In 2017, Manipur’s Assembly elections threw up a hung house. In the 60-seat House, the Congress emerged the largest party with 28 seats – just three short of a clear majority. Inexplicably, the state governor, Najma Heptullah, invited the Bharatiya Janata Party government to form the government. This when it had only 21 seats.
This unusual decision by the governor set-off a domino effect of questionable decisions within the Manipuri assembly. As many as eight Congress MLAs defected from the Congress to the treasury benches. This in spite of the fact that India’s Constitution forbids defections as per an amendment made in 1985 – popularly known as the anti-defection law. The Congress asked the speaker to disqualify these MLAs.
As per law, disqualification should have meant dismissal from the House. However, the same conflict of interest that drove the governor also powered the speaker’s actions. In what is now a common strategy to skirt the anti-defection law, the speaker simply sat on the disqualification petitions – allowing the defectors to keep on functioning as members of the Manipur Assembly.
Matters reached the courts. On March 18, the Supreme Court barred one Congress MLA from entering the Legislative Assembly, and ruled that he would cease to be a minister immediately. With the MLA’s ability to vote nullified, the speaker at last took action and disqualified him. However, no similar action was taken for the seven other defectors.
On June 9, the Manipur High Court followed in the footsteps of the apex court and barred the seven from entering the House. Later the court also barred the speaker from ruling on the disqualifications until after the Rajya Sabha elections on Friday. Manipur elects one MP to the upper house of India’s parliament.
However, the Manipur speaker completely ignored the High Court’s orders – and as had been done since 2017, the democratic will of the Manipur Assembly was thwarted.
The speaker disqualified three Congress MLAs as well the state’s lone Trinamool Congress MLA ahead of the Rajya Sabha election – all of whom were expected to vote for the Congress Rajya Sabha candidate. Four other Congress MLAs were allowed to enter the House. Three of them voted for the BJP.
Eventually the BJP won the Rajya Sabha seat, getting 28 votes to the Congress’ 24 with eight absentantions. The result showed that the speaker’s machinations were critical for the result. The Rajya Sabha is supposed to reflect the will of the state assemblies – but in the case of the Manipur Rajya Sabha MP election, it was more a reflection of the speaker’s own political biases.
The incident highlights the failings of constitutional posts such as the governor and the speaker. Both are supposed to represent their official institutions and be politically non-partisan. But as is clear from this case – and countless others – this is not the case.
The incident highlights the complete failure of the anti-defection law to stop cynical defections in legislatures. In this case, every rule in the book was broken by the more powerful side – the BJP – to get its candidate elected. As is now clear, while the law has failed to fulfill its primary purpose of preventing defections, its side effects have been terrible, putting elected legislators under the control of unelected party high commands, stifling the genuine democratic voice of elected legislatures.