The day after the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance named him its vice-presidential candidate, M Venkaiah Naidu had declared that he now belonged to no political party. Resigning from the BJP, he had said on July 18, “I am fully aware of the responsibilities of the vice-president. I will uphold the traditions and standards set by [my] worthy predecessors.” Naidu was elected to the post on August 5.
Now, even before he presides over a Rajya Sabha session in his capacity as chairman of the Upper House, Naidu’s credentials as a neutral umpire will be put to the test following the decision of the Janata Dal (United) to seek the disqualification of its rebel MP Sharad Yadav.
Yadav, a Janata Dal (United) member of the Rajya Sabha, has raised a banner of revolt against his party after its president and Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar walked out of an alliance with the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Congress and aligned with the BJP in July. Since then, Yadav has been constantly seen in the company of Opposition leaders and has also declared that he will work with them to uproot the BJP. He has refused to toe the party line even after it removed him as its leader in the Rajya Sabha and suspended 21 leaders considered close to him. Yadav stayed away from the party’s national executive meeting on August 19. And on Sunday, August 27, he shared the stage with Nitish Kumar’s bête noire, Rashtriya Janata Dal chief Lalu Prasad, at a public meeting in Patna, despite being warned against it.
Taking a dim view of his actions and utterances, the Janata Dal (United) has decided to submit a petition to the vice-president to press for Yadav’s disqualification from the Rajya Sabha. Spokesperson KC Tyagi said the party had sufficient evidence to demand Yadav’s disqualification under the 10th Schedule of the Constitution, which has provisions for the disqualification of members of Parliament or state legislatures on grounds of defection. The 10th Schedule states that a member can be disqualified under two circumstances: one, if he or she voluntarily gives up membership of the party, and two, if a member fails to abide by the party directive in case of a vote in the House.
The Janata Dal (United) will seek Yadav’s disqualification on the grounds that his statements and actions clearly show that he has left the party voluntarily, party members said.
Voluntarily giving up party membership
According to Constitution expert Subhash Kashyap, a member can be disqualified if he resigns from the party or if his public conduct is deemed to be tantamount to “voluntarily giving up membership of a party”. He said it is for the presiding officer to decide what action or utterance of a member qualifies as giving up membership voluntarily.
In Ravi Naik versus Union of India in 1994, the Supreme Court had ruled: “Even in the absence of a formal resignation from membership, an inference can be drawn from the conduct of a member that he has voluntarily given up his membership of the political party to which he belongs.”
Political parties have argued over the years that this clause is loosely worded and open to wide interpretation. In this instance, any individual and not necessarily a political party can petition the presiding officer of the Lok Sabha or the Rajya Sabha against a member. Several court orders have maintained that a member can be disqualified if he extends public support to another party or opposes his own party. The petitioner can submit newspaper reports as evidence to buttress his case.
Although the law had laid down that the presiding officer’s decision in anti-defection cases would be final, the Supreme Court subsequently held that it was open to judicial review. The final decision, it was stated, would be subject to the appeal in court.
Naidu’s course of action
The petition against Sharad Yadav will be decided by Naidu on these parameters. The new vice-president will need to tread carefully and ensure that he goes by the book to avoid the charge of being biased in favour of the ruling alliance.
However, Naidu can fall back on several precedents while reviewing this case. In 2008, for instance, Lok Sabha Speaker Somnath Chatterjee had disqualified three Bahujan Samaj Party members of the House on the grounds that they had voluntarily given up their membership of the party and defected to the Samajwadi Party. Chatterjee had based his decision on material produced by the Bahujan Samaj Party, which included newspaper reports and video clips to prove that speeches made by the three members favoured the Samajwadi Party and were, therefore, tantamount to “voluntarily giving up their membership of the BSP”.
As his party builds a strong case for his disqualification, Sharad Yadav remains unfazed. He has said that he belongs to the “real Janata Dal (United)” and has petitioned the Election Commission staking claim to the party name, flag and symbol. He is also going ahead with his joint public appearances with Opposition leaders. Following up on his Sanjhi Virasat Bachao (saving the country’s composite culture) programme in Delhi on August 17, which was attended by a host of Opposition leaders, he organised a second chapter in Indore on Wednesday. The meeting was attended by Congress leaders Anand Sharma and Digvijaya Singh among others. In fact, Yadav is emerging as a fulcrum of Opposition unity and is set to be the convenor of a proposed coordination committee of Opposition parties that will plan programmes and policies in the run-up to the general elections in 2019.