Distinguished invitees, dear students, friends from media, brothers and sisters!
It is a quirk of the fate that we all have gathered today for the first Arun Jaitely Memorial Lecture instituted by the Delhi University in the name of a distinguished parliamentarian, an young and established leader who passed away just a couple of months back.
On this occasion, I am overwhelmed by the memories of my long association of about 45 years with late Shri Arun Jaitely. He was a friend in need and friend in deed in the true sense of it. We used to reach out to each other regularly every time it so warranted to benefit from the counsel of each other on matters of polity, public policy and issues, governance and functioning of Parliament. The untimely passing away of Shri Jaitely left a deep void in my life and so is the case for our nation.
Shri Arun Jaitely was a multi-tasker and a multi-faceted genius which made him rise to dizzy heights in a quick time. He left an indelible mark of his own on a wide range of issues concerning our nation’s public life which includes articulation of new ideological perspectives on major national issues with clarity of thought and force of articulation, that were his hallmark.
Shri Jaitely’s tryst with public life began as the President of the Delhi University Students Union and later his fight against Emergency in 1975. Given his innate abilities, he was spotted by the political leadership of that time and became the youngest member of the National Executive of the Janata Party and since 1991 he was in the BJP’s National Executive besides holding several important responsible positions in the Party and the Government.
In my view, Shri Jaitely during his long years in public life made an unique contribution to addressing the imbalance in the prevailing dominant political thinking in the country which was almost institutionalised for long at the cost of other perspectives. It required the zeal, ability, virtuosity and the power of interpretation and communication of Shri Jaitely to mainstream the hitherto dormant perspective based on Indian ethos and nationalism. He was in the forefront of further elaborating the concepts of secularism and nationalism as unifying forces in the Indian context.
Shri Jaitely excelled as a Minister of various ministries and departments. His contribution as Finance Minister of the country at a critical time and his stellar role in piloting the introduction and execution of GST was certainly the high point of his career. True to his convictions against corruption, he also piloted several legislations in this regard. Shri Jaitely emerged as an effective parliamentarian, in recognition of which he was chosen as the Best Parliamentarian for 2010. As the Leader of Opposition during 2009-2014 and as Leader of the House in Rajya Sabha during 2014-2019, Shri Jaitely played a significant role in passing several landmark legislations. He also played a key role in resolving the stalemate in the House on several occasions. He was a true democrat and a staunch advocate of effective functioning of parliamentary institutions in the country. Shri Jaitely was a great parliamentarian, ideal politician above all a great human being. He was an epitome of Integrity and a gifted orator. He was known for his ideological commitment and always practiced value based politics. He is a role model and his life is a guiding source of inspiration for budding politicians. It is only appropriate to institute a memorial lecture as a mark of tribute to the multifarious contributions of Shri Jaitely to the public life. It is also indeed appropriate that the first memorial lecture is on strengthening of parliamentary institutions in the country, for which he always strived for.
Coming to the theme of the lecture, let me now deal with India’s tryst with parliamentary democracy, its journey during the last seven decades including its pitfalls and the way ahead for effective functioning of our parliamentary institutions.
When the Constitution makers, after three years of deliberations adopted the parliamentary democracy with voting rights for all in one stroke at the dawn of independence, questions were raised in several quarters as to whether democracy will survive in India and will a dictatorship not be better for the country as it can make things work. These questions still linger on in a different degree. Our Constitution was also described as ‘un-Indian’ as it neither incorporated nor represented the genius or the ancient polity of India.
Several leading political theorists were unkind in questioning our political capacity while in due course, some others have defended our valiant efforts in embracing parliamentary democracy. A.F. Pollard, reflecting the colonial and racial mindset harshly said and I quote: “If the Hindu and the Hottentot, the Semitic and the Negroid Communities cannot work parliamentary institutions, it is on account of their political incapacity.” (unquote). One of the ablest parliamentarians of the country, late Shri H.N. Mukherjee took strong objection to Pollard’s comment and observed that the way ahead lay not in the abolition of representative institutions and electoral principles but in the conversion of these institutions from talking shops into working bodies.
