While there is an enormous academic output on democracy in India, critical and inclusive accounts on the Indian Parliament, the organ that represents as well as sustains democratic dispensation in India, are few and far between. There is, of course, an enormous documentation on the formal layout, composition and working of the Indian Parliament and changes in them overtime, particularly emerging from the respective secretariats of the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha. Besides, there are collections of speeches in the House and first-person accounts. The media has always evinced much interest in the House even though sections of it were susceptible to the thralldom of the political executive at critical junctures.
House of the People that claims to be a ‘biography’ of the Lok Sabha depicts, in rich detail, the transformation that this body has gone through in the last 17 Lok Sabhas. The author sets himself the task of exploring two questions: Is Indian Parliament an effective representative body? How has Parliament changed through Indian democracy? He taps numerous sources as data-base to this study — proceedings of the Constituent Assembly and that of the Lok Sabha, reports of Committees and Commissions, court judgments, manuals of parliamentary procedure, writings and correspondence of concerned political leaders, interviews, live observations of the proceedings of the House, newspaper reports, archival resources, accounts of specialised bodies such as PRS Legislative Research and Association of Democratic Reforms — alongside rich historical, archival and comparative literature. There is copious reference to literature related to the theme of study and an easy flow of language that avoids ponderous academic jargon.
Markers of a system
The road leading up to institutionalising parliamentary democracy in India, particularly the deliberations of the Constituent Assembly, is laid out through familiar milestones of constitutional history.
However, the author does not engage with the question whether India registers a break from colonial constitutionalism, except citing a couple of works in this regard, and whether colonial constitutionalism was merely a ploy to entrench British power in India as Nehru argued eloquently in his autobiography. His failure to engage with this issue is reflected all through the text as he draws comparisons between Indian Parliament and its counterparts elsewhere particularly Westminster. The ‘protean’ character of the institution is dealt holding on to the category ‘Congress System’ and its metamorphosis which does not help appreciate the paradigm shift that the 16th and 17th Lok Sabhas unfold. Further the protean shift is mapped in terms of age, education, gender, occupation and wealth, caste, religion, criminality, dynasticism, and turnover of representatives. While highlighting representation through these descriptive or identitarian categories may be necessary, it tells us little about the kind of issues and concerns that came to shape Parliament and the executive-legislative relation it set up. There is much empirical evidence to suggest that there is an overlapping public in India today, as it was always, irreducible to identitarian markers. Political parties that base themselves on the latter invariably exercise much violence to maintain surveillance over their flock and exclude others.
Subverting the House
By far the best three chapters in the study are on the work output and disruption of the House, the committee system, and on corruption, criminality and immunity. There is a wealth of information that laces these chapters. However, while acknowledging that at times disruptions in the proceedings of the House need not necessarily be construed as affront to representation the author does not tell us the criteria for the bar. He thinks that “apart from the critical impact of the Indira Gandhi years and the limited efficacy of the rules and disciplinary powers of successive speakers,” other four factors responsible for the endemic disruptions of the House are, its growing social heterogeneity, fragmentation of the party system, “the televising of parliamentary proceedings” and “acceptance that disruptions were part of parliamentary and India’s political culture”. While there is some truth in these assertions, these factors do not explain the reasons for disruptions in many instances, particularly the 16th and the 17th Lok Sabhas.
In the conclusion we find a rich account of the authoritarian and majoritarian turn the Lok Sabha has taken during the 16th and 17th Lok Sabhas, while retaining the trappings of the “formal architecture of democracy.” Although placed in the larger context of the comparative literature on the decline of legislatures, this iteration seems to be an afterthought when it rightfully should have been integral to the main body of the study.
Glossing over two issues is particularly irking in this study: the changing relation between the legislature and the executive, and the larger issue of representation in a deeply plural and socially unequal society.
House of the People — Parliament and the Making of Indian Democracy; Ronojoy Sen, Cambridge University Press, ₹1,095.
The reviewer was Professor at Mangalore University and Jawaharlal Nehru University.