How a brute majority breaks the spirit of democracy
The idea of parliament as a place for collective deliberation has ceased to have meaning in India
By Shashi Tharoor (Wide Angle)
Published: Mon 21 Aug 2017, 10:32 PM
Last updated: Tue 22 Aug 2017, 12:39 AM
With the monsoon session of the Indian Parliament behind us, one of the issues that understandably vexes observers is the predictability of most parliamentary debates in the Lok Sabha. The government will propose. The opposition will oppose. If matters come to a head and a vote is called, the government's brute majority will dispose.
The merits of the issue will matter little. There will be no reasoned attempts to persuade the other side; or rather, when such attempts are made by the well-meaning, they will prove futile, since persuasion, reflection and exchange are not the purpose of the exercise.
Even sensible suggestions by the opposition are never adopted, since to do so would admit the possibility of flexibility into government legislation in the Lok Sabha. The only time opposition views are taken into account is when the outcome of the vote would otherwise be uncertain - in the Upper House. And now even that is changing to assure the government a majority in the Rajya Sabha, as well. But in the Lok Sabha the government simply chooses not to listen, or to listen with a closed mind. The idea of parliament as a forum for collective deliberation and agreed outcomes has ceased to have any meaning.
I had a taste of this myself in last year's monsoon session, on a routine and non-controversial bill on labour rights, which my party (having initiated the reform itself in the UPA days) had agreed to support. The bill merely required that employees in companies of a certain size had the right to be notified of their rights, in writing. During its passage, I suggested that, given that nearly a fifth of Indian men, and more than a third of Indian women, were illiterate, two words should be added: 'orally and in writing'. My logic, as I explained to my fellow MPs, was that while the bill's objectives were laudable - in giving labourers knowledge of their rights in writing, so they could be legally enforceable - the substance of those rights should also be conveyed orally, so that illiterate workers could understand what they were entitled to. This suggestion was within the spirit of the bill.
I saw several BJP MPs nodding their heads affirmatively at this common-sense suggestion. But when the amendment was put to a voice-vote, the ruling party erupted raucously in a vociferous chorus of 'No'. My proposal was negated. The whip was to vote in a certain way - common sense be damned.
This is a small example of how little real give-and-take there is in our parliamentary system, especially after the Anti-Defection law inaugurated a practice of party whips on all issues.
What, one might ask, is the point of such debates at all, other than to nail one's colours to the party mast? This was not how it was meant to be. Parliament, in the classic British conception, was supposed to be a forum where individual MPs of ability and integrity met to discuss common problems and agree upon solutions. Edmund Burke, in his famous speech to the Electors of Bristol on November 3, 1774, articulated brilliantly the logic of parliamentary representation. He is worth quoting in his own words:
"It ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents (or here, if you prefer, read 'Party'). Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But his unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion."
Whereas in the early days a prime minister could even be challenged by MPs from his own party, today conformity rules the roost. So why give parliament an importance its performance does not warrant?
The Anti-Defection Law was passed with good intentions. It was intended to stop the practice of legislators crossing the floor in pursuit of power and pelf, which saw state governments (and two Central Governments) between 1967 and 1985 rise and fall like skittles. The idea was noble, and rested on sound principles. When the law was first explained by its proponents, there was widespread support.
But how has the Act worked? It has dramatically reduced defections, but not eliminated them, as we have seen in Uttarakhand last year and Manipur this year, and as we are continuing to see in Gujarat and UP as I write. What it has done most effectively is to stifle the voice of the individual legislator. Since every single vote in parliament sees a whip being issued, however trivial the subject of the bill, there is no room for honest differences of opinion. Disobeying a whip offers grounds not just for disciplinary action by the party, but expulsion from parliament altogether. No MP who has struggled and strived (and spent) to get elected to his seat lightly places it in jeopardy. His convictions become secondary to the party line. The 'argumentative Indian' is often on display in both Houses, but only when he is arguing strictly according to his party's position.
Ironically, the underlying logic of the Indian approach has been called into question by the Election Commission itself offering a 'None of the Above' (NOTA) option on the ballot for the recent vice-presidential election. Every MP voting in that election was subject to a party whip; would not voting NOTA violate his whip? If a NOTA vote was cast, then, would it be grounds for disqualifying the voter from parliament? If NOTA embodies a constitutional right, then isn't punishment under the Anti-Defection Law for exercising that right itself unconstitutional?
Part of the problem is that the main provisions of the constitution regarding the legislature were silent about the party system. Did the founders ever intend the party system to be paramount over the individual parliamentarian?
There are no real answers in today's India. One of the consequences of the crisis of representation is that Parliament itself has become less and less seminal an institution in our democracy. The result of this kind of thinking is apparent. The first three Lok Sabhas saw as many 140 sittings a year; we are now at about half that number, and it is reducing every year. Barely 15 per cent of the Union budget is discussed in detail; our government is spending taxpayers' money without the taxpayers' representatives having a meaningful say in how it is spent.
Once bills are passed in a hurry, they become Acts, and these are implemented through the promulgation of rules which are drafted by the Government.
Such practices are destroying the role of the Indian parliamentarian as the legislator he was envisaged to be by our founding fathers. Our prime minister spoke of introducing 'minimum government, maximum governance'. Instead, we are heading to a system of 'minimum parliament, maximum government'.
It is time to look afresh at our institutions and ask if they are really providing the solid foundations on which the edifice of our democratic freedoms must be built. The crisis assailing our legislative representation in Parliament makes this task imperative, and urgent.
-The Open magazine
Shashi Tharoor is a Member of Parliament and author