Home / Opinion / The crisis of parliamentarism

The charade is familiar. A month or so before the start of a Parliament session, the opposition finds an “issue" to pin down the government. Then follows a build-up through prime-time vituperation and issuing of statements proclaiming adherence to some lofty principle—democracy, secularism or, as has been common in recent years, a tirade against corruption. On the eve of the session, the differences between opposition parties and the treasury benches are unbridgeable. The ritual of a pre-session all-party meeting is carried out with punctilio, but to no avail, and the country is repeatedly treated to the spectacle of washed-out sessions. Most bills that are passed do so with a minimum of debate or no debate at all. This is bad news for democracy.

This is not about this session or the last one. This has been the case for almost 15 years now, irrespective of the party in power. There may be an odd productive session but the overall trend is one of Parliament’s deterioration. The Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), not to mention the smaller parties, are all guilty. Not letting Parliament function is a cross-party phenomenon and from that perspective, the crisis of Indian parliamentarism has deeper political roots.

The representative nature of any parliament rests on intellectual foundations that are under threat now in many countries. The crisis is especially acute in India. Since the European revolutions of 1848, the core principle of parliamentarism has been the search for truth by discussion and debate. This is how Bentham, Burke, Guizot and Mill imagined parliament. Prior to that date, governments were run by monarchs and the decision-making apparatus functioned in secrecy. Debate and a shared search for truth were supposed to end secrecy and give teeth to the most representative part of the state. This idea could work well in Europe, which has a long history of freedom, all the way to ancient Greece. Even during its feudal interlude, the continent preserved a zone of liberation in cities.

India presents a sharp contrast. Before 1947, the country had an unbroken history of government untouched by any popular opinion. The idea of debate and discussion leading to truth is also alien to India. Yes, there is a strong Indian tradition of debate (talk) but one that was more about proving one’s point and remains remote from any European connotation of debate.

It is not surprising that the one level of Indian democracy, where there is no “instability" or “crisis" is that of the village panchayat. Historically, the village has been the site of caste oppression but by virtue of being remote from any political power it also possesses autonomy. For reasons of geographic isolation and meagre agricultural surpluses left after extraction by government, villages had little scope for any kind of ambitious politics. That remained the preserve of court and capital, and now Parliament. At the same time, the tradition of using government for gain—for individuals, factions or the party in power—has remained constant through India’s history. The combination of electoral and machine politics has reinforced this feature in a particularly bad way.

One can look at every law passed by parliament and discern the hand of some interest group, lobby or distributional coalition. Laws are now routinely passed after careful calculation of political gain to a party and not national interest. This may be considered naïve but then even the worst functioning democracy has to have some link between political survival of a government and the raison d’etre for a parliament. This link is weak in India.

The moment one leaves the village level and goes anywhere upward—from district elections to state assemblies and Parliament—a qualitative change takes place in the behaviour of representatives and parties, almost as if their political nature has changed for the worse. Why, then, should it surprise anyone to see a prime minister with a huge majority in the Lok Sabha at the mercy of a party with 44 members in the Lok Sabha? Or, for that matter, a prime minister being buffeted by the members of his unwieldy coalition?

The only equilibrium possible is one of brute majority in both Houses. Then there will be stability and order but the search for truth by discussion will remain an elusive ideal. Such parliamentary majorities have been seen in the past. In the age of Jawaharlal Nehru, such majorities were routine. But then Nehru was a liberal at heart who exhibited exemplary devotion to parliamentary duties. His willingness to debate even with backbenchers and, more importantly, listen to those in the opposition ensured that the Lok Sabha retained the intellectual foundation of parliamentarism. It takes a Nehru or an Atal Bihari Vajpayee to ensure this vitality and prevent Parliament from degenerating into naked machine politics.

It is facile to say that Indians don’t value democracy or that Parliament should be replaced with something else. Institutions persist even when their ability to deliver diminishes. That is the essence of a crisis. The Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha will persist but so will the vacuum at the apex of government.

Siddharth Singh is Editor (Views) at Mint. Reluctant Duelist takes stock of matters economic, political and strategic—in India and elsewhere—every fortnight.

Comments are welcome at siddharth.s@livemint.com. To read Siddharth Singh’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/reluctantduelist-

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