The cross voting in the recent Rajya Sabha elections has annoyed a lot of people. They are more annoyed with the BJP than with the Congress because it’s the ruling party at the Centre. Neutral people have thrown their hands up saying all political parties are the same.

Much has also been said and written about voter behaviour. The consensus is that those who voted against their party’s candidates were somehow induced to do so and were horrible anyway.

The tacit assumption is that the inducement was either a carrot or a stick or, for some poor hapless MLA, both. The idea that he or she might have voted of his or or her own free will is not countenanced even for a brief moment.

Economic and political theorists have been thinking about voter behaviour for a very long time.

The first published work was in 1783. It was by a French aristocrat called Marquis de Condorcet.

Basically, said Condorcet, individual preferences can be paradoxical when A is preferred to B; B is preferred to C; and C is preferred to A!

Logically, A should be preferred to C. The debate went on for the next 175 years.

Free will versus whips

Central to this idea was free will, of which Condorcet was a great advocate. 175 years later an American economist, Anthony Downs, took the debate to its logical conclusion. It can often happen, he said, that the cost of voting in a particular way exceeds its benefits.

Thus in Himachal and Karnataka the costs of not defying the party whip could well have exceeded defying it. Hence the cross voting.

The problem here, of course, is that while we know what the cost of defiance is — eviction as an MLA — we don’t know what the benefits are. Hence the presumption that it was the carrot, stick or both.

Nor do we know what the benefits of obeying the party whip were. They were probably negligible which is why they chose to bear the costs of expulsion.

In other words, it’s futile to howl about democracy, morality, ideology, discipline and so on. In the end it’s free will exercised after a careful consideration of costs and benefits that matters.

Hence a huge problem: the party whip. This is the very opposite of democracy and free will because it forces an MLA or MP to disregard costs altogether. That’s completely unrealistic.

True, expulsion from the house and the party is a huge cost. But what were the benefits of staying on? This is precisely where the Congress failed when it didn’t make the benefits clear to the voters while the BJP probably explained both the costs and the benefits.

Whips and whippers

The practice of issuing whips has been a subject of debate ever since it was started about 350 years ago. The case for it is that it prevents voting anarchy. The case against it is that the exercise of free will isn’t anarchical.

Another issue is whether what’s important for parties is also important for legislation. Why can’t an elected legislator vote against a bad law or candidate being proposed by his party? Would not the absence of whips make things altogether more democratic?

It’s here that even highly democratic countries start behaving like highly undemocratic ones. The individual isn’t allowed to vote as he or she wants to.

In India the anti-defection law has embedded this undemocratic practice in the Constitution. The prime minister who did it was the father of a person who is now harping on the threats to India’s democracy.