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.