The Parliamentary System: What we have made of it, what we can make of it Arun Shourie ASA/Rupa & Co, Rs 495 But Not For the People Pratap Bhanu Mehta Indian Express: Sunday, June 03, 2007 In what sense is our democracy representative, asks Arun Shourie? Should our selection mechanism for governments change?
This book is a characteristically clear and trenchant critique of the current parliamentary system. Its starting point is a fundamental question we have ignored for too long: in what sense is our democracy representative? We have a selection mechanism for governments, but is this mechanism representative to the degree we want? What does it mean to say that an MP represents his constituency when more than 60 per cent of MPs are elected by a third of the electors in that constituency? How do we link psephological outcomes with programmatic mandates? In 2004 there was only one percentage point difference between the Telugu Desam and Congress in Andhra; yet the vote was interpreted as an overwhelming mandate. Or what did anti-incumbency mean in UP when the SP’s vote share actually went up? Add further complications to this picture: what challenges does it pose for democracy when reforms are held up, not by the political economy of mass politics as some allege, but by the veto power of small parties? Shourie is at his robust best in unsettling platitudes about the representative character of our democracy. This starting point leads to two remedies: the first is a whole-scale reform of the electoral system. His proposal is a radically modified German-style mixed system with negative voting and a lottery thrown in. There are many convincing arguments for the adoption of a German style mixed system, with its combination of territorial constituencies and proportional representation though Shourie does not fully spell out the normative logic in terms of first principles. His own twist to the German system is not entirely persuasive but his arguments merit serious consideration. The second is the strengthening of non-elected institutions, including the judiciary. While many of the proposals here are unexceptionable, the overall thrust of the argument unwittingly nurtures the illusion that there is salvation for our politics outside of politics. Non-elected institutions can, at best, do the job of putting a finger in the dyke; they are not the foundation on which a modern functional polity can be built. This part of Shourie’s argument is marked by two paradoxes. First, he seems to believe in Eisenhower’s dictum that the only way to solve big problems may be to make them bigger. Since we cannot initiate small, workable reforms, we need wholesale transformation of the electoral system. This may well be right but it leaves the question unanswered: who will bell the cat? The paradox of constitutional re-engineering is that it is most difficult to do when it is needed most: the idea of creating a consensus with reservoirs of legitimacy in this political climate seems like a pipe dream. We have no option but the slow boring of hard boards. Shourie’s Jacobinism gets in the way of discussing smaller but more important reforms like intra-party democracy (the key source of fragmentation) and decentralisation (in the long run inescapable for delivery of services). Second, there is the paradox that the period of institutional decline and fragmentation has been the period of relatively more economic success. While this should not disable arguments for improving the system, it begs for a rigorous analysis of the relationship between institutional robustness and outcomes. Shourie is at his forensic best in dissecting two sets of discourses. He is relentless in exposing invocation of the term “people” in political discourse as if this was a self-evident authority with unimpeachable virtue. But a persuasive starting point slips into a jeremiad against the people. Shourie is right to insist that the people can be wrong, but that supposition makes the analysis a bit trite. If people are voting for criminals, is it because of their lack of virtue or the circumstances they find themselves in? In areas where the state has broken down, buying yourself protection and services from unsavoury characters may not be as irrational. In short, Shourie does not pursue his own logic that outcomes are endogenous to institutions as fully as he might. The second discourse he takes on is the implications of the concept of the “basic structure”, and why it should not impede a discussion of systemic reforms. This section is a tour de force exposure of judicial vagueness. Shourie’s questions are probing and demand an honest answer. His ability to cut through cant and expose mendaciousness is a great service to democracy. But the book leaves one wishing that the extraordinary ability and individuality on display in book be deployed equally in creating a new form of public reason as much as it is deployed in berating the public.