Kevin Spacey, Chief Whip and protagonist, in Netflix's House of Cards
Kevin Spacey, Chief Whip and protagonist, in Netflix's House of CardsReuters

As the queues outside banks continue to get longer and temperatures dip across North India, the heat is rising within both Houses of Parliament in India's capital, New Delhi.

Demonetisation is the only debate that the opposition wants whereas the ruling NDA (led by the BJP) is clearly in no mood to back down. Amidst this backdrop, both parties have issued Whips to their members to be present in Parliament and participate in the debate before the Winter session ends on December 16.

So, what is a Whip? Or, more pertinent, who is a Whip in a political party?

Much of India's political system is inherited from the British parliamentary system but the origins of the Whip go back and lie outside this domain. In fact, the term originates from the colonial and aristocratic hobby of hunting where the term whipper-in refers to "a huntsman's assistant who keeps the chasing hounds from straying away by driving them back with the whip into the main body of the pack" (Oxford English Dictionary). In the 18th century, the usage of Whip was extended to Britain's House of Lords and simply meant someone who ensured that straying Members of Parliament fell in line with their party's directives.

In India, too, the Chief Whip of a party has to issue a diktat that its members must follow. Representatives in the Rajya Sabha and the Lok Sabha have to abide by the disciplinary measures outlined by their Whip and not deviate from the directions the party takes on issues or on votes against, or for, a motion. There are, however, a few exceptions such as the election of the Indian President where members cannot be 'whipped'.

The Chief Whip of the Indian National Congress (INC) is Jyotiraditya Scindia whereas the BJP Chief Whip is Rakesh Singh, MP from Jabalpur. In the Rajya Sabha, Union Home Affairs Minister, Rajnath Singh, is the BJP's Chief Whip whereas Shantaram Naik and E.M. Sudarsana Natchiappan are listed as the Congress Party's Whips on the party's website. In their hands lie the responsibility of making sure that all their MPS are present to debate and discuss not just demonetisation but also the implementation of GST which is in danger of being delayed amidst the ongoing cash crisis. Despite President Pranab Mukherjee scolding politicians to uphold the tradition of democratic debates, adamant netas on both sides are unwilling to let go of their demands. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has led the opposition in a rare show of unity even though her Bihar counterpart, Nitish Kumar, refused to be by her side.

Interestingly, for Netflix addicts, the best-known Chief Whip is Kevin Spacey who plays Frank Underwood, the protagonist in House of Cards. While it is unlikely that any of the Whips in Indian politics will emerge as powerful as he is in the TV series, the fact is that this is one of those moments when they are all-powerful.