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Politics at close quarters

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INDIA'S POLITICS A View from the Backbench: Bimal Jalan; Viking, Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd., 11, Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110017. Rs. 350.
INDIA'S POLITICS A View from the Backbench: Bimal Jalan; Viking, Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd., 11, Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110017. Rs. 350.

C.T.KURIEN

An insider's account of how politics is practised in India and to what effect

In 2005 Bimal Jalan, nominated member of Rajya Sabha (formerly Governor of the Reserve Bank of India, Chairman of the Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister) published a book with the title, The Future of India: Politics, Economics and Governance that received a good deal of attention because of its incisive analysis and policy recommendations. The present book, two years later, is a thematic twin, but not exactly identical.The theme of the book is plainly stated: "With the emergence of multi-party coalitions as a regular form of government, and their relatively short life expectancy at birth, there is palpable change in political dynamics which is not fully reflected in the original provisions of our acclaimed Constitution... I believe that if some of the emerging trends are not reversed, India's democracy, by the people will become more and more "oligarchic" - i.e., of the few and for the few." (emphasis in the original)

Watershed

The year 1989 marks the watershed in India's politics. In the first 41 years of independence till 1989, six prime ministers ruled the country of whom only three had tenures of less than five years. For the 18 years since 1989 there have been seven prime ministers and none of them had the backing of a party with majority in the Lok Sabha, and only two of them were able to complete a full term of five years. That is, multi-party coalitions have become the regular form of government with the instability that is almost built into it. For instance, the Lok Sabha elections of 2004 were contested by as many as 55 parties with only two parties winning more than 10 per cent (but less than one third) of the seats in the House. Of these two the one that had the slight edge and succeeded in bringing together a wide range of diverse elements to form a coalition, and managed to get the support of another group of parties, but without joining the coalition, thus, managed to demonstrate a precarious majority in the House and take over the reins of power. That such an arrangement has worked for three years may demonstrate the resilience of Indian democracy and parliamentary form of governance. However, this has serious systemic implications, some of which, such as the proneness to instability may be obvious, but there are others that are not so visible, though more damaging. Establishing the interconnections of these latent threats to democracy and the interests of the vast majority of people is Jalan's major contribution in this book.

Coalition politics

Coalitions, obviously, result from the proliferation of political parties. But they also provide incentives for parties to proliferate. For, in the fluid situation that prevails, especially after the elections lead to a fractured verdict, smaller parties with even single digit members come to have enormous bargaining power. Knowing this, enterprising "Nethas" in different parts of the country form parties prior to elections and manage to get a few of their followers into the House through any means that are expedient. Once this is done, cabinet posts are simply a matter of "negotiations". The first casualty after the formation of such a coalition cabinet is the principle of collective responsibility. The primary concern of each group within the coalition is to protect its own interest. In the extreme, each cabinet minister becomes an independent master of his own ministry. The sense of collective responsibility gets reduced to maintaining majority in the House for survival. Even that may be sacrificed if survival is possible via another coalition!

Suspension of rules

The procedures and performance of Parliament also get affected. Jalan cites the events of five days from March 18 to March 22, 2006 to illustrate it. This Budget session saw the suspension of rules to pass the Budget and the Finance Bill without consideration by the standing committees; the budget appropriations were considered and approved in a day and the Finance Bill was approved the next day by a voice vote. The following day, because of interruptions, the House was adjourned five times, but when it met for the sixth time at 5 p.m., all listed business for the day were completed in 15 minutes and then the House was adjourned sine die. "This was an extraordinary and unprecedented event in a year when there was no change of government, no general election, and no internal or external emergency," remarks Jalan.Two other related issues are worth noting. The first is that the erosion of collective responsibility has been accompanied by a process of politicisation of the permanent civil services. With unlimited powers of transfers and appointment in the hands of ministers, civil servants are entirely at their mercy. Second, corruption, which has existed all along in different walks of life, has now become noticeably prevalent in the political area as well. It starts at the election process where winning being the sole objective and "winnability" the sole criterion, any method is considered acceptable. In the elections to the Lok Sabha in 2004, a survey showed that out of 3182 candidates surveyed, as many as 518, cutting across all political parties, had criminal antecedents and 115 of them were elected. And, if they can be elected representatives of the people, why shouldn't they become ministers too? Accommodating corruption, thus, becomes part of the coalition dharma!

Political reforms

Jalan's work is not merely a fault-finding exercise. He suggests a list of reforms too. If coalitions are unavoidable, all parties that form a coalition must be considered to be a single parliamentary formation. Small parties (with less than 10 per cent or so of seats in Parliament) that later decide to leave the coalition must be disqualified with all their members losing seats in Parliament as well. They should, however, be free to come back after contesting again and winning elections. Individual ministers must be held responsible to Parliament for the performance of their ministries. Persons who have been "charge sheeted" for corruption, fraud and other criminal offences should not be permitted to become ministers. Measures for the depoliticisation of the civil services should be taken.Rules of procedure of Parliament should not be allowed to be suspended and no major legislation should be passed by voice vote. The presiding officers must be given powers to suspend or even expel members who frequently disrupt proceedings. State funding of elections should be accepted as the financial implications are quite manageable.Jalan's survey covers economic policy, Centre-State relationship, and the relationship between the executive and the judiciary as well. But since his main concern, rightly, is the rapidly deteriorating political processes and the functioning of Parliament, may we expect concerned backbenchers to initiate a movement within Parliament, and extending beyond, to remedy the situation?

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