It fell upon the renowned political thinkers W.H. Morris–Jones and Granville Austin to come to the defence of India. In his seminal work based on the functioning of the first Lok Sabha, Morris-Jones countered the anti-India cynicism. He asserted that the charges that Parliament is un-Indian and will therefore not last; Parliament in India is a facade and Parliament is unreal because it cannot operate properly within the political categories that are relevant in India were not based on objective consideration of parliamentary traditions in the country.
Austin noted and I quote; “Time, therefore, as happily proved most criticism of the Constitution, ill founded. That the Indian Constitution was an ably conceived and drafted document, showing a creative, if not an original, approached to the nation’s constitutional leads, we cannot justly debate. This is born out, if in no other way, by the success of democracy and parliamentary government in India, for it is quite possible to govern badly with a good constitution, it is nearly impossible to govern well with an inadequate one.” (unquote)
Since the first General Elections in 1952, the so called poor and illiterate Indians who are alleged to accept the hierarchical political and social morality have demonstrated their practical wisdom in delivering electoral verdicts from time to time in line with the transformation witnessed in the country. Voter participation has been steadily increasing since 1952. The electorate have delivered shock verdicts on several occasions starting with the 1977 General Elections, delivering some home truths to the political class. Caste, community, region and religion are said to be guiding the voting preferences in our country. While some sociological studies assert that democracy reinforces the caste and other identities, there is certain evidence to suggest that they are on the decline.
Democracy has taken deep roots in the country even though there is scope for substantial improvement in the functioning of our parliamentary institutions. By now, it is universally acknowledged that democracy has survived in India overcoming several odds against the forecast of doomsayers. Paying tribute to this spirit of survival of our parliamentary system, late Shri Arun Jaitely once said and I quote; “In the last 60 to 65 years, we have demonstrated to the whole world that we not only survived but we survived to become a major power and a major force in the world. It is a tribute to our sense of nationhood, our heritage, our cultural personality and the deep sense of patriotism of the Indian people. It is a tribute to our parliamentary system that despite divergence, despite ideological differences, when it came to the call of nation, we all stood up and spoke in one voice.” (unquote)
Democracy and public opinion
Parliamentary government revolves around the consent of the people through elected representatives. Parliament is an instrument for expressing public opinion and voicing public grievances; restraining the Executive and ensuring its responsibility and accountability to national sentiment and will. Its core functions include constituent, legislative, deliberative and oversight of executive. Effectiveness of Parliament is contingent upon the degree to which it echoes public concerns on a range of issues ranging from the individual to the nation’s development and hence, it shall keep its eyes and ears open to the public opinion.
The roots of parliamentary system lie in the democratic ideal and they have to be fostered outside the confines of Parliament and among the masses of the people. Unless the roots are vitalised and made to acquire self-developing potentialities, the branches of the system represented by the Parliament and State Legislatures cannot draw the necessary sustenance.
Political thinkers such as Jeremy Bentham, Tacqueville, John Stuart Mill and James Bryce insisted that in the last resort, it is the public opinion that makes democracy work. Enlightened public opinion in their opinion was the fulcrum of a thriving democracy. The two institutions that were assigned of making public opinion enlightened are political parties and the media. Ironically, both have not done enough in this regard. Political class need to more effectively engage with the public so as to evolve a new and higher level of consciousness that is required for effective functioning of Parliament and other legislatives by understanding their concerns and aspirations and mainstreaming them into effective law making.
Parliamentary democracy thrives only when the electorate is mature, informed, intelligent and vigilant, and that can be done only by intensive and continuous education of the public of their obligations and rights as citizens of a democratic republic. Media has an important role to play in this regard.
While the Indian public has been steadfast in patronising democracy since the first General Elections in 1952 with ever rising turn out, there is a need for a new consciousness in the form of moving away from the remnants of identity based voting to that of development oriented exercise of voting preferences.
Parliament and other legislatures shall augment their outreach to the public by harnessing the rising availability of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) for the much required two way communication between the parliamentary institutions and their patrons.
