Democracy is a system of government by compromises and accommodation.
The much-delayed Winter Session of Parliament has commenced. To me it looks all but over, bar the shouting. There is much that must and will not be discussed. Rafale. The proposed FRDI Bill. GST implementation. The social and economic cost of demonetisation. Rural distress. The adivasi unrest. Events in Nepal. China’s FTA with the Maldives. These issues will typically be left to be discussed on TV and perhaps settled on the streets. Parliament is no longer the place where substantial matters of public interest are discussed or settled.
With Parliament now largely dysfunctional, governance standards are falling precipitously. The education and healthcare systems are in shambles. Local government has all but collapsed. All this while the cost of government has been climbing, to account for almost eight per cent of GDP. We are well on the way to becoming a democracy without discussion. The blight has been a long time in the making, and Parliament has become a place more for theatre than thoughtful consideration of the nation’s many problems. Our democracy seems in its winter.
Democracy is a system of government by compromises and accommodation. That is why it’s called a reconciliatory system, where the myriad aspirations of individuals, groups, regions and nations are sought to be reconciled towards a common good. It is hence a government by discussion and debate, for the method of making choices is by common consent and acceptance. A prime prerequisite for democratic functioning is institutional order and coherence. Unfortunately, what we have been witnessing in the recent past is the collapse of institutional order and coherence. Parliament is where these aspirations are intended to be reconciled, but our Parliament has become increasingly dysfunctional.
Politics in India has been becoming increasingly adversarial and anything goes as long as it accrues to the gains of the adversaries. Imagine a game of chess where instead of two sides – black and white – we have one more side, say in red, playing on a three-sided board. The objective of each of the players would be to destroy the pawns and powers of the other sides and capture their kings. Now complicate this a bit more. The rules of the game could allow any two sides to combine for a certain length of time against the third or any other combination. This game then gets very complex with the colours switching sides at will to make gains. When one colour is extinguished, the two left have the space to fight to the finish without looking sideways.
The Indian political system might very well have more than three colours. But we can see three major sides in the political spectrum for now. These are the BJP, Congress and the loose alliance of the ex-Janata Dal factions and regional parties, commonly called the third front. Now we have a fourth adjunct as well.
The evolution of our politics into a non-ideological political competition has seen the demise of discussion and debate in Parliament. The evolution of 24x7 television news channels and their vacuous talk shows aimed at garnering TRPs rather than spreading light has only accelerated this process. Parliament still meets and passes bills and enacts laws, but most of this is done without the debate and discussion they need and we expect. Even the Union Budget is barely discussed. The defence budget has not been discussed for years now. Parliament even functions without quorums most of the time. It has become just a theatre for the political factions to posture and win support in the vast outside.
One has to look beyond sundry ambitions of individual politicians for this dysfunction. There are serious institutional flaws in our parliamentary system too. The office of the Speaker of the Lok Sabha is modelled after the English Speaker, who by convention disaffiliates from the party and takes strictly a non-partisan attitude when managing the House of Commons. But in India, with its rather lesser regard for convention, the Speaker continues to be a party hack and works closely with the government that chose him or her to further the party’s political agenda. It is little wonder then that the Speaker, despite the show of deference and frequent reference by MPs, actually commands little authority to control the House. On the other hand, the Opposition members often feel stonewalled because of the Speaker’s political affiliations.
This is perhaps why the Lok Sabha ever so often witnesses so much disorder and willful disobedience. This convention of having a Speaker from within must be re-examined and we might be better served by having Parliament presided over by an eminent and widely trusted individual, perhaps like a retired Chief Justice, who might bring a more enlightened view of right and wrong to the office. And more importantly, endow the office of Speaker with authority as well, instead of just power.
Then there is the Anti-Defection Act that seriously limits free discussion by muzzling inner-party discussion and expression of dissent. This law disrespects the essential reality that Members of Parliament or the legislatures are representatives of the people. That they are members of a political party is only incidental. The elected members are intended to represent and protect the interests of the people who voted for them and not that of a handful of leaders. It makes them subservient to the whip on the pain of expulsion. This tyranny of the whip has made MPs marionettes that are forced to act according to the wishes of the party leadership. Most party leaderships are now vested within families and clans, and leadership is hereditary or extra-institutional
So where do we go from here? And where will we discuss and debate just that?