Parliament And Parliamentary Democracy In India

G. L. Batra, ST Guest Columnist, Writer & formerly Addl. Secretary, Indian Parliament and Chairman, Public Service Commission of the Indian State of Haryana

“The system of parliamentary democracy embodies the principles of change and continuity. If continuity is broken we become rootless and the system of parliamentary democracy breaks down.”

Jawaharlal Nehru
The Indian Parliament came into existence on 13th May 1952. It was on this day after the first general elections, that the elected representatives of both, the House of the People and the Council of States, met separately. The House of People, later on came to be called the Lok Sabha and the Council of States, the Rajya Sabha. This day was a glorious day in the history of India as it was for this day that the people of India had made tremendous sacrifices. Both the Houses consisted of a galaxy of eminent democrats, statesmen, jurists, educationists and social workers par excellence and were graced by intellectual giants who had played a significant role in the movement for independence, having faced great mental and physical agonies in the achievement of their aim.

Our forefathers have gifted us a Constitution, which is the largest written Constitution in the world, which is comprehensive and takes care of almost every aspect of governance and the rights of citizens and their future. The Parliamentary form of government is not only a basic feature of our Constitution, but may truly be said to be its very edifice. It is undisputable that the seeds of Parliamentary Democracy, which were sown in the early years of our independence, have now taken deep and firm roots in India and every citizen of India today, can legitimately take pride in the fact that India is the largest working democracy in the world. We also feel proud, and rightfully so, that we have successfully preserved and worked our Constitution and the democratic system of governance against heavy odds during the last half century.

The democratic form of polity, which the founding fathers of our Constitution bequeathed to us to guide the destiny of our country, is based on the principles of sovereignty of the people, primacy of the legislature, responsibility of the executive and independence of the judiciary. Democracy is the pulsating passion of our country. It has proved a success despite the fact that India consists of people belonging to different religions, castes, languages, and is in fact full of diversities. Our Parliament completed 50 years on the 13th of May, 2002, and these five decades have proved a golden chapter in our history. During the period after our independence, fourteen general Parliamentary elections have been held and, even more in the states, and all the elections have been by and large very peaceful, wherein the common man has exercised his right to vote according to his will. India has time and again surprised the world with its democratic successes, in spite of being the second-most populated country in the world. Indeed, for a country so large and so diverse to have a Parliamentary form of government where every citizen has equal rights, is a unique phenomenon and today, India is looked upon as an example for fledgling democracies to emulate. Our Constitution recognizes the rule of law to be the very bedrock of our democracy.

Looking back at the functioning of Parliamentary democracy in India during the past five decades or so, we must take a balanced approach towards the precept and practice. We cannot and should not feel satisfied and elated by its success, and should guard from becoming complacent. Though the Parliament, which embodies the will of the people, has during this period acted as a philosopher and guide, and as the emancipator of its citizens, we will have to take into consideration that it has also suffered from loopholes and drawbacks. After Independence, we have had several amendments to the Constitution, and there are many more, which are under consideration. There are amendments to the Constitution that were honestly effected for the benefit of the masses, but there have been some, which were brought about to glorify the objectives and policies of the parties in power, or to render the decisions of the Supreme Court infructuous, without taking into consideration the consequences. With this in mind, we will have to honestly introspect and reflect on our shortcomings and take appropriate remedial action.

Complexities of laws and the multifarious nature of problems which emerge out of the governance of so large, and so diverse a country pose severe difficulties in the administration of the country, and many a time, the laws prove a burden on the citizens rather than benefit them. Undoubtedly, the contribution of the civil servants who implement the laws is great, but nevertheless, the fact remains that only a small percentage of the benefits of different policies and schemes, actually reach the people.

Our track record over the past five decades instils in us a sense of pride about our achievements and inspires us with a spirit of determination and motivation to carry on with the mission that we desire to achieve. However, we need to address our imperfections and strive to make our process of governance transparent and meaningful. It is in this spirit that we will have to do soul searching to see that in the period of the last more than 50 years, what we have achieved, how far it is true, how lasting it is, what was desired to be achieved, which has not so far been, and what remains to be achieved further.

