‘Decline' of Parliament?

August 23, 2011 10:55 am | Updated 10:55 am IST

Chennai:20/08/2011: The Hindu: OEB: Book Review Column:
Title: The Indian Parliament a Democracy at Work,
Author: B.L. Shankar and Valerian Rodrigues.

Chennai:20/08/2011: The Hindu: OEB: Book Review Column: Title: The Indian Parliament a Democracy at Work, Author: B.L. Shankar and Valerian Rodrigues.

This is a rare instance of a research work surfacing at the right time. The Indian Parliament: A democracy at work deals with an all-too-familiar Indian contradiction, which has come to the fore again. People, in general, do not conceal their pride in India's parliamentary democracy, contrasting it with other democracies in the neighbourhood that often find themselves in distress. But Parliament is what the country loves to hate the most, going by the loudest among the media. The “decline” of Parliament has increasingly become a subject of sigh-laden discussion.

The book counters the argument of a ‘decline'. It does so not by investing Parliament with a halo but by seeking to present the institution and its evolution in a historical perspective. The authors — B. L. Shankar, a former member of Parliament, and Valerian Rodrigues, an academic — base themselves on scholarly research and reinforce their position by drawing upon political observation and experience. Their source material ranges from pre-Independence political literature to the debates in the Constituent Assembly to parliamentary polemics of recent decades.

Tracing the evolution of India's parliamentary democracy from the pre-Independence days, they refer to the Nehru Report of 1928, which made it a part of the agenda of a significant section of nationalists. The report demanded “a dominion model of Parliament and an Executive accountable to that Parliament”, and formulated what the authors call a “nationalist consensus on the issue.”


There were some dissenting voices, and the debate continued in the Constituent Assembly. Parliamentary democracy, however, won the day. It faced no serious challenge from the few champions of an American system of democracy. For his part, B. R. Ambedkar dismissed the debatably “Gandhian” demand for a conglomeration of village republics with these words: “I am glad that the draft Constitution has discarded the village and adopted the individual as its unit.” In retrospect, it is clear that, with the different unit, the Constitution would not have built a polity based on universal adult franchise, a step that took century-long struggles elsewhere.

Right from the Constituent Assembly, the idea of parliamentary democracy has been assailed by the advocates of a presidential system. While recording such instances, the authors also note a variant of the position that was, “till recently, the fancy of cult groups such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Jamait-e-Islami, but has been given respectability by public intellectuals.” They quote Arun Shourie as saying, “the parliamentary system and the electoral system, from which it springs, are fragmenting the electorate ... and ... are not yielding persons who have the competence, integrity and dedication to govern a billion people”.

Golden age

Not all sections of what is often called the ‘non-voting population' will agree with this gloomy perception. Many of them, however, perceive the Nehruvian era as the “golden age” of parliamentary democracy and believe the system has lost much of its sheen since. Even the report of the National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution speaks of “increasing concern about the decline of parliament, falling standards of debate, erosion of the moral authority and prestige of the supreme tribune of the people.”

The authors argue, producing substantial data in support, that the much-lamented “decline” is really the outcome of further democratisation of India's polity and the ever-growing mass participation in it. This point is tellingly made with the help of tabulated information on the changing composition of the Lok Sabha, the book's main focus. In the Fifties, the Lok Sabha may have presented a picture of “national unity” but it represented “elitism” of a kind that was fated to fade out of the arena of democratic contentions. Then followed “the ambiguous zone” of the Seventies, when regions, workers, and peasants — among other groups — pressed for greater recognition and representation. The Nineties marked a significant phase in the evolutionary process, when “large masses who had hitherto been excluded from political representation were brought within the [Indian democracy's] fold.” “Plebeianisation” of parliamentary democracy was inevitable.

The study shows, in concrete terms, how the oft-moaned “decline” disguises considerable gains in popular representation. The vision of the Constituent Assembly and the Lok Sabha of the Fifties may have dimmed over the past decades. But today's Parliament does represent the plurality of Indian society much better and reverberates with the voices of those sections that had remained voiceless for generations.

All this, of course, does not mean that all is well with Parliament. The authors do acknowledge the flaws in the system, but give far greater space to its positive features. At any rate, parliamentary democracy in India is still evolving and the phase it is going through cannot be the end of the process.

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