To my mind, the most significant achievement of the first six decades of freedom, in many ways, is that we have sustained the vibrancy of our parliamentary democracy, which has survived in spite of the prevalence of what seemed to be inhibiting factors that were not conducive to its healthy functioning — like
- the division of the country on communal lines that was perceived to have had a debilitating effect on the functioning of our democratic system.
- Besides, our poor economic conditions,
- low literacy,
- the hierarchical social structure, and
- multiple ethnic, religious and linguistic cleavages,
were all potent factors that could inhibit and weaken the democratic fabric.
Today, having come through 14 general elections and experienced a good degree of political stability for almost six decades, we can say with confidence that Indian democracy has come of age and that democracy is here to stay. This democratic consolidation — preserving and protecting the unity of such a heterogeneous country with one billion-plus people practising different religions, and speaking innumerable languages, and which is home to a wide variety of customs and practices — has indeed been a gigantic challenge that post-Independence India met successfully, to the envy of many.
The driving force behind Indian democracy is our people — the vast electorate that has shown to the world its unquestionable capability and commitment to work the democratic system that the Constitution has provided for governance. They have brought about changes in government, with an enormous sense of responsibility and uncanny wisdom, on six out of 14 occasions that we went through general elections — in most cases proving even political pundits wrong. We have seen in the past that whenever the people perceived divisive or anti-people activities that contributed to political instability, they have punished those responsible. Whenever they perceived the popular mandate being misused to undermine democracy from within, they exercised their judgment at the earliest opportunity to safeguard democracy. The faceless voter of India is someone no political party can take for granted and is Indian democracy’s best guarantee today. India’s experiments with democratic governance have received universal recognition and our hugely multi-cultural society is seen as an example for those struggling to cope with the complexities of race, religion, language and culture.
Any discussion on India’s parliamentary democracy, when we are completing 60 years of freedom, calls for some honest introspection among all sections of our society, particularly among the political class, about the health of our political system today.
The Constitution clearly lays down the institutional foundation for a functioning democracy. It has established a structure of power relationships based on the system of distribution of powers between the Union and the States and of separation of powers between the three organs of the state. No doubt, it is Parliament that has contributed the most to the consolidation and strengthening of democracy in the country. Over the years, Parliament has come to be identified, both in theory and in practice, and rightly so, to be the pivot of our political system.
The early Lok Sabhas, for example, had to grapple with many issues and problems germane to a newborn Republic that emerged after centuries of foreign rule. The priorities of a Parliament invested with the responsibility of consolidating the freedom and laying down the institutional foundations of a new Republic had to be different from those of the subsequent ones, which have as their primary task the sustenance and perpetuation of institutions created by the Constitution and the laws of the land. Understandably, independent India’s first Parliament has the distinction of having spent the maximum time, out of its total sittings, on legislation. In the early years Parliament discharged its function of charting out the path of social engineering with the utmost sense of responsibility, in the process earning the admiration and respect of the people.
But such is the phase of competitive and confrontational politics today that Parliament finds itself disabled in the discharge of its essential functions. There is a growing perception among some sections of our people, particularly the youth, that democratic institutions are not functioning as they should. While the public perceives a general decline in all our institutions of governance, it is Parliament and the State Assemblies that have come in for strong criticism. Debates and discussions, the hallmarks of democracy, are being overshadowed by disruption, confrontation and other non-democratic alternatives. Many well-meaning critics have started pointing out that confrontational politics have accentuated religious, linguistic and casteist divisions in society and that unfortunately political power has got polarised around identities of caste, religion, and language, thereby making the political system an accentuated reflection of the existing social inequalities.
Today, questions are being asked about the utility and relevance of Parliament in our polity and, indeed, about the workability of our democratic set-up based on the parliamentary system. If Parliament does not function effectively and loses public trust, parliamentary democracy too will begin to wilt. Parliament is the fountainhead of the people’s desires and aspirations. To raise Parliament’s esteem in the people’s eyes, we urgently need to address the issues of declining quality of debates, falling attendance of members, indecorous and unruly behaviour and the increasing tendency to stall parliamentary proceedings to register dissent. We should devote more time to law-making and make the committee system more effective to better oversee the government’s functions and to scrutinise effectively proposed legislations. What is needed most is total commitment to our Constitution and to the smooth functioning of Parliament and of the Legislatures, which are all constituted by the people. To be successful, Parliament must not only be representative, transparent, accessible, accountable and effective but should also function in a manner that will further cement people’s faith and confidence in the great utility of the institution itself.
