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16 November 2011

For my own voice in Parl

Written by Jayant Chaudhary

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For my own voice in Parl

On August 27, the nation bore witness as parliament grappled with an issue that has found resonance in the hearts and minds of everyone. For many who claim that televising proceedings of parliament has increased.

The shrillness and histrionics in parliamentary debates, this debate showed otherwise. Make no mistake, everyone was watching. I spoke on the issue and have received emails from all over India and also as far as Singapore. Villagers from my constituency came up and told me that they saw my intervention. The pressure of the people watching, for a change, had a positive impact, and there were no major disruptions.

The issue at hand was not something new; 1968 onwards, legislation on the lokpal has been introduced nine times. But to my memory, the situation was unprecedented. It is undeniable that Anna Hazare is a simple man who with his self-belief and devotion to a pure cause has rallied the masses. It is also known that corruption singlehandedly impairs our efforts to bridge the developmental gaps in our society. Corruption is, in fact, increasing the inequality. It adds to the information asymmetry and puts up the barriers to entry that constrict the upward mobility of our middle classes and poorer sections. In June 2008, a report by Transparency International India and the Centre for Media Studies pointed out that one-third of BPL households across the 31 states covered by the survey paid bribes to access one or more of 11 public services.

After years of noncommittal shrugs, they came out to the streets – the workers, managers, business leaders, farmers, the unemployed, those rendered unemployable by our education system, young and infirm, men and women, even the children who wanted to be a part of the movement – and expressed their despair for parliament and the government to take notice. Corruption became the fountainhead for all that is wrong with the nation. Quite obviously, the first targets became the elected representatives, people whose responsibility it is to bring accountability to the system. The government’s handling of the agitation further added to the chaos, and the feeling that corruption was an issue where it was the people versus the institutions that tolerated and even perpetuated corruption – the politician, the bureaucracy, the government, parliament.

 

As the issue on the streets became the subject of deliberations in the country’s highest institution, parliament, I became acutely aware that a large number of the parliamentarians were drawn to the verbal and physical language on the streets. The language employed was desperate, aggressive and at times full of contempt for the political class. The agitation was viewed by many MPs as an affront to the ‘supremacy’ of parliament. So, on Saturday, while all those who spoke in the Lok Sabha expressed their commitment to the cause of fighting corruption, and the ‘sense of the house’ was in line with the sentiment on the streets, the debate was also drawn to the role of media, NGOs, the actors on Ramlila Maidan and how the legitimacy of the elected representatives was on the line.

 

My take is that the language of the movement does not take away the merit. We cannot be dismissive, shoot the messenger and not introspect on the message. How is it that in a country with essentially pluralistic and democratic traditions and role models like Gandhi, Sardar Patel and Chaudhary Charan Singh, the youth of today is participating more enthusiastically in agitations than elections? I have engaged in public speaking from a young age, and can tell you from my experience, in any village in our country, if you go and speak about the contributions of great individuals to nation-building, the crowds will be appreciative. But if you talk about how the system has failed the nation’s most hardworking people – the farmers, the labourers, the rural artisans, the youth – you will get the loudest cheers. Yes, we are the world’s largest democracy and can take pride in our constitution framed by Babasaheb Ambedkar, but we do need to take note of the public’s call for reform in our representative and participative democratic system.

Let us look at how public perception has been shaped in this manner; the politician and the parliamentarian as two heads of Janus; both looking in diametrically opposite directions. Janus is also the perfect way to explain these times, as he was the Greek god of beginnings and transitions; one head looking at the past and the other into the future. It is insightful how the words ‘politician’ and ‘parliamentarian’ bring out different emotions. Generally, the term politician seems to evoke mistrust and adjectives all at the negative end of the spectrum, whereas a parliamentarian brings to mind an academic character, a debater shaping the nation’s destiny through thought and action. What are the reasons for this disconnect?

I believe first and foremost, the perception is a function of parliament’s efficiency. Scenes of MPs storming the well of the house have become the constricted view of what happens in parliament. The disruption of the house has also taken away valuable time. In this session that concludes shortly, approximately 60 bills are yet to be passed, approximately 35 of which are yet to be introduced.

Parliament, as it exists today, is too tolerant of indiscipline and too intolerant of dissent. I am referring to the dissent expressed by a peaceful gathering at Jantar Mantar or Ramlila Maidan, and also the intra-party dissent of individual MPs. The question of influence of outsiders or the non-elected members of civil society in the legislative process is irrelevant in my view. When you have the precedent of the national advisory council (NAC) which has a role in the creation of legislation as demonstrated in the draft land acquisition bill and the food security issue among several other examples that can be quoted, you cannot question any other groupings that might emerge. The pertinent issue in my estimation is the role of the individual MP in the legislative process. There is a need to empower individual MPs. When we are so adamant on the supremacy of parliament for the sake of democracy, why do we keep silent on the democratic rights of the parliamentarians?

 

One such issue is the whipping of the conscience of individual members through party whip. While it may serve the cause of prevention of horse-trading to an extent, does it not restrain the MPs from voting as per their conscience? If one feels that in the benefit of the nation, the party stand on a particular issue is not in resonance with the wishes of people in his constituency, can he take an independent view? No.

 

Vice-president Hamid Ansari said in 2009: “We need to build a political consensus so that the room for political and policy expression in parliament for an individual member is expanded. This could take many forms… the issuance of a whip could be limited to only those bills that could threaten the survival of a government such as money bills or no-confidence motions. In other legislative and deliberative business of parliament, this would enable members to exercise their judgment and articulate their opinion.” Debates and discussions are essential for good policy making. However, with the anti-defection law in place, the value of this discussion has deteriorated. Individual MPs cannot go against the party diktat, at the risk of losing their membership in the house.