Supremacy of Parliament
There has been a raging debate over the power of Parliament in amending the Constitution of India under Article 368 of the Constitution. Our Constitution incorporated provisions from that of some other countries but it is primarily based on the west minister model. Political commentator A.V. Dicey stated that in the United Kingdom the Parliament is supreme and this was further illustrated by De Lolme saying that the British Parliament can do anything except making a man a woman and a woman a man. This is not, however, the case in India as our Constitution provides a clear framework of roles and responsibilities among the three organs of State i.e. the Legislature, the Executive and the Judiciary.
According to M.N. Kaul and S.L. Shakdhar, Parliament’s legislative authority is circumscribed by the division of powers between the Centre and the States and by the presence of Fundamental Rights and a significant provision for judicial review.
After an uneasy truce between the Parliament and the Judiciary with regards to the power to amend the Constitution, the position is now by and large settled. The Supreme Court in 1965 held that the Parliament has all the powers to amend the Constitution but revised its position in this regard in the Golaknath Case in 1967 asserting that Parliament cannot amend the Fundamental Rights of citizens. This led to the 24th Constitutional Amendment Act, 1971 according Parliament full powers to amend the Constitution. Then came the verdict of the full bench of the Supreme Court in the Keshavananda Bharti Case in 1973 carving out the principle of ‘basic structure of the Constitution’ which it said cannot be altered by the Parliament, without, however, listing the features of this basic structure of the Constitution. The apex Court said the instrument of basic structure will be applied on a case to case basis. Based on the observations of the apex court from time to time, noted Constitution expert Dr. D.D. Basu identified 20 such basic features including parliamentary form of government. This being the second position, the Parliament and the Judiciary may move ahead with harmony.
In the context of some debate in some quarters on the presidential form of government for India, I suggest that it may be left at that since parliamentary government with the Prime Minister as the Executive head being a part of basic feature of the Constitution. All the stakeholders need to strive to enhance the effectiveness of functioning of parliamentary institutions for better delivery on all fronts.
Functioning of legislatures
The four fundamentals on which any democracy thrives are; majority rule, recognition of minority rights, constitutional government and governance by discussion. While democracy has taken deep roots in our country, there is still a large set of concerns that need to be addressed. Trust of the people in Parliament and other legislatures based on the responsiveness of law making bodies to the concerns of the people is critical for democracy and the conduct of legislators. There are certainly some concerns about this much desired trust.
Poor knowledge, low argumentative power of the masses, negative influences of poverty and economic disparities, faulty ‘First Pass The Post (FPTP)’ election system and society’s perpetual habit of accepting all permeable State to control public and private affairs are the sources of some concerns about the efficacy of our democracy.
On account of FPTP system by which people’s representatives are being elected with much less than 50% vote share, some questions are being raised about the adequacy of representative nature of our parliamentary government reflecting majority will or the consent of the electorate. But at the moment, there seem to be no alternative since the principle of proportional representation will lead to much more social cleavages, multiplicity of political parties besides the practical difficulties in implementing such a system. I am glad to note that in the recent elections to the 17th Lok Sabha, a substantial number have been elected with more than 50% support of the electorate. I also tend to believe that as the electorate move away from voting based on 'Identity Quotient' to 'Development Quotient', more and more would win with the majority support of voters.
The present pitfalls of our parliamentary democracy are too well known to be elaborated. Briefly, these include the declining number of sittings of legislatures, persistent disruptions, declining quality of debates, growing number of legislatures with criminal record, high degree of absenteeism, inadequate representation of women, rising money and muscle power in elections, lack of inner democracy in functioning of the political parties.
The sixteenth Lok Sabha held 331 sittings during the five years while the Rajya Sabha sat for 329 days during the same period. The declining number of sittings of Parliament from over 100 per year in the 50s and 60s to 60 to 70 days per year later has been sought to be addressed with the introduction of Department Related Standing Committees in 1993. These Committees meet for about 30 days in an year taking up bipartisan discussions on legislative proposals, demands for grants, select subjects etc. Eight such committees of Rajya Sabha have so far submitted about 1800 Reports on various issues.
