It was unimaginable, in scale and reach, at the inception of the Republic, says Vice-President Hamid Ansari

President Pratibha Patil on Sunday paid rich tributes to the Indian parliamentary system, saying the country had proved wrong sceptics on the survival of its democracy.

She underlined that “democracy cannot be allowed to falter, it is the very essence of our nationhood.”

Addressing members of both Houses of Parliament at the Central Hall to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the first sitting of both the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha, (after the first election in 1952 on May 13), Ms. Patil said: “Sceptics, in those early post-Independence days, doubted whether democracy in such a large and diverse country could possibly survive. We proved them wrong.”

On the achievements of Indian democracy, she said that in accordance with the Constitution, representatives to Parliament, the State Legislatures and the local bodies had been chosen through electoral exercises which had been fair and open. “Our record has been remarkable and there is widespread acclaim about the tenacious manner in which we have adhered to democracy.”

The big challenge to democracy was to proceed towards being a vibrant but healthy democracy. “It is, therefore, necessary to walk ahead carefully, with determination, so that the main aim of establishing a progressive and healthy democracy is never lost sight of.”

Parliament was the repository of the people's will. Therefore, their growing aspirations and expectations needed to be translated here into policy decisions and necessary legislation. Discussions could be difficult and divergent, yet solutions had to be found through discussions in Parliament, and through established practices.

Democracy could be sustained when there was sensitivity to the national interest, social objectives and towards one another, she added.

Vice-President and Rajya Sabha Chairman Hamid Ansari said the functioning of India's Parliament, based on universal suffrage, was a testament to its brand of democratic politics. “It was unimaginable, in scale and reach, at the inception of the Republic.”

He wanted the MPs to respond meaningfully to awakened expectations of a new generation in a changing world.

Sixty years were a good time to assess the working of Parliament in two critical areas of its functioning: ensuring accountability and oversight of the executive, and deliberations and law-making. Both tended to exhibit declining efficacy. The institutional mechanisms and procedural norms for ensuring accountability were being progressively underused. “There is a perceptible drop in the working days of Parliament. Deliberation is less frequent; legislation is at times hasty.”

An impression was gaining ground in some quarters that diligent parliamentary work was less rewarding in political terms, he said.

A functioning democracy

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said: “Our Parliament has not just voiced the concerns and aspirations of the Indian people alone, but those of all humankind, of every freedom-loving person who seeks a life of dignity and peace.” How the MPs conducted themselves was a way of showing respect to the values of the institution and to the memory of those who created and built this (Parliament) symbol of freedom and dignity. “Each one of us owes it to those who sent us here to not only represent their views and their interests, but to do so with dignity, compassion and decorum.” The Prime Minister urged the MPs to firmly reject those who would mock the institutions of India's democracy. “We are not a perfect democracy. But we are a functioning democracy with mechanisms and safeguards that allow for the reconciliation of diverse interests and differences of opinion. It is the vitality and vibrancy of our democracy that keeps the nation united and moving on the path of progress.”

On parliament disruptions, he said many people often felt frustrated. “In our own way each one of us shares the blame for this state of affairs.”

Revival of the tradition of reasoned and constructive debate was the “only way to earn the people's respect, lead public opinion and provide media with serious content that will raise the level of public discourse as in other mature democracies,” Dr. Singh said.

Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar reminded the MPs that they were in Parliament to protect people's interests. “Rising above religion, region, caste, language, etc., we are here to protect the interest of people of the entire nation, especially the marginalised who are ignored. This leaves no scope for any kind of lapse in discharging our duties,” she said.

The parliamentarians should not become oblivious, even for a single moment, to the fact that the legislation, policies and programmes deliberated upon in the House decided the destiny of the people.

Four members of the first Lok Sabha were honoured on the occasion: Rishang Keishing (now member of the Rajya Sabha), Reshamlal Jangde (Chhattisgarh), Kandala Subramaniam and K. Mohan Rao (both Andhra Pradesh).

Ms. Patil released some publications which were compilations of speeches made in the Constituent Assembly and others in Parliament. Two commemorative coins in the denominations of Rs. 5 and Rs. 10 were released.

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