 

In contrast with the value put on the ‘party’ in our parliamentary set-up, the ideological lines between the national parties seem to be blurring. What is the difference, asks the voter. The advent of a powerful electronic media lobby and social media campaigns has led to elections transforming into personality contests. Candidates reach out to voters through personal messages on Holi or Eid and constituents count the attendance  by politicians in weddings and family functions. They are also very aware of the issues the individual MP is raising, and question them accordingly. My point is that the focus on individuals is increasing, and parties should respond accordingly.

 

The call for empowerment of MPs had in 1993 led to the formation of standing committees. However, committees have become an important part in the process of law making. They are a mini parliament in themselves; a bipartisan environment, where politicians can discuss issues on their merit rather than based on purely ‘political’ implications. There is thorough debate, where each idea is weighed in and debated. Witnesses are called to explain the stands of the various stakeholders involved. Because it is not possible for every parliamentarian to be suitably equipped to deal with all issues, committees provide an efficient way of providing policy makers access to domain experts and varied views.

It is important to acknowledge that public awareness of standing committees, their role and functions is limited. That is why for most people sending the Lokpal bill to the standing committee sounded like putting it in the drawer to look again at a later date. Also, in my experience, parliamentary scrutiny of standing committee reports in practice is limited.

Should we look at opening up the proceedings of some committees to the public? Comparing the US experience and even in the UK where committees are all powerful, and some proceedings are open to scrutiny; in our system, we often get the situation that the executive is not adequately responsive to the committees.

 

Take the example of the fourth report of the Committee on Members of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme (MPLADS) (2010-11), tabled in Lok Sabha on the August 11. Para 2.4 states that the “committee took strong exception to the above remarks of the secretary, ministry of statistics and programme implementation”. The secretary had refused to commit to the committee’s demand that the committee should be taken into confidence before any amendments are made to the MPLADS guidelines, and before the circulars regarding amendments to guidelines are sent to the district magistrates. “These committees were constituted as advisory committees and I have full respect for the advice which they give”, stated the official to the committee! Similar to this response is the usual refrain, we have ‘in-principle approval’; experienced parliamentarians will tell you that when you hear this, know that what you asked for will never happen.

 

Understanding the role of parliamentarians is not a simple task. They bridge the gap between the needs of their constituents with what can be brought about by the government. They hold the executive accountable and ensure that policy decided by them is being implemented. With the introduction of MPLADS, their role ventures into a grey area, performing tasks of the executive. MPLADS provided MPs with very little funds to bring any significant change. It has however raised the expectations of people, who believe that their MP is now capable of providing them with what they want most. I support the MPLAD scheme because it is bottom-up, driven by the needs expressed by the constituents and not by a large-scale public planning approach. It has however, taken the focus away from the legislative functions of the parliamentarians.

 

The concept of private member bills was introduced in the parliament to give MPs the chance to bring in legislations individually. However, to my knowledge, the last private member bill was passed in 1968. There have been only 14 such bills passed in the last 64 years of our independence. These bills give an opportunity to MPs to bring in legislation they think needs attention from the government. However, they are given little importance and are often neglected. This has also led to a decrease in initiative taken by MPs in pursuing non-party agenda.

Another example of parliament’s failure is the failure to check instances of executive overreach. Most laws passed by parliament come into force only after being notified by the government. This is often done for administrative purposes, but often misused to placate lobbyists. Out of the 190 laws passed from 1995 to 2008, which required notification, five percent of the laws were never notified and nine percent of them were only partially notified. Such activities undermine the legitimacy of parliament more than any peaceful agitation can.

In the past decade or so, never has the role of the parliament come under such scrutiny as during the Lokpal debate. But should we say that it has opened Pandora’s box of issues? Is our democracy so crippled that we need to repeat ad nauseum about parliamentary supremacy? I do not believe the Anna Hazare led movement is setting a dangerous precedent because I have faith in the people’s vision, their ability to distinguish between right and wrong. If the agitation had a divisive agenda, it would not have received the overwhelming support of our masses. The positive development of the agitation will also be the increased citizen participation in democracy through voting and otherwise. I have observed the need for strengthening existing mechanisms like the parliamentary committees, and establishment of new forums for discussion; where people can participate and use their representatives to present their arguments. Freedom of expression is our fundamental right. Unlike the Arab spring, our citizens are not fighting for free speech but for a responsive government and parliament.

 

I realise a large number of MPs are uneasy because they sense the growing impatience with the failure of the system to represent the angst of people, to give it a voice. It is here that a balance must be struck between the two essentially interdependent roles of ‘politician’ and ‘parliamentarian’. The academic parliamentarian cannot create effective policy; it is necessary for the politician to come out and understand the needs of the people he represents. If we are to change the way politicians are perceived, the ‘parliamentarian’ will have to come to the fore. We need to introspect and adapt to the changed aspirations of the people. The democratic value systems also need to be refreshed. Focus on electoral reform to weed out money power and the criminalisation of politics is of utmost importance. In UP in 2002-2007, there were 206 MLAs with criminal records in the UP assembly. In the 2007 elections, 160 candidates with criminal record won out of over 1,000 in the fray. How can this change be achieved? By some tinkering with laws, improving the efficiency and access to judicial processes, but above all by invoking a moral conscience of the voting public. In the words of Mahatma Gandhi, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”

 

This article benefitted from research by Chaudhary's legislative assistant Sanskriti Jain

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