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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 38, New Delhi, September 5, 2020

Ethics & Politics | DK Giri

Friday 4 September 2020, by D.K. Giri


by Prof. Dusmanta Kumar Giri

Indian citizens have, of late, been experiencing a good many governance crises despite having a writhen constitution. There seems to be three problems in upholding our constitutional democracy. One, the constitutional provisions appear to be prone to more than one interpretation. That is how we find the legal and expert opinion divided on each issue. The ruling party, in such case, takes the opinion that is convenient to its party political interest. Second, we do not conform to the constitution. The Supreme Court interprets the constitution on different occasions. Political leaders invoke the court rulings selectively to their advantage. Third, utter disregard for ethics in the conduct of elected representatives undermine our democracy. Many of the political dramas we witness these days, around making and unmaking of governments, are enacted in moral bankruptcy in politics.

Ethics and morality are tad different in conceptual terms, but are being used here interchangeably. The working definition of ethics could be “know the difference between what you have the right to do and what is the right thing to do”. Laws are inspired by ethics. We tend to respect the law, but ignore its bases, which are a set of moral attitudes and imperatives. Also, it is easier to circumvent the law, work around it, but not morality or ethics. The concept of ethics sounds abstract, but it is really an indispensable part of legal compliance.

Slavery was based on the moral principle that sale and exchange of human beings is evil and human dignity must be acknowledged. Child labour laws are based on the social ethic that children must not be made to work. They should be given skills and education up to certain age in order to enable them to lead a decent life in their adulthood. Suffragette movements were based on the moral principle that men and women are equal. Anti-racism laws are based on the understanding that human beings are equal irrespective of the colour of their skin.

Morality guides our conduct and constitutes a healthy society. Without morality society will go astray. Remember the seven Social Sins identified by an Anglican priest, Frederick Lewis Donaldson, popularized in India by Mahatma Gandhi, “Wealth Without Work……Politics without Principle etc.” They warned that these sins if not abjured will destroy a society or polity.

Let us recall two other means of building a healthy society and sound politics. Karl Marx, the most venerated philosopher prescribed that you change a system (bring in new laws), a ‘new man’ will be born, whereas, Mahatma Gandhi said, “You change the character of a person, a new society will be created.” In fact, the truth consists of a combination of Gandhi and Marx. One needs a conducive system to sustain the values an individual holds. If the system is hostile and corrupt, it is difficult for the individual to hang on to the moral code. Likewise, whatever be the system or the laws enshrined in it, if the individual is immoral, unscrupulous or unethical, s(he) will get around the system to achieve their self-interests.

The second scenario is one that renders the anti-defection law ineffectual. How was the anti-defection Law enacted? In 1967, an MLA named Gaya Lal changed three political parties in a few days or so. That is how the epithet, ‘Aya Ram Gaya Ram’ came into political currency.

The origin of the anti defection law goes back to 1967. From 1967-1971, in four years, 142 Members of Parliament changed their parties more than once. 1969 MLAs defected from one party to another. 212 defectors were made Ministers. 32 governments were brought down by defections.

In 1985, under the premiership of Rajiv Gandhi the anti defection law was brought in seamlessly as he had an unprecedented majority of over 400 Members of Parliament. The law was listed in the Tenth Schedule of the Constitution. The significant thing to note was that for the first time political parties were mentioned in the Constitution. The law stipulated, unless, one third of members left a party, it would not be regarded as a split and members defecting would be disqualified. In 2003, under Vajpayee government, the split in the party was changed to ‘merger.’ In order to merge into a new party, two thirds of the members had to take the party into another for merger. Defection became impossible as so many members were not easy to mobilize.

A new means of defection was found in toppling the government of Congress-JD(S) coalition. 17 MLAs defected from Congress to reduce the majority enabling BJP to form the government. All defector- MLAs joined BJP, contested by-elections, won and were made Ministers. The Speaker had ruled that the defector MLAs not contest elections for remainder of the term of the Assembly. The Supreme Court overruled saying there was no such provision in the Anti-Defection Law. Similar tactic was repeated in Madhya Pradesh Assembly to bring down the Kamal Nath led Congress government. The defectors did not face bye-election yet, but have been made ministers n the BJP government.

At the writing, the Rajasthan government led by the Congress party is attacked with the same weapon used in Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh. We will not know its fate until the Assembly session takes place.

Even the Governors are under cloud in the game of toppling governments. The Supreme Court had settled that the Governor has no discretionary powers in summoning sessions of an Assembly and is bound to act according to the aid and advice of the CM and the Council of Ministers to seek the trust vote etc. In Madhya Pradesh, Lalji Tandon, the Governor wanted a floor test whereas Kalraj Mishra, the Governor in Rajasthan, wanted to delay it despite requests from the CM and his Ministers.

The role of the Speakers became controversial. In Manipur, in 2019, the Speaker refused to disqualify a Congress MLA who supported the BJP- led coalition government. Congress had won the majority seats but could not form the government. Supreme Court observed on January 20, 2020 that the Speaker belongs to a ruling party; hence, other mechanism has to be devised to decide on defections.

The Supreme Court rulings and Constitutional Review Commissions point to further changes in the law. But it is pointless in view of the practices indulged in by the leaders. Defections will not stop. Amendments to the Anti-defection Law or any other provisions in the Constitution will not work unless we stick to ethical conduct. Legislators belong to a political party- its ethos, ethics and ideology. How can they suddenly give all that up, join a new party with different tradition and ideology? Either we accept that parties have no values or ideology, and politics is all about self-seeking opportunism or we feel proud of our parties- their values, culture and ideas.

So morality matters. Moralistic people do more than the law requires and less than it allows. Let us also remember the dictum in democracy; we get the government we deserve. If we want ethics to be upheld by our politicians, we must respect it in our lives and censure unethical practice by our leaders.

Prof. Giri is the Secretary General of Association of Democratic Socialism, New Delhi

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