By Inder Jit
(Released on 16 June 1981)
Prostitution is legally banned in India. But political harlotry continues to flourish brazenly. What is worse, it is coming to be accepted as a way of life. Time was when the people at large were shocked. Many reacted strongly and violently. Now even eyebrows are not raised. Those who defect are beginning to see themselves as smart alecks and are at times welcomed and lauded as heroes. Mahatma Gandhi once warned those singing the praises of British rule that the worst kind of a slave was one who did not know that he was a slave. He was only varying a popular saying according to which no shamelessness was worse than one in which there was no sense of shame. Those who attended Mr. Y.B. Chavan’s press conference last week tell me that the atmosphere there had to be seen to be believed. There was no manifestation of an uneasy conscience or a consciousness of something not done. Instead, Mr. Chavan, who had conducted himself with dignity and poise in the past, almost seemed to feel as if he had been awarded Bharat Ratna.
Harsh words no doubt. But these have been provoked by all the abominable goings on of the past fortnight. Mr. Chavan has come a long, long way from the day in late 1962 when I joined a crowd at Palam airport to welcome him as India’s new Defence Minister in the wake of the Chinese aggression. Mr. Chavan, who had stepped down as Maharashtra’s first Chief Minister to come to the Centre, then raised great hopes both about himself and for the country as he feelingly said: “We shall drive the Chinese out from our sacred motherland. I shall set foot in Maharashtra again only after this is done.” All that he and others said thereafter was soon conveniently forgotten. No one reminded him of his Palam speech when he made his first visit to Bombay after moving to New Delhi. But few are ever likely to forget all that he has ventured to say on record and informally about his decision to quit the Congress (U) and seek admission to the Congress (I). Never before has a political statement attracted greater sarcasm and ridicule.
Mr. Chavan has denied that he is guilty of defection. He has chosen to describe his return to the Congress (I) as “homecoming and said that his decision to come back to the “real Congress” is a matter between him and his constituency. The argument is an amazing exercise in casuistry, especially as it comes from one who coined the expression Ayaram and Gayaram. The argument also ignores the recommendations of the Union Home Ministry’s Committee on Defections. Ironically, this Committee was headed by none other than Mr. Chavan, then Home Minister. It was set up in response to a resolution moved by Mr. P. Venkatasubbiah, now Union Minister of State for Home, in the Lok Sabha and adopted unanimously on December 8, 1967. Mr. Chavan, who announced the formation of the Committee on March 21, 1968, described defections as “a national malady which is eating into the very vitals of our democracy”. The Committee included Jaya Prakash Narayan, M.C. Setalvad and Mohan Kumaramangalam and representatives of eight political parties and three independent groups.
The Committee made several recommendations: ethical, political, constitutional and legislative. Opinion on some matters was divided. Significantly, however, the Committee was agreed on the definition of a defector, which was as follows: “An elected member of a legislature who has been allotted the reserved symbol of any political party can be said to have defected, if, after being elected as a member of either House of Parliament or of the Legislative Council or the Legislative Assembly of a State or Union Territory, he voluntarily renounces allegiance to, or association with such political party, provided his action is not in consequence of a decision of the party concerned.” It was also agreed that “a defector should be debarred for a period of one year or till such time as he resigned his seats and got himself re-elected, from appointment to the office of a Minister (including a Deputy Minister or Parliamentary Secretary) or Speaker or Deputy Speaker or any post carrying salaries or allowances to be paid from the Consolidated Fund of India…”
The Chavan Committee held that a lasting solution to the problem could only come from the adherence by the political parties to a code of conduct or a set of conventions that “took into account the fundamental proprieties and decencies that ought to govern the functioning of democratic institutions”. At the same time, it was clear that such a code would serve little purpose without a machinery or sanctions to ensure its observance. The Committee considered a “sound” suggestion that this could be achieved by having a Standing Committee or Board comprising leaders of political parties and eminent men of objectivity and integrity. Any political party could take a grievance before the Board which could convey its censure or disapproval. When the Board censured any particular member for violating political propriety, the political parties could be asked to ensure that he was kept out of public life for a prescribed period. But the Committee left it to the Home Minister to get in touch with all the political parties and give the proposal concrete shape from the political and practical viewpoints.
