The Punjab assembly’s speaker has made a mockery of the anti-defection law

Rana KP Singh (right), the Punjab assembly speaker, and Manpreet Badal (left), the state’s finance minister, during the oath-taking ceremony of the house, in March 2017. Keshav Singh/Hindustan Times/Getty Images
22 June, 2019

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.

Sukhpal Khaira, the AAP MLA from Bolath, justified his own membership to the house, even though it has been six months since he resigned from the party, by invoking Manpreet’s case. In January this year, Khaira quit the AAP to form the Punjab Ekta Party. The same month, Baldev Singh, the MLA from Jaitu, also resigned from the AAP to join the PEP. Rana, the speaker, subsequently issued a notice to Khaira, seeking an explanation from him within 15 days. Rana then accused him of evading the notice. When I asked Khaira why he did not resign from the AAP after launching his own party, he said, “The people of my Bholath constituency had elected me to work for them.”

Khaira sent his resignation to the speaker on 25 April, to contest the Lok Sabha elections from the Bathinda constituency. Baldev Singh also contested the election from the Faridkot constituency. Both of them lost, but remain MLAs in Punjab. On 14 June, the speaker nominated Khaira as a member of the state legislature’s committee on papers laid before the house, and Baldev as a member of the committee on government assurances. Baldev said the speaker had given him time until 20 August to submit an explanation for switching political parties. When I asked Baldev if he planned to resign from the house, he said, “Let me see to it … I will surely attend the next Vidhan Sabha session.”

The former AAP member HS Phoolka’s case has not been resolved for more than eight months now. Phoolka, a lawyer who was elected as the MLA from the Dakha constituency in 2017, resigned from the assembly in October 2018 over the state government’s inaction towards its leaders for their involvement in incidents of sacrilege of the Guru Granth Sahib. In January this year, he resigned from the AAP. He told the media that he believed converting the anti-corruption movement into a political party was “wrong.” But Phoolka’s resignation from the house has still not been accepted. He even attended the budget session of the assembly in February 2019. The next month, Rana told the Times of India that Phoolka’s case has been sent to the advocate general for legal advice. On 14 June, the speaker nominated Phoolka as a member of the state legislature’s committee on subordinate legislation.

The two other former AAP MLAs who remain in the assembly—Amarjit Singh Sandoha, the MLA from Rupnagar, and Nazar Singh Manshahia, the MLA from Mansa—have now joined the Congress. They defected shortly before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections in the state . Dinesh Chadha, a social activist, filed a petition to the speaker, seeking Sandoha’s dismissal. Chadha wrote, “You were also present on that occasion when he joined. So you already have information regarding this defection.” Manshahia told me that the speaker has called him for a meeting to explain the switch on 31 July. Sandoha and Manshahia have been nominated to the committee of privileges and the library committee, respectively. When I asked Rana about these cases, he said that they are “under consideration.”