Temple of democracy under scrutiny

India’s
parliamentary democracy on trial
Madhav Godbole
Rupa and Co
2011, pp 419
595

The subsequent Supreme Court verdict acquitting the accused MPs was a shocker and dealt a severe blow to the battle against corruption. This must have emboldened the Manmohan Singh government to use money power on a massive scale, to win the trust vote in 2008. Unprincipled politics and graft, are not the only threats to our democratic system. The rot had set in years ago.

In India’s Parliamentary Democracy on Trial, Madhav Godbole traces the downhill journey of the Parliament from being the temple of democracy during the Nehru era, to the present devalued state. He explores the reasons for the growing public disenchantment with the Parliament and critically analyses the disturbing trends.

He suggests meaningful reforms to improve the functioning of the Parliament, its credibility and image. A former IAS official who had held senior positions both at the Centre and in Maharashtra, Godbole had the opportunity to observe the gradual marginalisation of the Parliament and state legislatures.

The author attributes Parliament’s ineffectiveness primarily to ruling parties’ reluctance to face Parliamentary House scrutiny. More and more bills are getting passed without discussions. Duration of Parliament sittings has come down from 130 days a year in 1950’s to less than 50 in recent years. Sessions have been put off, curtailed or terminated abruptly to suit the whims of the ruling party. While this has prevented the opposition from highlighting government lapses, the rulers found it convenient to cover up scams.

While Nehru took great care to preserve the dignity of Parliament and keep its image unblemished, Indira Gandhi considered it a hurdle. She showed scant regard for Parliament, and converted it into a rubber stamp during the Emergency. She began to spend less and less time in Parliament.

The quality of debates too has deteriorated with the ascendency of politicians with dubious reputation. Not many MPs use Parliament’s research and reference service now. Rajiv Gandhi was no better, as he used to be absent from the Parliament House during important debates and even encouraged a shouting brigade of his own party MPs. The hard-hitting book, while comparing the best practices in Western democracies, lists several factors that have contributed to the decline of the parliamentary system.

Among them are: government’s insensitivity to corruption, growing money power and criminalisation of politics, absenteeism among MPs, unruly behaviour, ruling party’s reluctance to hear opposition views, the Speaker’s partisan conduct and failure to discipline errant MPs, cases of Parliament decisions being scuttled, committee system becoming an excuse to skirt debates, and the dominance of the Prime Minister’s Office. Godbole questions the relevance of the Rajya Sabha and Legislative Councils, as they are becoming rehabilitation centres for discredited politicians.

He also faults the working of the Anti-Defection Act, as it stifles genuine dissent. He argues that the Act has to be repealed or modified to make a distinction between defection and dissent. Besides, power to decide on such cases should vest with the Chief Election Commissioner and not with the Speaker.

Another target is the MPLAD scheme for MPs to undertake development work in their constituencies. In view of widespread complaints about its misuse or under-utilisation, Godbole suggests that the scheme be scrapped. The money can be directly sent to the local government institutions. He wants the issue of paid news to be made an electoral malpractice.

Some of the suggestions made to improve parliamentary procedures and practices and to ensure the effectiveness of joint parliamentary committees merit serious attention. The well-researched volume is an excellent handbook for parliamentarians, students, decision-makers and civil society at large.

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