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HEART OF DEMOCRACY

Questioning the institution and intellectual premises of parliament is essential to the spirit of democracy

At the heart of democracy is the institution of parliament. It originated in England in medieval times as a body to represent the barons, but by the 17th century the House of Commons, as distinct from the House of Lords, had emerged as the seat for the representatives of the people. India, because it chose to follow the Westminster model, adopted the system of the upper house and the lower house. But since India was a republic there was no question of having an equivalent of the House of Lords to protect the monarchy’s interests. In its place came the Rajya Sabha to articulate the interests of the states. The Lok Sabha is the seat of the elected representatives of the people. The executive, in other words the government of the day, is derived from the majority party in the Lok Sabha. The executive is thus rooted in the legislature. This, on the one hand, serves theoretically as a check on the executive but on the other hand it imposes a constraint on the chief executive or the prime minister on the pool of talent from which he can appoint his ministerial colleagues. The best team is thus never appointed because often the best persons do not get elected by the people. One has only to recall the experience of Mr Manmohan Singh.

Another problem that arises from the relationship between the legislature and the executive is related to the prevalence of the party system. A government, because it is from the party with a majority in the legislature, becomes less accountable to the legislature. It knows it runs no risk of losing a vote of confidence because it enjoys a majority. This breeds an attitude of insouciance towards parliament. In India, this has led to the erosion of the autonomy and power of the legislature. It is supine. The prevalence of the party system also means that members of the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha vote, not according to their conscience or according to the interests of those who elected them, but according to the dictates of the party. This somewhat mocks at the principles on which representative democracy is founded.

This discussion of some of the shortcomings of the Indian parliamentary system should not be read as an argument in favour of throwing the baby out with the bath-water. On the contrary, the purpose is to open up a discussion which is one of the necessary conditions for the functioning of a democracy. For too long, the way present parliamentary systems function has been accepted without any question. It is time to interrogate them and the almost blind confidence that underpinned the founding fathers’ acceptance of the Westminster model. Precisely because the functioning of parliament is critical for a democratic system that it is necessary to question and review the institution and its premises. A debate on the subject can only enrich democracy and all its institutions. This is important in contemporary India as many social groups, previously outside the ambit of decision-making, are becoming vocal members of political society. This societal churning is producing changes which are all not conducive to the democratic ethos. A debate on the institutions of democracy is essential to the preservation of its spirit.

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