Today, legislators in our country represent their parties and not necessarily the will of their constituents. It is important that the autonomy of the legislators is restored.

Parliament building, New DelhiImage for representation | PTI
Voices Democracy Wednesday, September 15, 2021 - 18:27

The International Day of Democracy is observed on September 15 every year. Democracy is not just about periodic elections and peaceful transfer of power, however quintessential they may be. The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) in 2021 classified India as a “flawed democracy” – a State where regular elections are held and civil liberties respected, but “there are significant weaknesses in other aspects of democracy, including problems in governance, an underdeveloped political culture and low levels of political participation”. As per the EIU’s democracy index, India slipped in global rankings from 27 in 2015 to 53 in 2021.

Democracy is designed to address the fundamental problem in monarchies and oligarchies – the saturation of power among a few individuals, because of which the governance is carried out according to their whims and fancies. In a democracy, the power is distributed among a large number of people and among different branches, so that arbitrariness in governance is eliminated. The advantages of this system are: having many minds in the decision-making process allows for constructive debate, rationality in process, and perhaps less mistakes.

Concentration of power with a few party heads

An honest evaluation of Indian democracy reveals that the heads of political parties and the top brass control the governance, especially in the ruling parties. The political higher-ups set out the policies and legislative agenda and all the legislators belonging to that party must fall in line. It is a matter of concern that there is no internal democracy in the party’s decision-making process. The legislators who come to the House after spending crores of money and hardship are unable to voice their dissent against the party’s policies for fear of political retribution and loss of seat because of the anti-defection law. This not only affects the free flow of ideas, but also representative democracy. Today, the legislators represent the parties and not necessarily the will of their constituents. It is important that the autonomy of the legislators is restored and a political environment created where the legislators can freely depart from their party’s stand. Otherwise, it does not make sense to have hundreds of representatives in legislatures, when two-three individuals ultimately decide what the law should be.

The law-making process, the cornerstone of any democracy, should instil confidence among people that their aspirations are being represented in legislatures. If laws are passed within minutes and when live telecast of the proceedings is stopped and when the fate of a Bill is decided by a voice vote amidst the ruckus, how can we call it fair process? As Jeremy Waldron argues, “If a citizen who disagrees with the new law asks why she should obey it, we want to be able to say that her disagreements… were aired as fiercely and forcefully as possible at the time the law was considered and that it was enacted nevertheless in a fair process of deliberation and decision.”

One cannot forget how the AP Reorganisation Act was passed in 2014 after the live telecast of the proceedings was suspended. Nor how the three farm Bills were passed last year without formal voting (division), when it was difficult to ascertain the number of MPs in favour or against the Bills due to chaos in the House. Or the innumerable instances where Bills are passed within minutes, without any substantial discussion. The gravest violation of parliamentary procedure occurs when ordinary Bills are passed as money Bills to prevent a potential defeat in Upper Houses.

Parliamentary reforms

Another aspect essential for the successful functioning of our democracy is the revamping of parliamentary procedures. For example, the Constitution prescribes that the quorum requirement for Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha is one-tenth of their membership. That means, it will only take 25 MPs to conduct a sitting of the Rajya Sabha and just 13 votes to pass an ordinary Bill. Imagine 13 votes deciding the fate of 1.3 billion people!

The present system has no effective deterrents that prevent legislators from taking unreasonable number of leaves from attending the sessions. The budgetary process is too technical for the common man to understand, and it has become the order of the day to cut short deliberations on the budget by guillotining all related motions. The allocation of time for legislative proceedings, number of working days, strengthening committees, improving the legislative control over the government or executive are some of the parliamentary procedures where we need to bring in monumental changes.

Dr Ambedkar warned us that the Constitution is only as good as the people implementing it. Perhaps it is applicable to the working of democracy as well. But we cannot blame the people in power alone when we can see systemic irregularities and institutional lapses that prevent us from enjoying democracy in its spirit. It is in our hands to ensure that our democracy is not restricted to mere ‘vote and shout’ and to see that – like Abraham Lincoln said – the government of the people is not perished from this Earth.

Sri Harsha Kandukuri is an Assistant Professor of Law at CMR University, Bengaluru.

Views expressed are the author’s own.

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