Updated: September 27, 2011 01:12 IST

Case for strengthening democracy

Nalini Rajan
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Publications India Pvt Ltd., 7/16, Ansari Road, Daryaganj, New Delhi-110002. Rs. 595.
INDIA’S PARLIAMENTARY DEMOCRACY ON TRIAL: Madhav Godbole; Rupa Publications India Pvt Ltd., 7/16, Ansari Road, Daryaganj, New Delhi-110002. Rs. 595.

In the light of recent developments in Indian civil society that impinge on the country's political system, this book assumes greater relevance. It provides rich and detailed information that underlines the importance of democratic systems and structures. The movement set off by Anna Hazare posits a false dichotomy between the state and civil society, and Madhav Godbole argues that democratic structures of the state have to be strengthened, not weakened or destroyed.

It would appear that, for Indian democracy, the trials and tribulations began — albeit in a muted fashion — right from the Nehruvian era. Jawaharlal Nehru is generally known as a great builder of democratic institutions. Godbole, however, points to some of Nehru's practices that were undemocratic and ad hoc and criticises them.

Nevertheless, it is only after Nehru that the rot in the Indian democratic system became entrenched. Some of the major factors that contributed to it are: concentration of power in the Prime Minister's Office leading to erosion of the Cabinet's authority; perpetuation of the hereditary system of political power; ‘horse trading' that comes into play almost invariably after a split verdict in elections; unruly behaviour by members leading to frequent disruptions in Parliament and in the State Legislatures; and rampant corruption in the political class as a whole.

The chapters where Godbole systematically identifies the problems faced by the Indian political system and, what more, offers solutions should be of particular interest to students of Indian politics. The British House of Commons sat for 159 days a year during 2001-06. In contrast, the 14th Lok Sabha sat for merely 64 days a year.

Power to Speaker

Suggesting that an annual calendar be drawn up for Parliament sessions, Godbole makes out a case for empowering the Speaker, through a Constitution amendment, to deal with the unruly members more effectively. He also wants the Speaker to be constitutionally required to keep away from active politics for two/three Parliamentary terms. Godbole recommends the creation of a Parliamentary Ombudsman and a system of ‘report cards' for the MPs, the MLAs, and even political parties. This he thinks is necessary because of the enormous scope for people's representatives to indulge in malpractices these days — thanks particularly to the huge sums made available under the Member of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme and the increases in their emoluments. In addition, there is also absenteeism in Parliament as well as the Assemblies.

What is more, Godbole is of the opinion that more time should be spent on discussing important Bills and that the anti-defection law should be amended so as to allow members of a political party to voice their dissent on a principled basis. He has also come up with valuable suggestions for cutting down election-related expenditure. They include synchronisation of the Lok Sabha and the Assembly elections, wider use of electronic communication devices, and minimising the use of paper. Interestingly, Godbole comes out against the idea of ‘recalling' the elected representative — a demand made most recently by anti-corruption campaigner Anna Hazare. He believes that the right to recall would divide the polity on party lines, besides being prohibitive in monetary terms. He wants the institution of Joint Parliamentary Committee to be strengthened, and a new standing committee created for dealing with political corruption.

All the deficiencies and negative trends in the functioning of Indian democracy notwithstanding, Godbole has a lot of good things to say about it. For instance, he is all praise for the fact that 15 elections have so far been held for the Lok Sabha, and 298 for the Assemblies, with power getting transferred smoothly in every case. In this context, he favours voting being made compulsory.

Apart from a couple of gratuitous statements commending economic liberalisation and the anti-reservation lobby — and these reflect Godbole's ideological leaning rather than democratic sense — the content of this book is likely to be useful to anyone interested in the future of Indian democracy.

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