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The working of India's democracy

March 29, 2010 13:23 IST
Not so long ago, in 2008, when Barack Obama was elected president of the US, all of us - in India and the rest of the world - hailed it as the triumph of American democracy. For the first time, after the adoption of the US Constitution in 1787, a person of African origin was elected to the highest office of the state with a sizeable majority.

However, the universal feeling of triumph about the working of American democracy soon yielded place to a sense of despondency. The fate of a popular health Bill proposed by President Obama for approval by the US Congress in 2009 became highly uncertain in view of the power of business lobbies and the ideologies of a few legislators. Fortunately, a few days ago, the Bill was approved by a very narrow margin.

This is not all. In the context of a deep financial crisis and bailout of banks by the government, the US Congress has been considering some legislative proposals to put in place a more efficient regulatory system. The legislative process to introduce such a system has not yet been completed because of a handful of Senators.

In the words of Nobel laureate Paul Krugman, in a recent article, "The US is paralysed in the face of mass unemployment and out-of-control health-care costs. Don't blame Obama. There's only so much one man can do, even if he sits in the White House. Blame our political culture instead, a culture that rewards hypocrisy and irresponsibility rather than serious efforts to solve America's problems."

Among large democracies, the US is not alone in facing a crisis in delivering what people want. The UK is another example, where the government is getting bigger, with the state's share of GDP rising from 37 per cent in 2000 to 52 per cent in 2009. The average citizen, on the other hand, has become poorer with a higher level of unemployment. The same is the case with Japan, and countries in the European Union (Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain, the so-called PIGS !).

In the midst of all this "darkness", as it were, where does India stand? The short answer is that our position is not any better. In addition to "systemic" problems, like erosion of collective responsibility, excessive centralisation and widespread political corruption, the faith of the ordinary citizen in the working of their elected government has been further shaken by two landmark events in the last three months.

In December 2009, there was a sudden announcement in favour of a separate state of Telangana, followed by an equally abrupt decision to postpone it. And now, a few days ago, we had the spectacle of some MPs being forcibly carried out of the Rajya Sabha so that the landmark legislation on women's reservation could be approved the same day. And then, the pause - and announcement that this Bill will be introduced in the Lok Sabha later after consultations with all parties !

What are we to make of all this? There is no straight or unequivocal answer. I, however, believe that in the light of recent events, it is even more urgent now to take some relatively simple measures to strengthen the working of India's politics. In view of constraints of space, let me just mention a few such measures that can be introduced if there is a consensus
among three leading party formations in Parliament (the Congress party, the NDA and the Left). The emergence of such a consensus was the most gratifying development in respect of the Women's Reservation Bill.

An unintended consequence of some recent amendments to the Constitution (i.e. the 52nd Amendment of 1985 and the 91st Amendment of 2003), combined with the power of parties to issue whips, has been to make individual members of Parliament fully subordinate to their leaders. The power of party leaders vis-a-vis elected members has been further compounded by an amendment in 2003 in the Representation of the People's Act which removed the domicile requirement for election to the so-called Council of States (Rajya Sabha). An immediate priority is to revoke all amendments, which
are designed to "dis-empower" elected members.

Cutting across political parties - in power and in Opposition - nearly 25 per cent of elected members in the Lok Sabha have criminal antecedents. An important reason for the attractiveness of politics as a career of choice by persons with criminal records is the enormous judicial delay in deciding such cases, and the power of political leaders to further delay the investigation and prosecution.

This incentive may be completely reversed by a relatively simple measure-by providing that elected candidates with pending criminal cases cannot take the "oath of office" until their cases have been heard by courts, and that such cases would have priority over other pending cases. Just consider the impact of this "reverse incentive" - in order to avoid immediate hearing of cases, the incentive would be to avoid getting elected to Parliament or state legislatures!

A related measure to make politics less remunerative is to reduce the power of ministries to "allocate" public resources, such as mineral rights, spectrum, gas etc. If an autonomous Election Commission, appointed by the government, can organise free and fair elections in the largest democracy in the world, similar agencies can be established to allocate public resources as per policies approved by the Cabinet.

Finally, the prevailing practice of passing several Bills at the end of the day at the discretion of the executive branch, without discussion or actual voting, has to be simply abolished - except in an emergency - to enable Parliament to perform its assigned role under the Constitution.

I believe that if the above measures are taken, or at least considered by Parliament, the working of Indian democracy by the people would become less oligarchic and more accountable.
Bimal Jalan in New Delhi