Today's Editorial

22 January 2017

Why Indian democracy fails to make the grade


Source: By Debasish Bhattacharyya: The Statesman


The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) presented the first ever Global Parliamentary Report (GPR) in 2012 and the next report - scheduled for 2016 - is expected any time soon. While GPR 2012 examined the changing nature of parliamentary representation, the soon-to-be-released GPR will reportedly look at how effective parliament is in carrying out its constitutional role to hold government to account. It’s highly unlikely that the forthcoming report will have any reflections on what had happened in the recently-concluded winter session of the Indian Parliament.

In any case, the record of legislative business of winter session is not worth mentioning; making it one of the least productive sessions in the last 15 years. On the demonetisation issue in the month-long session, according to PRS Legislative Research, less than 1 per cent of the 330 questions listed for Question Hour in the Rajya Sabha were answered orally. And, it was somehow better in Lok Sabha where 11 per cent of the questions could be answered orally. However, none of the 19 Bills listed at the beginning of the session for consideration and passage could be passed.

GPR 2012 with extensive inputs from 73 parliaments across the world and 663 randomly selected parliamentarians highlighted the ways in which parliaments around the world are responding to public expectations. The report noted “Parliaments in most parts of the world appear to appreciate the need to find ways of improving public perceptions of the institution and are implementing a range of initiatives designed to enhance the relationship between parliaments and voters. These tend to be characterized by a desire to make the institution open, transparent and inclusive of public opinion while simultaneously increasing popular understanding and appreciation of parliament’s role.”

Against this background, questions about our takeaways from the report emerge. Also how significant is India's unflinching commitment to democracy. While India with its enormous cultural diversity is recognized as the largest democracy of the world, the country fares poorly when it comes to accountability and responsiveness to public concerns and service and delivery to meet citizens’ needs. How then can our Parliament encourage those 190 countries that have some form of functioning parliamentary institution, accounting for over 46,000 representatives?

The question also arises as to whether power of democracy is only limited to holding elections without caring for legislative output and efficiency? These questions not only seem pertinent but also seek attention of a wider audience.

Chakshu Roy, heading the outreach team at PRS Legislative Research that tracks the functioning of the Indian parliament, displays profound understanding of legislative process as he writes, “Both houses of Parliament have a committee each to scrutinise rules made by the government under different laws. These general purpose committees neither have the bandwidth nor the technical expertise to examine different rules and regulations… Political parties will have to introspect about their roles in our parliamentary system. The institution of Parliament will have to rethink its legislative processes. In the absence of these, Parliament will become a mere rubber stamp for government laws.”

Let’s come back to currency demonetisation that dominated public discussion as also captured huge media space and prime time coverage. The particular issue came into focus at a time when the NDA government is half way through its tenure. While many hailed cancellation of high-denomination notes as a revolutionary step, scores of eminent economists, consultants and commentators denounced the sudden move as India erupted in cash chaos.

The severe criticism of demonitisation encompasses a whole range of issues that primarily centered on the approaches adopted by the government. These include the social and economic impact a majority of the country’s population; particularly those associated with agriculture, small industries and the informal sectors.

As of now, it’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi vs. the entire opposition barring a few. Interestingly, a few steadfast opponents of Modi’s policies praised the intent of the reform measure but faulted it for poor execution. Be that as it may, it’s too early to assume the step would lead to economic catastrophe, as it's made out to be by some.

Prior to the US presidential election, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman unequivocally insisted that a Trump victory would lead to a stock market collapse and investors who relied on his insights lost large amounts of money. People might well agree or disagree with the political standpoint on any given issue, but tend to agree that real changes take time and any change worth fighting for is worth a long-term commitment. Gone are the days when political leadership used to make the people live in a make-believe world. Now it’s the same people who prefer an informed debate on unsavoury truths over parliamentary disruption. It’s the same people who are painfully aware of the problems and acknowledge the difficulty arising out of bold reform measures. In today's time, as social networks and 24 x7 media have become a key part of the political landscape, people can easily identify those who are but deeply wedded to the idea of mere rhetorical bluster and political grandstanding.

As the fate of demonetisation drive is poised between failure and success, the opposition could have made full use of the parliamentary session with the focus on accelerating the pace of transparency. It could have helped the united opposition of national and regional parties sway public opinion to their side over time, especially because while Indians know that major opposition parties are accused of corruption, the BJP also is not without its share of blemishes.

As the Modi government failed to ‘walk the talk’ on multiple fronts to recover black money both from India and abroad, the opposition could have taken the government to task on several anti-corruption related issues like – delay in appointing Lokpaloperationalising a robust Whistleblowers Protection Actgeneration of black money as also the deeper issue of tax evasion, and a stronger Prevention of Corruption Act (Amendment) Bill 2013. Transparency in political funding and minimising poll expenditure is also a major issue that the Election Commission had broached.

The opposition could also have punctured government’s heightened focus on boosting digital transactions when the country figures poorly in the global cyber stakes (96th in terms of download speed and 105th in terms of average bandwidth availability). The country is also vulnerable to cyber-attacks.

Instead, sadly, it was all about disrupting functioning of both the Houses. It was all about shying away from articulating national interests unambiguously and evolving appropriate strategies. Demonetisation may or may not be the effective mode of spreading the anti-corruption message, but what is important is building a narrative of success in anti-corruption reforms that enjoys cross-party support.

Our inability lies here. As the winter session ended in chaos we lost yet another opportunity to send a strong message through parliamentary intervention against corruption. We failed to rediscover the virtues that underpin democracy. The only exception was perhaps an MP from Biju Janata Dal (BJD) who returned part of his salary and daily allowance proportional to the time lost in the Lok Sabha due to disruptions.

As the country continues to face enormous challenges it can’t afford to lose scheduled hours for parliamentary business. It’s time our MLAs and MPs turned the searchlight inwards and examined their acts. If they do so, the country can expect Global Parliamentary Report 2020 to mention something good about the political culture and parliamentary standards of the world’s largest democracy.