Monday, November 24, 2014

India’s Disrupted Democracy

NEW DELHI – India’s 15th Lok Sabha (the lower house of Parliament) passed into history ignominiously this month, following the least productive five years of any Indian parliament in six decades of functioning democracy. With entire sessions lost to opposition disruptions, and with frequent adjournments depriving legislators of time for deliberation, the MPs elected in May 2009 passed fewer bills and spent fewer hours in debate than any of their predecessors.

As if that were not bad enough, the final session witnessed new lows in unruly behavior, with microphones broken, scuffles in the well of the house, and a legislator releasing pepper spray to prevent discussion of a bill he opposed. In the latter incident, the Speaker was rushed, choking, from her seat, and three asthmatic MPs were taken to the hospital, prompting the offender to explain that he was acting in self-defense against those who sought to prevent him from engaging in less exotic forms of disruption.

To those of us who sought election to Parliament in order to participate in thoughtful debate on how to move India forward, and to deliberate on the laws by which we would be governed, the experience has been deeply disillusioning.

To be sure, democracy has proved to be an extraordinary instrument for transforming an ancient country – one featuring astonishing ethnic, religious, linguistic, and cultural diversity, myriad social divisions, and deeply entrenched poverty – into a twenty-first-century success story. Only democracy could have engineered such remarkable change with the consent of the governed, and enabled all to feel that they have the same stake in the country’s progress, equal rights under its laws, and equal opportunities for advancement. And only democracy could defuse conflict by giving dissent a legitimate means of expression. Some observers express astonishment that India has flourished as a democracy; in fact, it could hardly have survived as anything else.

But the “temple of democracy,” as Indians have long hailed their parliament, has been soiled by its own priests, and is now in desperate need of reform. Parliament’s functioning has become, to most Indians, an embarrassment and, to many, an abomination. People turn on their televisions and watch in disbelief as their elected representatives shout slogans, wave placards, scream abuse, and provoke adjournments – indeed, do almost anything but what they were elected to do.

The result is that most Indians consider Parliament a colossal waste of time and money. After all, its dysfunction not only cheapens political discourse; it also delays essential legislative business. Bills languish, policies fail to acquire the legal framework needed for implementation, and governance slows.

The errant MPs are not just betraying their voters’ confidence; they are also betraying their duty to the country and discrediting democracy. But the complacency with which the political establishment accepts the disruption of Parliament suggests that even experienced politicians do not understand this.

Because a parliamentary system usually results in predictable outcomes, with the ruling majority typically getting its way, India’s opposition MPs (and any government MPs who disagree with the cabinet’s position on a specific issue) prefer disruption to debate. And this is greeted on both sides of the aisle with a shrug, as if intentionally drowning out one’s colleagues with shouted slogans were just another parliamentary maneuver, as valid as a filibuster or an adjournment motion.

In fact, an unwritten but sacrosanct convention ensures that the Speaker almost never uses the position’s authority to suspend or expel errant members, except when there is a consensus between the government and the opposition to do so – which of course rarely occurs. (The pepper-spraying MP was, however, suspended for the rest of the session. Even complacency has its limits.)

What the political establishment overlooks is the broader damage that such behavior does to Parliament’s public standing, and therefore to democracy itself. The shambolic performance of elected parliaments in Europe, especially in interwar Germany and Italy, had a great deal to do with the rise of authoritarianism and fascism in the first half of the twentieth century. When democracy is discredited by its own practitioners, there is much greater public willingness to embrace a seemingly efficient alternative.

India’s neighbors have proved this often enough, welcoming the overthrow of elected governments in popular coups. India has never seemed likely to succumb to a similar tendency, but the irresponsible custodians of Indian democracy should not tempt fate.

If India’s founding fathers, like the passionate democrat Jawaharlal Nehru, had not been cremated, they would be turning over in their graves. With a general election to be held by the end of May, voters should insist that those who seek to represent them in Parliament go there to debate and deliberate, not to disrupt and destroy. As of now, that seems to be a forlorn hope.

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    1. CommentedM Patel

      Jawaharlal Nehru was a 100% 1940s fabian socialist. His passion was socialized economy not democracy. That is precisely the reason Nehru preferred socialist USSR over democrat USA. Jawaharlal Nehru wrote in his book "...all those rumors (about gulag) are not true...working condition (in labor camp) better than factory floors in mumbai..". In a speech in parliament he said "Marshall Stalin was a man of peace".

    2. CommentedProcyon Mukherjee

      How irresponsibly Mr. Tharoor articulates that India’s temple of democracy is soiled by its priests and refers to its founding fathers turning in the graves, somewhat like a hapless orphan admonishing that the road to the orphanage is dirty.

      As responsible citizens, (not just as parliamentarians), it is the minimum duty to create a platform for the polity where meaningful trust could be created for building of a consensus on issues of the state where partisanship should be limited not unbound in all its tenets as is the case with our system now. Is Mr. Tharoor saying that as a responsible member of the same polity where he belongs, he can abrogate his accountability in the building of this foundation for a functional polity where he belongs?

      Democracy will progress, if at all, if people like Mr. Tharoor works on listening to others before working on irresolute views of his own and his ilk; developing a common view that will emerge triumphant for the common good is not about passing judgment on behaviors of others alone, no matter how shoddy they are in their form, charity must begin at home.

    3. Commentedsri ram

      Enough of rhetoric Mr.Tharoor. Can we have a more incisive analysis as to why no action has been taken. Why this pathetic spectacle day in and day out? Why do you describe the take-no-action convention with cross party consensus as " sacrosanct"?( This you will readily answer as there is room for more rhetoric!). However, your reflections go longer than almost all others in highlighting the dangers of letting this sort of anarchy go on as business as usual.

    4. CommentedPrem Swaroop

      One must also understand that the author conveniently ignores the fact that bills that ought to have been discussed in the parliament earlier were deliberately delayed to coincide with the upcoming election season. On an average, in the 5 year tenure of a parliament, close to 300 bills are passed, this time around we cleared just about 165. It is highly irritating for the educated middle class to see their representatives fight it out like soccer hooligans.

        CommentedCraig Stevenson


        Would you view this as India lessening in power due to the idiosyncrasies of Democratic governance?