The US Senate is on the cusp of finalising its first bipartisan gun control bill in almost three decades. The proposed deal is far less ambitious than the proposals US President Joe Biden and his Democratic Party have made. Nevertheless, if passed, a country rocked by mass shootings in recent weeks will mostly welcome it.
It will also be a good day for bipartisanship, a perennially endangered species in Washington.
However, it is important to note that polarisation in the US, and the resulting stasis, is less a structural problem than it is a cultural one. Americans are living in a zeitgeist of political dysfunction, but zeitgeists change with time. Moreover, as demonstrated over the past week, bipartisan consensus on contentious issues such as gun control isn’t impossible.
Legislators in India can seldom live in such hope. They, too, confront polarisation daily. But theirs isn’t simply a damning indictment of the times. It is also the unintended outcome of a law that’s been baked into the Indian Constitution since 1985, and needs amending.
In this so-called Anti-Defection Law lies a provision that states that any member of India’s Parliament or state assembly will be disqualified if he or she “votes or abstains from voting in the House, contrary to any direction issued by his [or her] political party”.
In other words, there is no room whatsoever for legislators representing any party in India to vote according to the wishes of their constituents, or even their conscience, if that would mean going against the directives of their high command.
While all parties have clearly articulated manifestos, few politicians agree on every single issue. And yet, within legislatures, the law has granted an indiscriminate amount of power to party leaders and whips, whether in government or in opposition, and reduced many well-meaning, independent-minded and issue-driven legislators to glorified rubberstamps. This has undermined the country’s legislative process and weakened legislatures that for decades acted as an effective counterweight to the already-powerful executive branch.
This stands in great contrast to Mr Biden’s inability to cajole fellow Democratic politicians in the Senate and the House of Representatives – especially those who represent conservative, Republican-leaning states or districts – to sign on to his big-spending, liberal agenda.
And yet, it is hard to see why Mr Biden would be tempted to use such a law (even if there was one) to crack the whip on his party colleagues. Certainly not when, rare though it may be, he and his party have the incentive to corral support from Republican legislators on less contentious but no less important bills.
It might be a different story in the UK, where Prime Minister Boris Johnson, for instance, might be more tempted to wield such a law, if he had the option.
Earlier this month, Mr Johnson withstood a robust challenge from 148 fellow Conservative members of Parliament to win an intra-party confidence vote. He could still be forced out of Downing Street, well before the next general election in 2025, given sagging public support over a scandal that refuses to disappear and the poor state of the UK economy.
Regardless, it will come as a surprise to Indian political watchers that it was the ruling party’s “backbenchers” – rank-and-file legislators who fall low in the pecking order – who initiated the confidence vote against Mr Johnson. This would be unthinkable in India, where, thanks to the Anti-Defection Law, it is impossible for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s fellow Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) legislators, including his immediate rivals, to speak up against him in Parliament – let alone initiate a confidence vote against him. This is the case even though Mr Modi has faced a number of political headwinds since coming to power eight years ago, including a deadly second coronavirus wave last year.
Like the BJP, Mr Johnson’s Conservative party enjoys a majority in Parliament, too, but what gives Mr Modi untrammelled authority is the Anti-Defection Law. Of course, his immense popularity – he polled at 77 per cent as recently as March – makes a leadership challenge in the BJP a non-starter. But it will eventually happen, and when it does, the challenger is likely to emerge from inside the party’s opaque backroom, far from the public glare. This is already unlike Mr Johnson’s out-in-the-open “trial” in Parliament, which will have affected public perceptions of him as a leader.
Furthermore, few bills that Mr Modi or his Cabinet table in Parliament today face any meaningful opposition in the lower house. In fact, many bills have been rammed through, often without debate or discussion – and, sometimes, with dire consequences.
A case in point is a set of three agriculture laws passed in September 2020, which all the country’s major farmer groups viewed as lacking in economic protections to farmers against the vagaries of the market. Tellingly, it wasn’t parliamentarians but thousands of protesting farmers who eventually forced the government to repeal the laws last year, as the BJP feared repercussions for itself in approaching state elections.
To be sure, the rationale behind passing the Anti-Defection Law made sense in 1985. Through the late 1960s and 70s, up to 50 per cent of legislators reportedly switched political parties across the country. But, given that some parties have in recent years found ways to exploit inherent loopholes and engineer defections in various states, the law in its current form has passed its use-by date.
The solution isn’t to dispense with it entirely, which would be impossible and wrong, but to close outstanding loopholes to ensure zero defections. This could take time but meanwhile, a less fraught but necessary first step would be to create another provision in the law that would free up legislators to vote independently, irrespective of their parties’ policy platforms, on all bills – except those pertaining to confidence votes and picking leaders.
Such a compromise will ensure that parties continue to enforce discipline but also re-empower legislators. Debate and discussion, still at the heart of legislative politics in India, will no longer be just perfunctory, as they will now be used to swing votes one way or the other.
In a column for The National, Gavin Esler wrote that around the globe “it is surely long past time to recognise that party loyalty and sectional interest are the problem”. Party politics cannot be done away with, at least not in the near term. But by clearing the way for politicians to cross party lines purely for policymaking purposes will mitigate, at least to some extent, the rampant polarisation that is prevalent in Indian politics today.