Can the downslide in the temple of democracy be reversed?

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The Indian Parliament has witnessed a steady decline in the standards of working in the past decade. There is an urgent need to arrest this downtrend and restore the sanctity of the temple of democracy, writes Dr. P M Kamath.

Over the last 67 years, it is a well established fact that over the years the working of the Indian Parliament has steadily declined. The decline was gradual initially, but since the beginning of the 21st century, it has become very obvious and significant. Vinay Sahasrabuddhe in his book, Beyond a Billion Ballots: Democratic Reforms for a Resurgent India, categorically states that there is a decline in the parliamentary conduct of its multifarious business. This article will try to discuss the topic at two levels: First how parliamentary executive contributed to the decline of Parliament and second, how Parliament—mainly it’s lower house, Lok Sabha itself contributed to the decline. The entire issue will be seen in three phases: The glorious phase, second, how gradual decline in the stature of Indian Parliament set in, and finally how it has become obvious in the 21st century. Can we, as a nation consciously make an effort to reverse the trend?

Glorious past

During the initial years, in retrospect, for first 17 years of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru (1947-1964), in particular, till the Chinese aggression of October 1962, the Prime Minister was conscious of the need to set good precedents to see that the Parliamentary system took to deep roots. In this effort, the aura of freedom movement helped in maintaining fairly high standards of parliamentary behaviour. In the beginning (1947- 1952) the Constituent Assembly doubled up as the Parliament; later 10 years (1952-1962) a large number of Members of Parliament (MP), who were members of the Constituent Assembly, continued in the Parliament. They were highly educated, and from economically better off sections of India who had joined national freedom movement driven solely by nationalism.

It included eminent men like Pandit Nehru, Sardar Patel, Maulana Azad, Dr. Rajendra Prasad, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, Acharya Kripalani, Minoo Masani, H. V. Kamath, Prof. K. T. Shah and Prof. Shibban Lal Saxena among 207 members. Parliamentary debates were marked by high respect for each other. Members accepted differing opinions. These men did not hesitate to criticise PM, Nehru or each other. But minority on a proposition always deferred to the majority opinion despite their differences.

One at least can recall two such issues. First, some members, like Prof. Shah and H. V. Kamath advocated India adopting Presidential form of government, while a majority was in favour of Parliamentary form. Second, Nehru favoured not using nuclear energy for destructive purposes. But Prof. Saxena and H. V. Kamath wanted India to acquire scientific power of making atomic weapons before denouncing its use. But there was no acrimony, and Nehru sat through the entire debate in the House, sometimes complimented the MPs, for their views. Nehru believed in having “a strong opposition.” Indian President, Pranab Mukherjee delivering the Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Lecture in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in January 2014 on “Nehru and Parliamentary Democracy” said that “Nehru was against banning of the Communist Party even though he was against its policies. He wanted that it should be countered by normal legal processes.”

Decline creeps in

Nehru’s philosophy was however, not shared by Indira Gandhi, Nehru’s daughter who was elected the President of the Congress Party in 1959. Earlier the Communist Party of India (CPI) led by E.M.S. Namboodiripad had won a majority in April 1957 general elections in Kerala. It was not acceptable to Indira Gandhi and she manoeuvred levers in the federal government, though Nehru was opposed, to secure the dismissal of the first ever Communist government under Article 356, in July 1959, a first ever misuse of the constitutional provision.

This decision of Nehru was widely criticised by the opinion makers in India. It was alleged that the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) funded the anti-communist agitation. It could be believed as the then American Ambassador in India, Ellsworth Bunker’s biography stated that Kerala’s “election results rang alarm bells in Washington, DC.” For me it is further indirectly confirmed by the fact that in President Eisenhower Library in Abilene, Kansas there was a file on Congress President, Indira Gandhi; was not declassified despite my written request twice—once in 1977 and again in 1987.

Bending and breaking of parliamentary norms

The decline of parliamentary system can be considered at two levels: First executive branch tampering with the role of Parliament; and second, Parliament itself behaving in undignified and un-parliamentary manner. Executive flouting of the written Constitution, conventions and democratic norms governing the parliamentary government and its sustaining political institutions, was largely initiated by Indira Gandhi as she became the third PM of India in 1966. Then the processes of politics and governance were narrowly aimed only at self-aggrandisement, promotion, and enrichment of self and family, not only by the leader but also by all those who extended blind support to her, under ideological cover of ‘left’ as opponents were branded ‘right’. She first achieved the total control of the Congress Party then the federal government. In 1969 the All India National Congress was split by Mrs. Gandhi to have organisational control as an instrument to run the parliamentary government. That reduced her parliamentary support forcing her to depend upon communists. Her opponents came to be known as the Congress (O) while the faction led by Mrs. Gandhi perfectly indicating the heart and soul of the Party as the Congress (I)—I indicating Indira! Irrespective of who assumed party presidency, she was the party High Command. Thus began a trend of High Command nominating the members of the Congress Working Committee, presidents of party’s district and state units; selecting chief ministers of state legislatures controlled by her party.

No longer there is any respect to the essence of democratic norm: discuss, debate, defer and decide. Everyone criticises today but majority leadership rarely accepts the critical suggestions of leaders in opposition; and opposition is least interested in offering alternative ideas while being critical of the government.

