There is much that is wrong with the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government. Its management of the Indian economy has been disastrous; its track record of governance, abysmal; its foreign policy, lacklustre. As has been argued before in these pages, it suffers from an acute loss of credibility. But one thing that cannot be questioned is its right to formulate and implement policies, untrammelled as a legally elected government.
Equally, in any democracy, it is the right of the opposition to question the government. And that right, and it is a right, too, is absolute. Yet, what the opposition is doing now betrays a lack of patience on its part. Large sections of the opposition, and even supporters of the government, have opposed foreign direct investment (FDI) in the retail sector. This includes parties such as the Trinamool Congress —the moving spirit behind a possible no-confidence motion in Parliament—the Left parties and the Samajwadi Party, among others. Their right to demand a debate on the subject in Parliament, however ill-informed from an economic perspective it may be, is quite normal.
But these parties want something else: they want the government to heed the “sense of the House”. In other words, if Parliament collectively disapproves of any executive measure, the government should not proceed with it. This is a positively dangerous development. This argument was first made during the debate on the Indo-US civil nuclear deal. It is now being repeated in the case of FDI in retail.
Apart from the fact it betrays a lack of understanding of separation of powers between the executive, the judiciary and the legislature this is a step in the direction of institutionalizing policy paralysis. Today, it is the UPA government that is being cramped on this count; in the years ahead, it could be a different government. That way, the ability of governments to execute policies they have a mandate for will be constricted, to the country’s detriment.
It is no one’s case that illegal acts (say, a government taking bribes to change policy or give required permissions for investments) be condoned in the name of executive authority. But the forum for halting those adverse measures is the judiciary and not Parliament. India finds itself in a situation of severe institutional imbalances. There are reasons why the polity has evolved in that direction. But these are not blind Darwinian proceedings: politics allow rational action. It will be in the country’s best interest if its leaders choose that course and eschew senseless opposition.
Should Parliament have a veto over government policies?