However, the pitfalls of Parliament have slowly come to mark the functioning of the Department Related Standing Committees in the form of poor attendance, lack of specialisation, frequent committee hopping etc. which need to be addressed.
Parliamentary business is a complicated task and law making demands competence. Members of Parliament are supposed to discharge their responsibilities with dignity, diligence and discipline. Frequent disruptions, Points of Order without a point, Adjournment Motions and interruptions betrays political immaturity, exhibitionism, excessive fondness for the limelight and inadequate appreciation of the need to utilise the opportunity of serving the public interest.
With regard to disruptions, Rajya Sabha has lost 40% of the available time of the House during 2014-2019 while the sixteenth Lok Sabha during the same period lost 16% of the time.
Emphasising the role of Parliament and the responsibility of the elected representatives to improve the quality of politics and governance while speaking on the occasion of the 60th Anniversary of the first sitting of the Parliament in 2012, late Shri Arun Jaitely said and I quote “People look upon both the Houses of Parliament to improve the quality of politics and governance. The power of politics is immense. It influences the life of a nation and, therefore, the stature of the men who man this system, must always measure up to the responsibility that the country vests in them. This improved quality of politics has to lead to good quality of governance.” (unquote)
Regarding the decline in the quality of debates and the efforts put in by the Members, Morris-Jones after studying the functioning of the first Lok Sabha commented and I quote “Some MPs who recalled the days of old Central Assembly claimed that Members then worked much harder and prepared their facts and arguments more carefully than is now the case. This may well be true; many of the present Members lack the experience, education and intellectual capacity for intensive study of the kind that is desirable; and there is certainly little anxiety to achieve elegance and polish in speech.” (unquote)
The decline in the quality of debates was so perceptible within five to six years of adoption of the Constitution. It is now rather ironical that with the number of literates and those with higher qualifications in the Parliament significantly rising from that of first Lok Sabha, concerns about the conduct and the contribution of MPs has become even more pronounced. Such decline coupled with blatant violation of the Rules of Procedure of both Houses of Parliament and the stipulated Code of Conduct is severely denting the standing of parliamentary institutions leading to erosion of trust of the people in these exalted law making bodies. This needs to be stemmed forthwith.
Role of Parliament
There is a huge confusion among the people and the MPs themselves about the role and functions of the Members of Parliament and so is the case with MLAs and MLCs. Legislatures are increasingly being drawn into micro-management of developmental works in their constituencies leading to an overlap with the domain of the Executive. MPs should only be concerned with the issues in respect of which Parliament has larger responsibility. They need to focus on aggregating the felt needs of the people they represent and seek legislative remedies to resolve them instead of associating with sanctioning of projects and their execution. They should avoid taking up individual grievances and instead seek to focus on larger community needs.
Renowned political thinker Edmund Burke once said of the national legislature in Britain and I quote; “Parliament is not a congress of ambassadors from different hostile interests, which interests each must maintain, as an agent and advocate, against other agents and advocates; but Parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole; where not local purposes, and local prejudices ought to guide but the general good, resulting from the general reason for the whole. You choose a Member indeed; but when you have chosen him, he is not a member of Bristol but he is a Member of Parliament. ” (unquote)
Members of Parliament need to have clarity regarding their role and functions instead of giving in to the tremendous pressure from respective constituencies to attend to the locally felt needs of the electorate which is primarily in the domain of the Executive. MPs can certainly use their good offices to make the Executive address the pressing needs and problems of the people rather than being actors themselves. There is a need for reorientation on the part of the MPs and more so, a pressing need for parliamentary reforms to restore the trust of the people in the parliamentary institutions.
Veteran commentator on the functioning of Parliament Dr. A. Surya Prakash came out with a comprehensive publication titled “What Ails Indian Parliament?” in 1995. He observed therein that in no other institution is the resistance to self-examination, introspection and change as evident as in the institution of Parliament. This must change.
In the light of what I have stated, I would like to suggest a broad framework of reforms for further strengthening our parliamentary institutions so as to enhance the trust of the people in them.
