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This is poor quality political theatre
With the monsoon session of Parliament a near wash-out , political scientist Yogendra Yadav speaks to TOI-Crest about how Parliament has stopped being a deliberative body
The Parliament worked for 25 per cent of the time passing only four bills in this session. Does this reflect a drop in standards of debate?
This session was particularly bad in this respect. I guess both the government and the opposition were not keen on parliamentary debate. But there is a general systemic issue that we need to confront. We need to think afresh the role of Parliament in our parliamentary democracy. There is no doubt that parliamentarians not attending sessions and not engaging in quality discussion is a matter of concern. But I suspect that our unstated assumption of what Parliament is and how parliamentarians ought to behave draw upon the British or European model of legislative functioning. Sixty years down the line we must now begin to understand Indian parliament on its own terms with reference to the Indian model rather than compare it all the time to the British parliament.
Is legislative business no longer important enough?
Over the years legislative business has come to play a lesser and lesser role in the life of a parliamentarian. If you ask an MP or MLA what they do, I doubt if they would list making laws among the five top things they do. If you ask ordinary voters why they elect MPs or MLAs, I doubt if they would list making laws among their top expectations. MPs and MLAs increasingly focus their energies on solving people's everyday problems or securing basic welfare provisions for the people. In a country where bureaucracy does not deliver even the routine basic services, it takes political intervention by representatives or netas to get things done. Besides, people's representatives spend an inordinate proportion of their time building symbolic ties with the people through all kinds of social functions - marriage, shraadh, iftar, birthday parties and so on.
The changing social composition of Parliament and the assemblies has accentuated this further. I am afraid much of the nostalgia for our early parliamentarians reflects a desire to go back to times when a tiny English-speaking upper caste elite dominated our country's political life. Over the years the social composition of our assemblies has changed decisively with many members coming from outside the upper caste. They bring with them social mores of an ordinary Indian. This understanding is not always compatible with legal, constitutional assumptions of liberal democracy. These representatives cannot be expected to carry out Westminster-style parliamentary debates.
The final and decisive blow to the quality of parliamentary debate was dealt by the anti-defection law. Passed amid much fanfare and supported by all enthusiasts of parliamentary democracy (with the honourable exception of Madhu Limaye), this law has made membership of legislative assemblies of no political consequence. What matters is how many seats a party has and not the person who occupies the seat. The views and opinions of the members are of no practical consequence.
Is there a change in attitude of parliamentarians who feel that stalling the House is the only way to make a point?
The changes I have mentioned above mean that proceedings of Parliament or an assembly are of limited and diminishing significance in the working of our democracy. Parliament is increasingly a political theatre and less and less of a deliberative body. Now, theatre is not a frivolous activity but it can be only one of the activities that Parliament can perform. Unfortunately marginalisation of other activities and televising of parliamentary proceedings has meant that this has become almost the sole function of Parliament. Political debates take place largely in the media, policy debates too take place in the media or sometimes in the corridors of power, leaving little space for nuanced reasoning. Framing of laws and rules is left largely to the bureaucracy.
The only exceptions to this general trend of decline are the parliamentary standing committees, which still work and in a non-partisan manner. In other words, the Indian parliament is primarily a theatre of symbolic representation and posturing rather than an assembly for deliberation and legislation.
While several issues involving the common man, like protests in Kudankulam or Khandwa, never make it to Parliament, MPs seem to find the time to demand privilege notices against Team Anna or ban social media.
This makes me think that the real problem is not that our Parliament has become a political theatre. The real problem is that it is a poor quality theatre. The symbolic issues that do get raised in Parliament do not even connect to the real life of an overwhelming majority of Indians. Something like Kokrajhar gets discussed in Parliament only when it has assumed violent proportions. The struggle of the displaced in the Narmada valley was not raised even once in the entire din during this session. Ironically and sadly, the two weeks of Parliament disruption happened to overlap with the two weeks that the displaced people in Maheshwar and Indirasagar were standing in water. In the absence of serious symbolic business, all kinds of frivolous and self-serving issues dominate. The parliamentarians want to ban social media without quite understanding what they wish to ban. They want to banish cartoons from textbooks without reading a line in those books. They want to turn Parliament into a trade union of all serving and retired politicians. Needless to say, such ridiculous use of this forum only delegitimises it in the eyes of the people.
Should we scrap Parliament?
Clearly the answer is no and not just because it would be too drastic a step. Any modern democracy needs one supreme forum where final decisions impacting the life of multitudes of people can be taken. We need a space where every document has to be placed and can be summoned. At the same time, we need not design this forum in the image of Westminster. We should stop expecting our representatives to defy party lines and engage in public deliberations informed by nothing other than pure reason. We should accept that people's representatives will focus much of their attention on grievance redressal and welfare provisions of their constituents. The way to strengthen Parliament and the quality of deliberations in the legislative business would then be to think of an elaborate and mandatory prelegislative consultation. The basic idea is to improve the quality of inputs and deliberations that go into the making of a draft bill. This should be accompanied by high disclosure requirements in the framing of draft legislations. The business of inserting anonymous and overnight amendments in crucial legislations must come to an end. And finally parliamentary committees should exercise greater power, in acknowledgment of the crucial role they have come to play in reality.
Parliamentary democracy is not a readymade package imported from outside. Vibrant democracies redesign whatever they import so as to suit their context and requirement instead of merely regretting our inability to relive the autobiography of the British parliament. We must go about shaping our own political institutions in the light of our practices and needs.
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