Sunday, May 8, 2011

The House is not in order


India’s Parliamentary Democracy on Trial
By Madhav Godbole
Rs 595

This book could not have come at a better time. As people watch in dismay and horror the campaign unleashed by a group of politicians and their handpicked agents to discredit the anti-corruption drive of Anna Hazare, one thing is obvious: These politicians are not really concerned with the credibility of those on the panel as they are with derailing the process. The reason is that, if the panel members nominated by Hazare get to work without distraction, the politicians will have a lot of answering to do. Madhav Godbole’s book must be read in this context. It lays down how our political class has failed over the decades — not merely to meet the people’s aspirations, but even to acknowledge in any concrete manner that they have such aspirations.

The title — India’s Parliamentary Democracy on Trial — itself gives away the purpose of the book. It is a critique of how those who claim to represent us have made a mockery of a system that was so lovingly and with lofty ideals crafted by our founding fathers. As one with a ringside view of the developments — Godbole served over decades with distinction in various senior positions in Government, capping his career as Union Home Secretary — the author has brought his understanding of the issues to not merely point to the strings of blunders but also suggest remedies. In truth, those remedies have been floating around for some time now and effectively ignored. If those suggestions still sound contemporary, it’s because they are even more relevant in the present situation, where crusaders for a change face a thinly disguised vilification campaign, ironically from those who are themselves short of credibility.

While it may be far-fetched to believe that had the suggestions proposed in the book been implemented, there would have been no Hazare movement, none can deny that the implementation of at least some of them would have greatly strengthened the credibility of the political class to combat the Gandhian. As of now, more people tend to believe him and his followers — tainted as some may be — than the political class. They will also find great merit in the contents of the book.

The narrative reflects the clinical precision of an expert and the anguish of the governed. There are, unfortunately, few Indian writers who write authoritatively on contemporary issues of governance. Godbole is one of them. In fact, this book is a sort of continuation of his earlier exhaustive work, The Judiciary and Governance in India, in which he hit the nail on the head when he said, “We have, from the perspective of the civil society, made a series of recommendations... However, there are no prospects in the near future of the executive and Parliament, lacking as they are in political and moral courage and stature, addressing them.” This was two years before Hazare burst on the Delhi scene, leaving the political class fuming over charges that it was generally insensitive to the aspirations of the people.

The author does well to base his arguments in the backdrop of the ‘glorious’ Nehru days of Parliament, when the Prime Minister went out of his way to ensure that the fountainhead of democracy was receptive to the needs and demands of the people. Though he does not agree with everything the first Prime Minister said or did, Godbole nevertheless admits that Jawaharlal Nehru did not have a pathological dislike for opposition. Indeed, he sought it. The author quotes him, “It is right that there should be criticism... I think it is essential for any kind of Government to have critics, the opposition.”

Since the manner in which politicians treat Parliament is reflective of how much concern they have for those who send them to the hallowed body, Nehru was obsessed with discharging his duties to it, and did his utmost to see that his colleagues in the Government followed suit. Today the Prime Minister goes on a foreign tour when Parliament is in session. This is what Nehru had to say, as the author quotes him, “As far touring is concerned, I have personally decided not to attend any of the large number of diplomatic functions that take place in Delhi or otherwise, as far as possible, also not to accept any engagements.”

These observations are relevant in the present context because the political class, with a few honourable exceptions, has been condemning the Hazare movement as the subversion of democracy and Parliament. The fact is, because the Members of Parliament over the years failed to bring about substantial reforms to enhance accountability and transparency in their functioning, ‘civil society’ was compelled to rise in protest. Godbole lays down in clear terms those failures, a number of which reside in the premise of electoral reforms. As we have said before, he offers suggestions. Among them are ways to decriminalise politics and abolish the first-past-the-post winner system. The author is under no illusion that these will be easily done, though he points out that genuine will across the political spectrum can do the needful. Until now, that commitment has come only in the form of high-sounding statements, not real action.

As Godbole remarks, the law prohibits a person from contesting an election only if he/she is convicted by a court for offences mentioned in Section 8 of the Representation of the People Act, 1951, and sentenced to imprisonment for more than the stipulated number of years. While accepting the dogma that a person is innocent unless proven guilty and simply because there is a case against him he cannot be barred from contesting polls, the author suggests a way out: Once a court frames charges against an individual, the framed person should stand disqualified from contesting. And, if the person is already a member of a legislative body, he has to step down. In both cases, the accused should not be permitted to hold any Government or quasi-Government office, or be part of Government panels till he is cleared of the allegations.

The author is especially disdainful of the first-past-the-post winner system, by which the candidate who secures the highest number of votes is declared the winner. With politicians promoting caste, religion and regional divides to garner votes, the author correctly says that “winning even with a minority vote has become common place”. He points out that in the last Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections, “96.53 per cent of the winners polled less than 50 per cent of the votes cast”. He adds that in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, the corresponding percentage was 59.85. With such fragment votes, how can the winner claim to represent the broad section of society in his constituency? And, knowing that he has won due to a particular section of the voters, why would he not bend backward to oblige that parochial group as a parliamentarian or a legislator? As a solution, Godbole says laws should be amended so that only that candidate who gets “50 per cent plus vote” is considered the winner.

Incidentally, the matter had also been raised by former Union Minister and senior writer Arun Shourie in his book, The Parliamentary System, where he pointed out how “unrepresentative” several of our elected representatives were.

It is worth reproducing Godbole’s dismay in the concluding part of the book’s introduction. He laments, “Except for the BJP, Communist or Left parties, almost all other political parties in India are family concerns... Who could have imagined that India, with its population of over a billion, would be so bereft of leadership, drawn from the masses, 60 years after practising parliamentary democracy?”


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