What does the summary expulsion of an Opposition MP say about Parliamentary democracy in India?

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On Friday at noon, a report of the ethics committee was tabled in Parliament. It recommended the expulsion of Trinamool Congress MP from West Bengal Mahua Moitra from the Lok Sabha for sharing her Parliamentary login details with a businessman and allegedly asking questions in the House in return for cash.

Within hours, the speaker had moved a voice vote, a mechanism that decides motions by trying to gauge which side is louder when it shouts “aye” or “no”. Moitra did not even get a chance to speak as she was being expelled. By 3 pm, the Krishnanagar constituency had lost its representative in India’s Parliament.

The origin of Friday’s expulsion lies in a complaint made by a Delhi-based lawyer Jai Anant Dehadrai. He alleged that the Krishnagar MP had asked questions in Parliament attacking industrialist Gautam Adani on instructions from competitor Darshan Hiranandani. Dehadrai has earlier been in a romantic relationship with Moitra. However, at the time of making the complaint, they had separated and were, in fact, feuding publicly.

Weakest arm

That India’s federal legislature first took up a complaint based on what seems like pique from a former partner is the start of much that is unusual in the Moitra saga. While the ethics committee charged her for sharing her password, it is unclear what is the illegality involved in this since Parliament has no rules about password sharing at all. In fact, it is widely done by MPs. If the standard applied to Moitra were to be applied to all MPs, India might not have much of a Parliament left.

Even more unusual is the fact that the committee produced no proof that Moitra took money from Hiranandani. An MP was thus expelled almost on a whim. To further underline this, action against Moitra was sharply divided on party lines. The ruling BJP wanted her gone even as Opposition parties cried foul.

India is a Parliamentary democracy. This means that its claim to being a democracy rests on the fact that its legislators are elected by the people. Its other two arms of governments – the executive and the judiciary – are not. Yet, as the Moitra expulsion shows, Parliament is precisely now the weakest arm of government. An MP’s place in the House should be sacrosanct given that she represents the democratic voice of millions. That Moitra was kicked out with no proof of wrongdoing and simply on the ruling party’s bidding is a sign of just how little power and prestige Parliament now commands.

Absent House

Moitra’s case is one in a long line of incidents that showcase this trend. For one, Parliament now barely does its primary job – scrutinising bills. Legislation is now often passed in Parliament summarily. Sometimes, literally within minutes. The Lok Sabha, for example, took as little as five minutes to pass the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code (Amendment) Bill, 2021, which puts in place an insolvency resolution mechanism for micro, small and medium enterprises.

Even worse, often Parliament even votes in a way that does not make it clear whether bills had the support of enough members, using the device of a voice vote. This trusts the presiding officer to estimate votes based on how loud MPs shout their vote. In 2020, for example, the Rajya Sabha passed three critical bills which changed how the agriculture sector worked based on a voice vote.

In 1985, Parliament even passed a legislation called the Anti-Defection law that forces MPs to vote according to the commands of their party. This is high irony given that MPs are actually elected by the people of India while party high commands are not. In fact, till this law was passed, parties were not even legally a part of the structure of Parliament. The legislature was, quite obviously, made of legislators and nothing more.

Poor politics

Parliament is a majoritarian institution. This means numbers are what decides how it functions. However, if that were all that mattered, a democracy would run at the whims and fancies of the current government and the ruling party. In practice, this majoritarian nature of Parliament is held in check by a liberal politics that values the place of the Opposition.

This point becomes even more critical given that India’s first-past-the-post-system tends to exaggerate the number of MP seats. The ruling BJP, for example, got less than 38% of the vote in the previous Lok Sabha elections. If using this mandate, it starts to expel Opposition members, that would be a perversion of electoral democracy.

Unfortunately, this liberal politics is under strain in India due to a number of factors. Most critical is the fact that MPs have not only been devalued in law, by the Anti-Defection Law, but have also seen a reduction in their importance due to larger political trends. Elections in India are now increasingly Presidential in style, both in the states as well as the Centre. Voters vote for leaders – be they Modi or Mamata Banerjee – not legislators.

This means that MPs are dependent on the executive branch for their power. Not the other way around, as is the design in a Parliamentary system. To some extent this has always been true in India. Which is what explains the unusual passing of the Anti-Defection Law itself, where MPs voted to reduce their own power. But this topsy-turvy power dynamic has certainly been exacerbated by recent trends where big money has entered election campaigns and parties connect state functions, especially welfare, to the personality of one leader.

This centralisation of power has not only devalued Parliament, it will eventually end up devaluing Indian democracy. Legislators that are responsible to a constituency are a critical interface between the state and the people. They carry the voice of their voters into corridors of power and hold the government accountable. To reduce them to rubber stamps or, as in Moitra’s case, cast them aside on the orders of the party that controls the government, would be disastrous.

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