On 14 June this year, Rana Kanwar Pal Singh, the speaker of the Punjab Legislative Assembly, and a member of the Congress party, nominated state legislators to various committees of the house for the coming year. Five among them were elected to the house as members of the Aam Aadmi Party, in 2017, but had subsequently resigned from the party. These members have since not been re-elected to the assembly till date, and yet, the speaker had assigned each of them to different assembly committees. Four days later, Sukhbir Singh Badal, the president of the Shiromani Akali Dal, criticised the speaker’s decision, noting that it was against all “rules of ethics and morality.”
Badal’s criticism is rooted in the Tenth Schedule of the Constitution, or the anti-defection law, which seeks to prevent legislators from crossing over to other parties under the lure of securing an office. It states that any member who leaves a political party or takes a public position against their party can be understood to have “voluntarily given up their membership” of the legislative body. In such a case, another legislator of the house can submit a complaint to the speaker. The speaker is then supposed to give the concerned member a chance to submit an explanation, and refer the matter to the state legislature’s committee of privileges, if required. In effect, the speaker has the power to disqualify the member from the legislature on grounds of defection.
According to the official website of the Punjab legislative assembly’s speaker, the office bearer is “looked upon as the true guardian of the traditions of parliamentary democracy.” But the disqualification proceedings of the five members of legislative assembly from the AAP whom Rana nominated—Sukhpal Khaira, Baldev Singh, HS Phoolka, Amarjit Singh Sandoha and Nazar Singh Manshahia—to the house committees remain incomplete. Till these cases are resolved, the constituencies of these MLAs will not hold bypolls to elect new representatives. When I asked Rana if a decision in these matters will be taken before the next session of the assembly—due to take place in September—he said, “No.”
This is not the first time that a speaker of the Punjab legislative assembly has allowed legislators to evade disqualification. In October 2010, Manpreet Singh Badal, the nephew of Prakash Singh Badal, then the chief minister, was expelled from the SAD on charges of anti-party activities. Manpreet was the MLA from Punjab’s Gidderbaha constituency at that time. Around six months later, he floated his own political party, the People’s Party of Punjab, and then submitted his resignation from the house to its speaker. But Manpreet continued to be Gidderbaha’s representative on the floor of the house without having to contest re-election.
The same year, the veteran politician Bir Devinder Singh also quit the SAD to join Manpreet’s PPP. Bir Devinder said that the PPP members would ask Manpreet to “keep the sanctity of the PPP” but “Badal’s nephew kept enjoying this undue privilege.” As a result there was no bypoll, and elections were held for Gidderbaha along with other constituencies of the state at the end of the assembly’s term, in January 2012. Manpreet’s party has since merged with the Congress, and he is now the state’s finance minister. I called him multiple times for a comment, but was unable to reach him.