As India gets ready to embrace a new temple for democracy, Prime Minister Narendra Modi deserves accolades for recognising the need for a new Parliament and pushing forward with its execution in quick time.
The government did this, despite apprehensions from a range of well-meaning citizens. But as a new Parliament is set to host public representatives, it is clear that India did need a new building. Nostalgia for the old is understandable. But parliamentarians deserved to sit on comfortable seats, with access to modern technology. The Parliament itself needed more space given the impending delimitation of constituencies that may well see a dramatic expansion in the number of seats in the Lok Sabha in the coming decade. From safety to comfort, from space to aesthetics, Bimal Patel — the remarkably accomplished architect whose stamp on Modi’s India is reflected from the Sabarmati promenade in Ahmedabad to the Kashi Vishwanath corridor in Varanasi — has delivered yet again.
But the true test of Parliament is not the beauty of its external facade or range of its internal conveniences. Its true test lies in whether the new Parliament can address the dysfunctionality that has become embedded in India’s parliament system and make the legislature an effective voice of the people, a robust check on the executive, and a forum for considered deliberation in the process of law-making. And on all these counts, recent parliamentary record has been disappointing.
There is a structural reason for Parliament’s relative weakness. In a parliamentary system, the constitution of the executive is contingent on the strength of the party in the legislature. Contrast this with the American system, where the legislature is distinct from the executive and its entire rationale is both to determine the executive’s scope of actions through laws and appropriations and keep it accountable through regular committee hearings. In the Indian case, add to the intertwined nature of the executive and legislature the power of the whip and a law that makes votes of conscience inadmissible under laws on defection. Top it up with a political context where the legislator depends on the generosity of party bosses to get a ticket and the image of the party leader to get elected in the first place.
This combination of a party with an outright majority in the legislature and the relative lack of autonomy and power of independent parliamentarians has meant that the agency available to the legislature, both in terms of lawmaking and keeping the executive accountable, is limited. And that has been the case each time India has had a powerful political executive; think back to the weak role of Parliament when Indira Gandhi was in power and compare it to the cacophony of voices one heard when coalition governments were in office. But even within this constraint, which is in-built in the design of the system itself, India’s Parliament needs to do better in its new home.
If the executive belongs to the ruling party, the legislature must recognise the voice of Opposition. This remains the only forum where elected representatives of the people remain free to articulate the anxieties and aspirations of their constituents, where they can be both ruthless and constructive in evaluating the executive’s policies, where every law and every provision of every law must go through the most careful process of deliberation to assess its implications both in committees and the full house, and where the executive has to answer questions, even if uncomfortable ones, truthfully and transparently.
On all these metrics, India’s parliamentary record is showing worrying signs. Be it frequent disruptions, which close the space for informed exchanges between sides, or arbitrary decision-making by the executive in setting the legislative agenda, which shrinks the room available to the Opposition to prepare its case, there is room to improve. Be it the dilution in the role of committees, where research by PRS has shown that the number of bills that go in for committee-level deliberation has shrunk in the past decade, or the perception of partisanship of the presiding officers in both chambers , there is room to improve.
Be it a measured discussion on policy and laws, including on significant ones such as the Finance Bill, or the ability to freely raise issues and demand answers from the political leadership on pressing economic and social issues, there is room to improve. Be it the Opposition constructively collaborating with the treasury benches on significant laws at the stage when laws are in the process of being conceived or the ruling party briefing top Opposition leaders quietly on sensitive national security issues to carve out and project a national consensus, there is room to improve. Be it giving a fresh lease of life to committees and making the executive truly accountable to these committees, or the political leadership taking both chambers seriously and setting an example by attending proceedings more regularly, there is room to improve.
India has a new Parliament and India’s Parliamentarians deserve it. But to truly live up to their mandate, it is time for them to infuse the idea of the Parliament and the idea of democracy and accountability with fresh vigour. Back in the first flush of Indian independence that’s what shaped a young India. Now, 76 years on, it is what will build the India of Amrit Kaal.