- Both pre and post Legislative Impact Assessment to be ensured for quality and informed law making for creating wider awareness about the targeted outcomes by bringing out social, economic, environmental and administrative impacts besides the involvement of all stakeholders in law making;
- Ensuring effective functioning of the Department Related Standing Committees of Parliament through longer tenures instead of reconstitution every year as at present besides promoting specialisation by nomination on the committees based on academic backgrounds and their renomination on the same committees for longer period. I would like to discuss this issue with the Speaker, Lok Sabha for further action;
- Taking forward the legislation in the Parliament for reservation of women in legislatures whose representation is at present only about 13%;
- A minimum number of sittings for both the Parliament and State Legislatures per year to be appropriately prescribed and compliance ensured;
- Law makers should abide by the Rules of the House and political parties to take responsibility in this regard by evolving and enforcing a code of conduct;
- Making rules that automatically take effect against erring Members in case of interruptions and disruptions;
- Political parties to evolve roster system for ensuring attendance of at least 50% of their members in the legislatures all through the proceedings of the House everyday to address the issue of lack of quorum;
- Secretariats of legislatures to publish regular reports on the attendance of members inside during the proceedings and the extent of their participation in the form of questions raised, debates participated in etc.;
- Legislature parties to ensure that the new entrants and back benchers are given adequate opportunities to participate in the debates instead of fielding only a select and established few;
- To evolve a new political consciousness under which tickets to contest elections will not be given merely on the criteria of winnability by political parties to address the problem of rising number of legislators with criminal backgrounds;
- To review the functioning of the Anti-Defection Law to address grey areas like incentivising members to resort to activities that invite expulsion from the parties besides stipulating specific time frame for deciding on defection matters by the Presiding Officers of Legislatures;
- To review the functioning of ‘Whip System‘ which is being alleged to be stifling even reasonable dissent from the party position even on non-consequential matters and rationalise the norms for issuing Whip to enable some degree of freedom of expression without adversely affecting stability of the Government;
- Setting up special courts/tribunals for time bound adjudication on criminal complaints against legislators and election related matters;
- Timely and effective action against legislators for non-ethical conduct; and
- Governments to be responsive to the views and concerns of the Opposition and the Opposition to be responsible and constructive while resorting to the available parliamentary instruments like Adjournment Motions and during participation in the debates and both sides to avoid cynical and adversarial position just for the sake of it.
- Consensus to be built on the proposal for simultaneous elections so that governance is not adversely impacted on account of staggered and continuous polls across the country and also to address the problem of rising money power in elections.
Since 1952, the Parliament of India has played a significant role in the socio-economic transformation of the country by enacting several far reaching legislations. With the passage of time and with the growing inter-connected nature of the comity of nations and technological advancements, several new and complex challenges are staring at the young and aspiring India. Addressing these challenges underscore the need to address certain issues that are denting the functioning of our parliamentary institutions. Based on the experience of the last 67 years of our parliamentary democracy, we need to evolve a new normal for our parliamentary institutions so that our nation can make up for the lost time and opportunities.
My long time dear friend Late Shri Arun Jaitely had always dreamt of this new normal so that our country can fully harness its due potential. All the stakeholders owe it to the people of our country to ensure better functioning of these institutions.
On this occasion, let me remind you of what Dr. B. R. Ambedkar said on November 25, 1949, a day before the Constituent Assembly finalised the Constitution and I quote; “The working of the Constitution does not depend wholly on the nature of the Constitution. The Constitution can provide only the organs of the State such as the Legislature, the Executive and the Judiciary. The factors on which the working of these organs of the States depend are the people and the political class. Who can say how the people of India and their parties will behave? ” (unquote)
The question raised by Dr. Ambedkar is still to be answered. The only answer is that the people and the political parties shall rise to a new level of consciousness in all respects that forms the bedrock of effective functioning of our parliamentary institutions. We don’t have the luxury of time in this regard. Let’s make a quick beginning towards this new normal.
I compliment the Delhi University for instituting a Memorial Lecture in the name of late Shri Arun Jaitely.
Thank you all!