A Parliament Rendered Dysfunctional by Competitive Politics
Democracy is a system of government by compromises and accommodation.
Nothing much need be said as to how dysfunctional our Parliament has now become. The blight has been a long time in the making and Parliament has become a place more for theatre than thoughtful consideration of the nations many problems.
Democracy is a system of government by compromises and accommodation. That is why it’s called a reconciliatory system, where the myriad aspirations of individuals, groups, regions and nations are sought to be reconciled towards a common good. It is hence a government by discussion and debate, for the method of making choices is by common consent and acceptance. A prime prerequisite for democratic functioning is institutional order and coherence. Unfortunately what we have been witnessing in the recent past is the collapse of institutional order and coherence. Parliament is where these aspirations are intended to be reconciled, and Parliament has become increasingly dysfunctional.
Politics in India has been becoming increasingly adversarial and anything goes as long as it accrues to the gains of the adversaries. Imagine a game of chess where instead of two sides – black and white – we have one more side say in red playing on a three-sided board. The objective of each of the players would be to destroy the pawns and powers of the other sides and capture their kings. Now complicate this a bit more. The rules of the game could allow any two sides to combine for a certain length of time against the third or any other combination. This game then gets very complex with colors switching sides at will to make gains. When one color is extinguished the two left have the space to fight to finish without looking sideways.
The Indian political system might very well have more than three colors. But we can see three major sides in the political spectrum for now. These are the BJP, Congress and the loose alliance of the ex-Janata Dal factions and the regional parties, commonly called the third front. From 1969 to 1989 the BJP (formerly Jana Sangh) and the precursor factions of the Janata Dal used to combine against the Congress.
In 1990 VP Singh broke that arrangement by arresting LK Advani and halting his rath yatra. Since then the Congress has from time to time combined with the JD factions (minus VP Singh) against the BJP. You see the latest manifestation of this in the Mahagatbandhan that convincingly defeated the BJP in Bihar. This win was foretold once the two sides combined to give the BJP political returns in proportion to its popular support. In 2014 the BJP got a lopsided mandate of 283 seats in the Lok Sabha with just 31% of the popular vote.
The political and economic goals of the three major groupings in Indian politics do not differ very much. They are all committed to a raucous democracy and an economic system that gives the political players enough opportunity for collecting rent from crony capitalists. The only differences are about the share of the spoils and individual ambitions. Individual ambitions have always been the cause of abrupt shifts in political positions.
The evolution of our politics into a non-ideological political competition has seen the demise of discussion and debate in Parliament. The evolution of 24X7 TV news channels and their vacuous talk shows aimed at garnering TRP’s rather than spreading light has only accelerated this process. Parliament still meets and passes bills and enacts laws, but most of this is done without the debate and discussion they require and we expect. Even the budget is barely discussed. The defence budget has not been discussed for years now. Parliament even functions without quorums most of the time. It has become just a theatre for the political factions to posture and win support in the vast outside.
In this situation the political adversaries pick issues to stall important political statements the ruling party is invested in. The GST Bill is a case in point. The BJP opposed a GST as long as it was in the opposition. The BJP states, including Gujarat led by Narendra Modi, were very vociferous in their opposition. To the Congress then, the GST was a symbol of its commitment to the reforms process. Now the sides have switched. The Congress is hoisting the BJP on its own petard. It's the same situation with the Nuclear Liability Law. The stringency demanded by the then opposition including the BJP saw it become unreasonable and impractical that there are no takers for the offer to open nuclear power generation to international power companies.
One has to look beyond sundry ambitions of individual politicians for this dysfunction. There are serious institutional flaws in our parliamentary system too. An American scholar, Dr. Jessica Seddon who is presently a Senior Fellow at the IIT Madras Center for Technology and Policy recently wrote a very perceptive paper “The Limits of Control in Parliament” in which she examines the institutional arrangements that preclude intelligent and patient discussion of vital matters in either of the houses of Parliament.
Seddon writes: “Parliamentary process is currently stacked against constructive debate. It awards the government substantial control over what comes up for discussion, limits the avenues for alternatives to be articulated and seriously considered, and more or less precludes coalitions that cut across government and opposition lines. In doing so, it also effectively absolves the opposition from any responsibility to highlight specific problems, propose new solutions and build issue-based coalitions around common interests. If delay, disruption and shouts of ‘no’ are the only feasible forms of public dissent, it’s hard to ask people to hold their representatives accountable for more.” Furthermore the opposition has little say on the agenda for discussion. Our rules allow for somewhat stronger government control over the agenda than many other parliaments.
The Speaker of the English House of Commons presides over the House's debates, determining which members may speak, for maintaining order during debate, and may punish members who break the rules of the House. Unlike presiding officers of legislatures in many other countries, the Speaker remains strictly non-partisan, and renounces all affiliation with his or her former political party when taking office as well as when leaving the office. Customarily, the House re-elects Speakers who desire to continue in office for more than one term.
The Speaker of the US House of Representatives is an active and partisan leadership position and the incumbent actively works to set the majority party's legislative agenda. The Speaker usually does not personally preside over debates, instead delegating the duty to members of the House from the majority party. The Speaker usually does not participate in debate and rarely votes. Aside from duties relating to heading the House and the majority political party, the Speaker also performs administrative and procedural functions, and represents his or her Congressional district.
The office of the Speaker of the Lok Sabha is modeled after the English Speaker. But in India, with its rather lesser regard for convention, the Speaker continues to be a party hack and works closely with the government that chose him or her to further the party’s political agenda. It is little wonder then that the Speaker, despite the show of deference and frequent reference by the MP’s, actually commands little authority to control the house. On the other hand opposition members often feel stonewalled because of the Speaker’s political affiliations. This is perhaps why the Lok Sabha ever so often witnesses so much disorder and willful disobedience. This convention of having a Speaker from within must be re-examined and we might be better served by having Parliament presided over by an eminent and commonly trusted individual, perhaps like a retired Chief Justice, who might bring a more enlightened view of right and wrong to the office.
Then there is the Anti-Defection Act that seriously limits free discussion by muzzling inner party discussion and expression of dissent. The anti-defection law owes its origins to the reformist zeal of Rajiv Gandhi in his early days as Prime Minister. Whether it was the perception that the soaring popularity was an ephemeral one and that he would be vulnerable to defections engineered by the old guard, or whether it was a genuine desire to reform politics by putting an end to chronic defections and political instability, or more likely a bit of both, Rajiv Gandhi pushed through the law on defections which blights polity even now.
This Act disrespects the essential reality that Members of Parliament or the legislatures are representatives of the people. That they are members of a political party is only incidental. The elected members are intended to represent and protect the interests of the people who elect them and not that of a handful of leaders. It makes them subservient to the whip on the pain of expulsion. This tyranny of the whip has made MP’s marionettes that are forced to act according to the wishes of the party leadership. Most party leaderships are now vested within families and clans, and leadership is hereditary or extra-institutional
So where do we go from here? And where will we discuss and debate just that?