As the Indian Parliament completes 60 years, it is time not for noisy celebration but for serious introspection. That India remained a parliamentary democracy while some of its South Asian neighbours went through military coups or violent upheavals can only be a small consolation to its people. Stability is of no great value in itself. After 60 years, the question to ask is whether the debates in the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha have adequately reflected the will of the people, whether the law-making powers of Parliament have contributed to the creation of a freer, fairer and more just society. Evidently, the score-sheet shows mixed results on these counts. Meaningful debates over marathon sessions have been few and far between in the last six decades. In contrast, disruptions and slogan-shouting over any number of frivolous issues have been frequent. Too often, a boisterous few have held the whole of Parliament hostage. A case in point is the Women's Reservation Bill: over several years, a small section of the two Houses has been able to physically stall the bill, which on paper enjoys the support of the overwhelming majority of MPs. Forcing adjournment of the proceedings through high-decibel interventions and demonstrations is a common enough occurrence in the Lok Sabha as well as the Rajya Sabha. Not surprisingly, the impetus for progressive change in the last few decades has often come from the wider civil society with Parliament shown up as reactive and passive.
Also, after 60 years and 15 national general elections, India's Parliament is nowhere close to being truly representative. Thanks to seats reserved for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, and the political mobilisation of the backward classes on the basis of reservation benefits, members are now drawn from different social strata. But women and Muslims are under-represented, and the rich continue to dominate India's law-making bodies. With the cost of fighting elections spiralling, businessmen, the landed gentry and highly-paid professionals are entering Parliament in increasing numbers, alongside leaders of trade unions. This, no doubt, skews the debates too. Since the adoption of the Constitution, India has moved decisively towards a multi-party system, with laws such as the one to prevent defection restricting inner-party dissent even while curbing horse-trading. Thus, power is still concentrated in the hands of a few, with the role of the public limited to voting in governments every five years or so. India's people need to be an active part of the political process before they can be the agents of change, and the masters of their own destiny. Six decades on, the task of shaping a truly representative Parliament must be taken up in earnest.