allowed in normal course”.

Also read: Goa’s Voters Lose as BJP Deliberately Misreads Anti-Defection Law

Most Private Member’s Bills do not elicit government action

While Mahatme’s bill has been introduced in the House, its future is not known. Usually Private Member’s Bills, moved by MPs who are not a Minister in the Union Cabinet, get introduced but are often never discussed.

While there is no restriction on what such a Bill can be about, and they can also be a Constitution Amendment Bill, as in this case, often they end up without any discernible action.

Members of Parliament, however, still use them to raise issues which they believe are important. These PMBs are often drafted by the MPs or their staff, but they are scrutinised by the Parliament Secretariat for technicalities and legal consistency before they are introduced. Usually a member is required to provide a one-month notice before presenting such a bill. A Parliamentary Committee on Private Member’s Bills and Resolutions vets them and decides which should be taken up first.