Our democracy has a parliament-sized hole

What trust can we expect a body to command from citizens at large when almost 30% of its members have criminal cases pending against them?

jagdeep

Jagdeep Chhokar | February 16, 2013



Governance Now and CVoter carried out a survey of the trust various institutions of governance inspire among the people. Read more about the overall findings of the survey here:Trust of the Republic survey: little faith in government or in print in the February 1-15 issue.

There can hardly be a sadder comment on the state of democracy in a country, which is widely regarded as the most vibrant democracy in the world, than to be told that the general population of the country does not trust its parliament. Parliament is the highest altar in a representative democracy and when the CVOTER survey comes up with the finding that it is the second least trustworthy institution, it can cause nothing but great anguish.

The discourse about parliament and parliamentarians has acquired a sharper edge over the last couple of years. Parliamentarians and politicians of various hues have been vociferous in defending parliament, saying that criticising members of parliament (MPs) is the same as criticising parliament, denigrating democracy, and thus, against national interest. The critics say that while they respect the institution of parliament, they cannot be faulted for critical comment on the parliamentarians based on what the MPs actually do in parliament. What, if any, is the truth in such contentions? Let us look at some data.

The 2004 Lok Sabha had 125 MPs who had themselves declared, in affidavits under oath, that they had criminal cases pending against them in which (a) charges had been framed by a court of law, and (b) the punishment under the Indian Penal Code (IPC) was two years or more of imprisonment. That was the first Lok Sabha election in which the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) analysed the affidavits of all candidates submitted by them as a necessary part of their nomination forms under a judgment of the supreme court in 2003. This was done in the hope that dissemination of such information would lead to a reduction in the number of ‘lawbreakers becoming lawmakers’.

Those hopes were belied when in 2009 political parties gave even more tickets to persons with criminal cases pending against them resulting in the number of MPs in the Lok Sabha, with criminal cases pending against them, increasing to 162!

What trust can we expect a body to command from citizens at large when almost 30% of its members have criminal cases pending against them?

With this kind of composition, let us see what the parliamentarians have been doing. PRS Legislative Research compiles data about various aspects of the functioning of parliament. For some of their findings for the last two sessions of parliament, please see the box.

Taking a historical view, we find that the Lok Sabha met for an average of 127 days in the 1950s and Rajya Sabha for 93 days. This has decreased to 73 days for both houses in 2011.

Parliament has ceased to be the forum for meaningful discussion of proposed legislation. It has, sadly, become an akhara, a setting of muscle flexing by political parties to show their brute strength by forcefully disrupting its functioning. There have been instances when the leader of the opposition in one of the houses would announce in the evening that they would not allow parliament to function the next day. This kind of premeditated prevention of parliament from functioning is the greatest offence against democracy, and thus against the nation, and since it is acquiesced to by the government of the day, they are also equally guilty.

Why does this happen? The primary reason is that political parties do not feel accountable to anyone except themselves. There is a feeling of invulnerability and smugness in the political parties that once elected, they are safe for five years and can “do whatever they like”, as actually said by one of the leading politicians.

There is definitely a lack of trust in parliament and the responsibility squarely lies with the leaders of political parties (See “Funeral of Parliament”, GovenanceNow, October 16-31, 2012). The only way to correct this gross distortion is to make political parties internally democratic as suggested as far back as 1999 by the Law Commission of India.

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