A vote for the sake of Parliament

Constituents must weigh their candidate’s commitment to restoring the dignity of the legislature
By Neera Chandhoke

In his last address to the Constituent Assembly on November 25, 1949, B.R. Ambedkar remarked presciently that the working of the Constitution does not depend wholly upon the Constitution. It depends on the people and the political parties they set up as their instruments to carry out their wishes and their politics. How will the people of India and their parties, he asked, behave? Will they uphold constitutional methods of achieving their aim? It is futile to say, he concluded, the Constitution has failed without taking into consideration the role of the people and their parties. We would do well to recollect his words. We have to insist on the restoration of the dignity of Parliament. It is a condensate of popular sovereignty.

When political historians write of a government that came to power in 2014 on an impressive majority, what will they write? Will they write of a Prime Minister who had promised to set right everything that had gone wrong in India? Will they chronicle the political biography of a man who sadly frittered away the colossal mandate Indian citizens gave him? Will political satirists compare the Narendra Modi government to Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s movies, all spectacle and din but little substance? Might political historians write of a man who refused to be accountable for his government’s failure to provide the basic preconditions of a dignified life to citizens? Or might they record his government’s refusal to deter criminals who openly bullied, maimed and murdered our own people. Will our historians tell frightening stories of Mr. Modi nearly taking his country to war, threatening the use of nuclear weapons, and using this to garner votes from a bewildered India? Do people in power really not know of the unimaginable death and destruction that nuclear wars bring upon people for generations to come? Historians will wonder.

What story history tells future generations will depend on the historian, her political vision, her interpretive skills and her commitment to the ordinary citizen who ekes out a life in want and misery. Court historians will lavish praises on Mr. Modi. But even they can hardly ignore his contempt for history, for the Prime Ministers that ruled the country before him, and above all his disregard of institutions that his predecessors had built laboriously.

Questions about institutions

Take Mr. Modi’s attitude to the august institution of Parliament. India’s Constituent Assembly witnessed a rich and informed debate on the virtues of the parliamentary versus the presidential form of government. Members knew of the hijacking of Parliaments by executives, they were aware of dictatorial Prime Ministers, and they were cognizant of the fatal tendency of political parties to serve their own interests more, and those of their constituents less. Yet members of the Constituent Assembly decided on a parliamentary form of government.

They had good reasons for this. In a plural society, citizens hold diverse and sometimes contrary beliefs; they agree on some issues and they disagree on others. It is only a parliamentary system of government that enables the expression of diverse and divergent opinions. In legislative forums, representatives are supposed to give voice to the interests, opinions and needs of their constituents. Sometimes decisions are taken, at other times backdoor negotiations lead to fragile and provisional outcomes. It does not matter that decisions are provisional. In a democracy there can be no notion of a Hobbesian social contract that binds citizens in perpetuity. Times change, public opinion changes, new issues arise on the horizon, older ones have to be reiterated, and those issues that have become redundant need to be abandoned and replaced by fresh thinking.

Even though observers have been disappointed by the failure of representatives to represent the interests of the people, they agree that in large and complex societies a parliamentary system of government is infinitely preferable to the presidential model. No one man can collect in his own being the wisdom and certitudes of his age. The precondition of good policy is dissent and debate, the willingness to learn from others, the readiness to change one’s mind. The Indian Parliament is noisy, known more for the politics of pandemonium than rational debate. But it is only a parliamentary form of government that can prevent one man from hijacking power.

Importance of the Opposition

So when Mr. Modi and BJP president Amit Shah repeatedly state that all they want is a Congress-mukt Bharat, their desperate ambition to rid the country of an Opposition occasions puzzlement and discomfort. An Opposition is central to the working of a parliamentary system of government. Without an Opposition, the system degenerates into one-party rule. Across the postcolonial world, efforts to de-legitimize the Opposition and create a one-party state have inexorably slid into military rule, and subsequently into what western donors and academics call failed states. Pathological states can neither meet the needs of their people nor institutionalize power. A one-party dictatorship can hardly be the answer to din and deadlocks, it is part of the problem. Failed states abdicate sovereignty, they are rendered vulnerable and dependent on transnational financial agencies, upon conditionalities imposed by funders, they are brought to their knees by international human rights organizations, and they are despised by their own people. We should be critical of any call to do away with the Opposition — many a postcolonial country has floundered on the rocks of one-party rule.

There is more. We must never lose sight of the democratic principle that representatives proxy for their constituents. The Lok Sabha is not only a gathering of political parties, each member of Parliament represents the Indian people, even if he does so inadequately and incompetently. Members of the Opposition are in Parliament by the same rationale that members of the ruling party are. When Prime Minister Modi abuses the leaders of the Opposition, he should be aware that he abuses the people of India who have delegated power to these representatives in the first place.

If the individual is the prime unity of democratic life, and representatives merely a mode of representing her needs and interests in the forum of Parliament, candidates who ask for our vote should be worthy of our confidence. When political parties impose criminals, persons accused of terrorist activities, dealers and fixers upon constituencies, they insult the intelligence of the people who are going to vote. It is time that civil society organizations take this issue up. The moment a party announces a candidate, constituents should take up the task of debating the merit or otherwise of the person. Realists tell us that parties choose candidates who are self-financing and who can deliver votes. This may be so, but it does not follow that contemptible people should be thrust upon constituencies. There is nothing more ignoble than invoking the nation or religion to justify candidates who send shudders down our collective spine. We deserve candidates we consider worthy, men and women of integrity.

Text, and the practice

The system of parliamentary government that India adopted is complex, intricate and frustrating. But the institution represents citizens who are the locus of sovereignty. This is what Parliament is for. That is why it should be respected. Admittedly the Indian Parliament has not worked the way it should, but it is not the system that is flawed. In his last address to the Constituent Assembly on November 25, 1949, B.R. Ambedkar remarked presciently that the working of the Constitution does not depend wholly upon the Constitution. It depends on the people and the political parties they set up as their instruments to carry out their wishes and their politics. How will the people of India and their parties, he asked, behave? Will they uphold constitutional methods of achieving their aim? It is futile to say, he concluded, the Constitution has failed without taking into consideration the role of the people and their parties. We would do well to recollect his words. We have to insist on the restoration of the dignity of Parliament. It is a condensate of popular sovereignty.

(The author  is a former Professor of Political Science at Delhi University)

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