The unmaking of Parliament

The Hindu, December 19, 2016

Representative democracy is the only form of democracy that enables a relationship between the citizen and the state, provided our representatives do what they are supposed to be doing in Parliament.

The Indian Parliament meets, the Indian Parliament ceases to meet, and there is nary an impact of these meetings/non-meetings on the democratic discourse in the country. Newspaper columns rue the waste of time and money, commentators complain about the clatter and ear-splitting clamour in Parliament, analysts regret that widening of the social base of the body has not resulted in meaningful legislation or responsible legislators, legal minds register the shift to law-making by ordinance, and most Indians find Parliament irrelevant to the needs of the day.

The chaos and the paradox

Why should they not find it so? The Opposition focusses on denigrating the government rather than engaging with policies, the government hardly bothers to reply, political theatrics replace calm, reflective and reasoned debate, and the Prime Minister prefers to speak directly to existing and potential voters. What Jawaharlal Nehru termed the ‘majesty’ of Parliament is insistently, systematically and repeatedly desecrated. Is not democracy also subverted in the process?

The paradox is that generalised loss of confidence in representative institutions has not led to disenchantment with democracy. Surveys show that Indians value democracy. They value democracy because this form of government has enabled them to realise the primordial desire of each human being to be treated as an equal, at least during election time. Over the years, we see the making of a body politic shaped by democratic imaginings, and struggles to attain equality and dignity. Elections are marked by high voter turnouts, voters exercise freedom of choice and elect and dismiss governments in often unpredictable ways.

The biography of India’s democracy validates confidence in the maturity of the political public. The Motilal Nehru Constitutional Draft recommended adult suffrage for both men and women as far back as 1928, the very year women finally got the vote in England. “We,” held the report, “attach no weight to the objections based on the prevailing illiteracy of the masses and their lack of political experience… Political experience can only be acquired by an active participation in political institutions and does not entirely depend on literacy. There should be equal opportunities available to all to acquire this experience.” The belief, which was reiterated in the Constituent Assembly, underscored the competence of ordinary women and men to participate in political deliberations. Simply put, politics is too important an activity to be left to professional politicians.

In eighteenth century France, the great defender of direct democracy, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, wrote that sovereignty “lies essentially in the general will, and will does not admit of representation: it is either the same or the other; there is no intermediate possibility”. But direct democracy can hardly be practised in large and complex societies. In market-oriented societies, dominated as they are by the imperative of ‘need satisfaction’, citizens cannot afford to put aside the time and energy-consuming task of earning their daily bread, and participate whole-time in an activity called politics. Besides modern citizens, unlike ancient Athenians, value and guard their personal spaces, their vocation, their interests, their social life, and their privacy. For these reasons and more, democracy requires a third set of political agents to mediate between the first two sets: the citizen and the state. This is the representative.

To stand in

Whereas the status of the citizen as the primary unit of political society is incontrovertible, the status of the representative is derivative. Voters authorise representatives to speak and act on their behalf. Notably, the representative does not speak for individuals, her duty is to ensure that the opinions, interests and needs of constituents are adequately, competently and effectively represented in forums of decision-making. Representatives are obliged to perform the functions that they have been charged with, notably to assist in the production of appropriate policies. Finally, the representative is accountable to her constituency for all acts of omission and commission. In theory, citizens have command over who they want to be represented by, and what issues representatives, normally members of political parties, should represent.

Civil society in India is inhabited by a large number of organisations, the media, social associations, neighbourhood groups, all kinds of professional lobbies, non-governmental and non-profit organisations, philanthropic bodies, social and political movements, and trade unions. Each of them claims to represent the interests of their members. Political representatives, however, possess three advantages over other modes of representation. One, they represent all the members of a territorially delimited constituency, as opposed to say trade unions. Two, political representatives are accountable to their constituents via the route of election. And three, the party representative acquires legitimacy by the fact that she has been elected by the people whose interests she is charged with representing and furthering. Representative democracy is not perfect, it is flawed, but it is the only form of democracy that enables a relationship between the citizen and the state, provided our representatives do what they are supposed to be doing in Parliament.

Parliament makes laws, ensures accountability of the government, and considers and scrutinises legislation through the committee system. But above all, Parliament provides a forum and establishes procedures for reflection on, and critical engagement with, what has been done, and what needs to be done in the light of popular expectations. Representatives are expected to ‘stand in’ for their constituents, even as they keep in mind that they are in Parliament to promote the public good, and not for advancing petty, grasping projects.
This is the job of representatives, the reason for which they have been elected, the source of their power and privilege, the rationale for their very existence. This is no small matter we are discussing, says Socrates in Plato’s Republic, we are discussing how we should live. The deliberative aspect of Parliament is no small matter, nor is it just another function of the body. Deliberation, by way of representation of different points of view, is an indispensable component of how we, as a collective, should live. For policies generated by the parliamentary process establish a framework for the transaction of all manners of projects in different settings.

A sharp decline

It is precisely this aspect of our Parliament that has visibly gone missing. The failure of the body to deliberate on the public good is condemnable. Telecasts showed empty benches in the Rajya Sabha on the opening day of the winter session of Parliament. It made for a sorry spectacle. Some members delivered excellent speeches on the benefits, or the lack thereof, of demonetisation. But parliamentarians simply could not be bothered to listen to or participate in a debate on what misery an ill-thought-out action had caused their own constituents.

The sharp decline in the effectiveness of Parliament, its failure to monitor the executive, delegation of power to non-representative regulatory institutions, the substitution of deal-making for informed arguments, the rushing through of legislation without discussion, and the increasing concentration of power in the hands of the executive, has been commented on extensively. Of overriding concern is the wilting of the representative and deliberative functions of the body.

If India wishes to hold on to her democratic credentials, parliamentarians must recognise that the task of representing the opinions, interests and needs of citizens is their paramount responsibility. Nehru, in a famous speech he made in the Lok Sabha on March 28, 1957, had said that historians will not pay much attention to the time expended on speeches, or the number of questions asked and answered in Parliament. They will be interested in the deeper things that go into the making of a nation.

There is no higher responsibility than to be a member of this sovereign body responsible for the fate of vast numbers of human beings. “Whether we are worthy of it or not is another matter.” Our Parliamentarians have proved unworthy of the great responsibility bestowed on them. This is the political tragedy of our democracy.

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