With this well arranged control of the party machinery and the government, she held general elections in 1971 on one slogan of removal of poverty (Garibi Hatao) and won twothirds of majority in the Parliament. The elected MPs owed their seats to her charisma. Her victory in December 1971 war with Pakistan over the birth of Bangladesh only made the Time Magazine to describe her ‘Empress of India’ while Atal Behari Vajpayee described her as the Goddess Durga!

MPs appointed as ministers, members of constitutional committees and members of Congress organisational bodies at states and districts were ignored in preference to bureaucrats in the Prime Minister’s Secretariat (PMS). They excelled in their belief that ideas without backup action on the ground could increase the popularity of their supreme leader. People with their ear to the ground—be the ministers, MPs, state chief ministers and leaders were made to wait by the bureaucrats at their ante-chambers in the PMS.

Debilitating impact on Parliament In a nutshell, the result was growing corruption, lack of responsiveness and accountability of the rulers. That invited the JP (Jay Prakash) movement, eventually leading Mrs Gandhi to impose National Emergency under the provisions governing imposition of internal emergency under article 352 wherein because of internal disturbances government cannot be run according to the provisions of the Constitution. It was done without cabinet approval. The period saw suspension of fundamental rights, censorship and highest judiciary was packed with ‘yes men’ who would toe the executive line. During the period of destruction of parliamentary democracy, all the plans were to perpetuate Mrs. Gandhi’s dictatorship. It was openly propagated by the Congress Party under its president, D. K. Barooh that “Indira is India, India is Indira.” Though 21 months’ later emergency was lifted; new elections were held that denied power to Mrs. Gandhi, it left Indian democracy fragile; parliamentary institutions weak and political system fragmented. After a brief interlude of the Janata Party rule, in 1980 Mrs. Gandhi came back to power and ruled till her assassination in October 1984.

Mrs. Gandhi’s 16 years of dominance as the PM had a debilitating effect on the Parliament. It will not be an exaggeration to say that Mrs. Gandhi took the Parliament for granted during this period. During the Bangladesh war, Mrs. Gandhi, for instance, signed the Indo-Soviet Peace and Friendship treaty to checkmate China. She informed the Parliament one hour before actually signing it. During the emergency, it has been rightly said that if only 60 members of the ruling party in Parliament had joined the opposition in rejecting the Emergency Proclamation, Indian democracy today would have been different.

From post-Emergency to 21st century

During this period governments with the exception of 10 years of Rajiv Gandhi (1984-1989) and Narasimha Rao (1991- 1996) have been what is loosely called as coalition governments, have seen a growing trend of decline in parliamentary behaviour of the MPs. With increasing political fragmentation within the Parliament, smaller a faction inside the Parliament, greater the members’ proneness to play to the gallery, a necessary evil of live coverage of proceedings in the Parliament. Some of the more evident disgusting demonstration of lack of respect for parliamentary rules and conventions can be briefly mentioned here with remedial measures. First, indiscipline amongst the MPs has increased. MPs running to the Speaker ’s chair, snatching away microphone, papers, destruction of furniture, using them for hitting rivals has become too common to illustrate.

Yet, a nadir was reached on 14 February 2014 during the introduction of the bill to create Telangana state by dividing the present Andhra. Blows were exchanged between pro and anti MPs; pepper spray was used and Watch and Ward staff recovered a can of inflammable liquid from an MP. Four MPs were taken to hospital. These incidents in Lok Sabha were in no way different from ordinary people’s behaviour on streets!

Though 16 MPs were suspended, they should have been expelled and debarred from contesting any polls for a minimum period of six years. Precedents were already there. In 2005, 11 MPs were expelled for accepting money for raising question in Parliament. Even Nehru had expelled a Congress MP, Mudgal for corruption in 1951. MPs need to compulsorily undergo training to inculcate discipline, faith in dignified behaviour and ought to take a vow not to behave in a non-parliamentary manner. It should be a priori part of accepted parliamentary behaviour that any violation of the rule should result in appropriate punishment irrespective of party affiliation, including expulsion.

Second, there is an increasing trend on the part of MPs to use disruption of proceedings as the means to demonstrate their opposition to the proposition on the part of the ruling coalition. No longer there is any respect to the essence of democratic norm: discuss, debate, defer and decide. Everyone criticises today but majority leadership rarely accepts the critical suggestions of leaders in opposition; and opposition is least interested in offering alternative ideas while being critical of the government.

Since opposition parties have no faith in their own abilities to convince how the alternative they suggest is in the national interest, not permitting government to function is considered as democratic means to their political goals. President Pranab Mukherjee cites the time lost by Lok Sabhas in terms of percentage: XII-11.93, XIII-18.95, XIV-19.58, and just ended XV, 37.77(up to 14 sessions). As a result nothing much gets transacted in the Lok Sabha: in 1952-1957 it held 677 sittings and 319 bills were approved. But the last XV Lok Sabha had 427 sittings and only 185 bills were approved. Increasingly, many essential measures are passed like national budget or defence budget without any discussion.

However, in conclusion, it should be added that the above painting of a dismal picture, should not lead any readers to discredit the Parliamentary system in India, but force their area politicians to ponder over seriously to arrest any further slide in behaviour of elected bodies.


politics-writer

Dr. P M Kamath.

The writer is Former Professor of Politics, University of Bombay; currently, Director, VPM’s Centre for International Studies (Regd), Mumbai and Adjunct Professor, Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal University, Manipal. His book on India-China Relations for Asian Century (Gyan, 2011) deals with some issues raised in this article.

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