The winter session of India's 12th Parliament adjourned on Dec 21,2002 after setting something of a record for the legislative business carried out. Lok Sabha the lower house, had passed 42 pieces of legislation and Rajya Sabha,the upper house had approved more than half of them. A few dead laws were repealed. Some were fine-tuned.The reach of the legislators has been wide.Commentators say that the bills passed will reform the markets, strengthen the economy and make life a little more equitable. The lower House sat for 160 hours with as little as 3 hours lost to interruptions. The opposition benches were delighted when ministers were chastised for lack of diligence. Members declared themselves satisfied with the fairness of the presiding officers. It is a rare and roseate moment in Indian democracy.
The Parliament is central to life in India,its governance and its growth. Like India's favourite animal the elephant, it has a majesty, a formidable --if slow-- tread and great endurance.It works hard and long for those that have come to care for it, depend on it.
From the stuff of India:
Strange then that it is fashionable among many Indians to mock and deride their Parliament. Curiously, a majority of these wits are 'educated'. But hundreds of million humbler folk have realised that Parliament is what --if anything-- will deliver a better deal for them someday. The odd, rustic men and women they send to Delhi are those who bring their peoples' reality to the nation's attention. As a true window to India's many peoples, neither the media nor the religious congregations is a match to the Parliament.
Parliamentary democracy was neither a part of the Indian heritage --as many nationalists fondly believe--, nor a gift from the British, as Raj enthusiasts conclude. Until Independence in 1947, all rulers --including the British-- were content to "extracting wealth in the form of rent." [ ∇ ] Anyone who would most efficiently collect this rent was given a defined franchise and graded from Zamindar to Maharaja. For the people, the State was just something you could not get away from; it was hardly seen as an instrument of change. The man who bridged this divide was Gandhi. He did this by taking India's political discourse of the times from Macaulay's children ["Indian in colour and blood but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect"] to the rural masses. And by the time he was done, he had modified the former too. English educated Indians' idiom --to the astonishment of their masters-- had turned Gandhian.
It is difficult otherwise to explain how the Constituent Assembly, came up with an idea of "democracy as a manner of seeing and acting upon the world." The Assembly that deliberated between 1946 and 49 was made up of members of provincial legislatures voting for which in the first place, was restricted to groups and communities and select individuals. They were for the most part educated. And many like Dr. B R Ambedkar, even brilliant. But they were not really a Gandhi flock and one might have expected them to produce a self-serving system. Yet inspired mostly by the American and French democracies they produced a Constitution that created the present parliamentary system. Democracy in India "was not wrested from the state; it was given to them by the political choice of an intellectual elite."
The Indian parliament has proved to be an enduring institution. Once India was proclaimed a Sovereign, Democratic Republic on Jan 26, 1950, the idea of universal adult suffrage came into being. Within two years the Election Commission --an autonomous body-- had begun functioning. In 1952 India conducted world history's largest ever elections based on universal suffrage. Over 50% of adult Indians voted and mandated the first Lok Sabha. Nehru was the leader of the House. He deliberately chose for himself a self-conscious, ostentatious role of a teaching steward for the assembled members. His personality is the benchmark by which all his successors have come to be judged. He and India's Parliament will forever be inseparable. He had successfully established "the state at the core of India's society." A total inversion from the past.
Since then elections have been held without fail every five [-or less] years and new Houses convened a total of 12 times. There was once in the late seventies an effort -- by Nehru's own daughter, no less-- to trifle with the elections. When it did come about after an year's delay in 1977, Indians expressed their rage and handed her a most withering defeat.
Details of the way the Lok Sabha functions can be readily obtained at this link. From there one may tour the entire Parliament site.Browse the titles of the bills moved by ministries and private members: the seriousness and the hard work that must have preceded will become apparant. Recently all members were put through a course in handling computers to access the Internet. A peasant politician declared himself empowered. That image is a reflection of the deep roots parliamentary democracy has struck in India: "...in a national study conducted in 1996 more than 70% of the electorate rejected the suggestion that India would be better governed without political parties and elections." Or put another way: "Within a very short time, India has moved from being a society in which the state had for most people a distant profile and limited responsibilities, and where only a few had access to it, to one where state responsibilities have swollen and everyone can imagine exercising some influence upon it.... A return to the old order of castes, or of rule by empire, is inconceivable: the principle of authority has been transformed." And one might add, that it is now being broadened and refined.
Endorsed by envy:
While acknowledging the good legislative work done by the Parliament, there have been comments in the media about the poor attendance in the House on many occasions. The commentators miss the point of party politics and how it plays. Most Bills are in fact analysed and discussed in party caucuses, away from the House. When the opposition wishes to challenge a Bill it assembles in strength. But when it is in agreement it turns its head away, not wanting to give the Government an occasion to gloat.
Much of the life on view in India is theatre, replete with costumes and consummate actors. That's what makes India exciting. And keeps it peaceful: everyone has the opportunity to be on the stage or in the audience. Expressive exuberance is in fact an element of democracy. Interactions in the Parliament mirror Indian life outside it. Nehru's fond Westminster is now pure India play. Loud arguments, elaborate blames, exaggerated pain, dramatic walkouts are 'enacted'. Also fortunately, gracious old values. When the UP heavy weight Mulayam Singh Yadav, --an opponent of both Vajpayee and Sonia Gandhi-- was shepherding his son on his first day in the House, he made him do the rounds, first by touching the feet of a Buddha-like Vajpayee and next a startled Mrs.Gandhi. After President Clinton had wowed the combined Houses in his address, the splendidly turned out members mobbed him with as much cheerful abandon as any street crowd in India. Bazaar humour wafts through the house. Poets --from the terrible to the unstoppable-- hold the floor. And why not? "...India became a democracy without really knowing how, why or what it meant it to be one. Yet the democratic idea has penetrated the Indian political imagination and has begun to corrode the authority of the social order and of a paternalistic state." And with equity won, members are being themselves without any sense of embarrassment or terminal hatred.
On Dec 13,2001 terrorists arrived at the portals of India's Parliament. An outraged nation watched it live on television. Alert guards foiled an attempt to seize the Parliament and hold its members hostage. In a gun battle that followed guards shot them down. Many guards lost their lives. Within days public a outcry ensued. The army mobilised, stood menacingly at the borders and glared down. Parliament's honour had to be protected at any cost. Perhaps the event was a tribute to India's success as a Republic. It seems that a seat of democracy must suffer an attack at least once. On Nov 4, 1605 Guy Fawkes tried to blow up the British Parliament. On Sep 11,2001, in the USA terrorists hit the Pentagon and wanted to hit the White House. Most recently it was India's turn. Democracy irks the dogmatist. A free society always threatens believers of finite philosophies.
In preparation, this article relied extensively on
Sunil Khilnani's classic,"The Idea of India" , though of course the book is in no way responsible for what's here. All the quotes in the article are from the book's first chapter, "Democracy". Khilnani's book is invaluable for anyone puzzled by India. It is full of breathtaking insights, sparkles with urbane wit and does not run away with any misplaced love for India. Indeed it is severe with its criticism where necessary. But in the end, what emerges is a heroic image of a billion strong humanity toiling away with hope, with much stoic dignity and with as little ill-behaviour as is possible. ...back