Politics has alas become unbridled pursuit of power in India. Mr. Chavan is, therefore, entitled to choose the best way of serving himself and the country. Nothing must ever bar him or anyone else from admitting that he had gone wrong or, to use a Gandhian phrase, that he had committed a Himalayan blunder in joining or not joining a party or in opting for the wrong group following a split. Our democracy is still young and, understandably, we should not interfere with the natural process of polarization of political forces. Mr. Chavan is also entitled to say today that Mr. Charan Singh or his Lok Dal is “not his cup of tea” anymore even if in 1979 he ignored the fervent pleadings of the younger Congress (U) members, to enthusiastically join hands with the Choudhury and become his Deputy Prime Minister. However, one question arises: should a person of Mr. Chavan’s seniority make a mockery of the recommendations of the very Committee which he had the privilege to chair? Should he at least not act in accordance with the Committee’s agreed views — and the overall spirit of its report?
Clearly, there are things which Mr. Chavan could do even now and things which Mrs Gandhi could do as the nation’s unrivalled leader. As a man of honour, Mr. Chavan himself should seek a fresh mandate from his constituency. (So also should Mr. B.R. Bhagat, who was also elected on the Congress (U) ticket and once held the privileged office of the Speaker of the Lok Sabha.) Mr. Chavan won his seat despite strong opposition from the Congress (I). He should, therefore, have no difficulty in getting re-elected once he is on Mrs. Gandhi’s bandwagon. No one should be misled by uninformed talk that even Winston Churchill had once defected. Churchill, who was elected as a Conservative in 1900, did switch over to the Liberal Party in 1904. However, he announced in the Commons that his constituents were entitled to be consulted on the change of allegiance and, if they so desired, he would resign and submit himself for re-election. This was, however, not pressed as the next general election was barely a few months ahead.
Mrs. Gandhi has, time and again, expressed herself in favour of ending defections. She has repeatedly blamed the Opposition for the delay in bringing forward agreed legislation. Her government once again reaffirmed its position when the Lok Sabha debated early last year the Constitution (Amendment) Bill, introduced by Prof. Madhu Dandwate, leader of the Janata Party, to stem the rot of defections. The Union Minister of Law and Justice, Mr. Shiv Shankar, then urged Prof. Dandwate to withdraw the bill and assured the House that the Government would bring forward come concrete measures to end defections as part of “a comprehensive bill electoral reforms”. That there is no sign of the promised bill even after a year is undoubtedly a matter of regret. Nevertheless, nothing prevents Mrs. Gandhi (and her Parliamentary Board) from taking a principled stand against defections. She should accede to Mr. Chavan’s request for admission to the Congress (I) only if he first agrees to resign his seat in the Lok Sabha. The same should apply to others.
The Government should have no difficulty in enacting legislation to stop defections. The Janata Party and all its erstwhile constituents favoured the ban and, in fact, its government even came forward with a bill on the subject. (Said Mr. L.K. Advani the other day: “Had we known that our government would fall in mid-1979, we would have pushed ahead with the legislation much earlier.”) The Lawyers Group of the Committee on Defections was clearly of the view that defections could be banned by law. The Group, which was headed by P. Govinda Menon, then Union Law Minister, even suggested amendments to the Representation of the People Act for banning defections. These are given as annexures to the Committee’s report. It is now up to Mr. Shiv Shankar to take advantage of the Committee’s formulations. However, he appears to be avoiding the issue. The Lok Sevak Sangh, a non-party and non-power seeking organisation of the Servants of People Society, has written three letters to the Minister on the subject since June 18 last year. But these have remained not only unanswered but even unacknowledged.
Perhaps Mr. Shiv Shankar is waiting for a green signal from Mrs. Gandhi. This should be given in the interest of preventing the scourge from playing greater havoc. Mrs. Gandhi already enjoys a two-thirds majority in the Lok Sabha and addition of Mr. Chavan and Mr. Bhagat and others to her party will not make any difference. (Mrs. Gandhi, I am told, is mainly interested in getting back Mr. A.K. Antony from Kerala, Mr. Priya Ranjan Das-Munshi from West Bengal and Mr. Sharad Pawar from Maharashtra.) As I wrote last week, even Bangladesh is one up on India. Its Constitution bans defections. Mrs. Gandhi should see this as a healthy provision and not as seen by one of her close advisers who remarked: “It must have suited Zia”. Things may not be really bad at the Centre yet. But defections have made matters pretty rotten in many States. Mrs. Gandhi must decide what kind of a democracy she wishes to help build. Grave damage has been caused already to the quality of public life. This must stop if our people are not to lose faith in democratic institutions — and in democracy itself. — INFA