The perceived aberrations in the functioning of our democratic institutions, however, should not make us overlook our achievements under a parliamentary democratic system in the past six decades. It should be everyone’s endeavour to highlight our achievements also and thereby seek to enhance our people’s faith in the system. The media and the judiciary, two offshoots of democracy, have a special role in this. It is through the exercise of democratic rights that the traditionally disenfranchised sections of society are acquiring a new voice and role in India’s governance.
Parliament has indeed worked as a vehicle of social engineering. Its initiatives through the years in enacting laws have to be viewed from this broad social perspective. The enactments include those to bring about social change, to enlarge opportunities for education, to implement comprehensive land reforms, and to help provide just and humane conditions of work. Other enactments include those to ensure maternity relief, to provide protection to women at the workplace, to broaden the base of women’s participation in politics, to safeguard the vulnerable sections against social discrimination, violence and atrocities, to act against child marriages, to eliminate the evil practice of dowry, to provide a conducive environment for the development of children, to put an end to the sexual exploitation of women and their indecent representation, to protect women from domestic violence, to promote the educational and economic interests of the weaker sections of our society – including women, children and the minorities — to ensure and guarantee rural employment and thereby to address rural poverty, and so on. Several laws have been passed over the years prohibiting practices that are inimical to societal development, and for the creation of a civilised society.
The expulsion of 10 Members of Parliament in 2005 in the ‘cash-for-query scam’ was a watershed event in parliamentary history across the world; nowhere have so many elected legislators in a national Parliament been expelled for misdemeanour by a vote of the House. The three-month suspension of four members of the Lok Sabha in 2006 for their role in irregularities related to funds earmarked for the Member of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme (MPLADS) demonstrated the resolve of the House to cleanse itself and to lay down new standards of conduct for its members. Both measures won the people’s resounding approval. However, that process of self-cleansing must continue and the recent allegations against some members about their alleged role in human trafficking are now being investigated with the deserving seriousness by a committee of the House that as Speaker I set up.
As a nation we have undoubtedly made considerable progress in different spheres. The participative democratic structure and an open society, which we are enjoying, are what our Constitution has provided. Today India is becoming an economic power in the world and we possess an enormous pool of talented young men and women who have the potential to effect a major turnaround in the country’s economic fortunes. There is no reason why we should not be able to fulfil our still incomplete task of becoming a developed nation demonstrating, at every level, standards of healthy political culture and collectively addressing the grave issues of hunger, illiteracy, disease and exploitation.
Question of faith
We should be able to combat the forces and elements that are trying to vitiate our socio-political culture and undermine our institutions of democracy. It should be our collective endeavour to ensure that issues concerning our people occupy the centre-stage of political discourse in the country and thereby to ensure that our people do not lose faith in democracy as the best system of governance available. Once people lose faith in the system, no force, no army, can help save the system.
Our plural society is best served and sustained in a parliamentary democratic set-up. I believe that it will not be long before our democratic processes acquire the resilience and strength to blur the social divisions of language, religion, caste and class and come to be centred on issues that have a direct bearing on the quality of living of our people. We can already see welcome signs emerging in that direction.
The life of dignity and honour that we are enjoying today as citizens of the largest working democracy in the world is the result of the sacrifices and contributions of our freedom fighters and leaders, who have also been visionary statesmen. As we enter the seventh decade of freedom, rather than allowing our inadequacies so far to dampen our enthusiasm for the future, our people, particularly the youth, should come forward and make their contributions to further strengthen our democracy and our representative system. Today, our challenge is to transform it into the best functioning democracy.
In spite of the various shortcomings, I believe that the institution that can claim the maximum credit for creating conditions for democracy to flourish in the country, undoubtedly, is our Parliament. No other institution can claim to match the collective capacity of our Parliament to be sensitive to the cause of the common masses. At the end of six decades of parliamentary democratic life, the balance-sheet of performance is definitely in favour of this great people’s institution. That, however, should not make us complacent. Eternal vigilance is the price that its participants, the people, have to pay for the sustenance of democracy. Somnath Chatterjee is the Speaker of the Lok Sabha.