The Working of Parliament

Parliament is, first and last, a people’s institution. Only to the extent it fulfils its functions as a people’s body can it vindicate its existence in a democratic polity. Power resides in the people as Gandhiji reminded, and it is entrusted by them for the time being to their chosen representatives. Parliament has no authority, even existence, independent of the people[1]. Parliament is not merely a law making body; it is a multi-functional institution performing a wide variety of roles. It has a representative role, being the custodian of the nation’s ideals, hopes and faith. The elected members carry the will of the people, which is sovereign, and give expression to their difficulties, problems and grievances, and seek solutions to them. Various procedural methods are available to the members under the rules of procedures governing both the Houses of Parliament, to debate, discuss and resolve the problems faced by the nation. In the words of Lloyd George, “the House is the sounding board of the nation. It both speaks for, and speaks to the nation.”

As per the provisions of the Constitution, the executive is accountable to Parliament. It is also the bounden duty of Parliament to see regularly, the performance of the executive. It is to see as to whether the laws made by it either while exercising the Constituent power or ordinary legislation, and the policies laid down by it, and the commitments made by the respective ministries in the House are implemented in their true letter and spirit by the Executive. There is undoubtedly a paucity of time at the Parliament’s command to ensure the accountability of the Executive when the Houses are in session, and therefore, Parliament has evolved different procedures for enforcing the accountability of government through the fool proof and innovative system of Departmentally Related Standing Committees of Parliament wherein each and every department and ministry has been brought under their jurisdiction, to make the government fully accountable. Previously this end was achieved solely through financial committees like the Public Accounts Committee, the Estimates Committee as also the Committee on Public Undertakings. There is a Committee on Government Assurances which looks into whether and to what extent assurances, promises, undertakings, etc. given by the ministers from time to time have been implemented in a timely manner.

Parliament undoubtedly has so far played a significant role in achieving the uphill task of building a strong, self-reliant and united democratic India. We will have to honestly evaluate whether it has lived up to the expectations of the people of India and the desires, dreams, and cherished goals set forth by our forefathers. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, one of the greatest sons of India said, “….the ambition of the greatest man of our generation has been to wipe every tear from every eye. That may be beyond us, but as long as there are tears and suffering, so long our task will not be over…..”.

Parliament being the sheet anchor of our system of governance, our democracy depends upon the role it plays as it is the most powerful and effective mechanism for redressal of the grievances of the people through debates, discussions and legislation of laws for the benefit of the people and so also for the maintenance of security, integrity and unity of the country. Can it be denied that a large percentage of our population lives below the poverty line? There are people who not only don’t have shelter to rest their starving and tired bodies, but lack even hearths to cook their daily meals for their survival. The position is equally dismal in respect of the enforcement of directive principles of state policy by the various states in respect of fundamental needs like health, education, employment, etc.

Somnath Chatterjee, the Speaker of the Fourteenth Lok Sabha has observed, “After five decades of independence, non-performance, aberrations and distortions have nearly taken over almost every sphere of our national activity, including the political and administrative systems, as a result of which the majority of our people face awesome problems and do not enjoy even the minimal rights which, the Constitution, our organic law, contemplates for them. Abysmal poverty, illiteracy, child mortality, lack of job opportunities, absence of adequate health care, non-availability of pure drinking water in many areas, amongst others, are the problems which still haunt the common people and have resulted in the effective denial of the Constitutional and indeed the basic human rights to our people. Common people of our country, particularly the toiling sections, the workers, the peasants and farmers, the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes and the minorities have not been able to fulfill their minimum needs. The condition of the working class in the country is still extremely uncertain in as much as with a large incidence of industrial sickness, widespread retrenchment, closure of public sector undertakings, it has become precarious. In such circumstances, members of Parliament have to play a very active, responsible and effective role[2].”

There is not merely a perception now, but an opinion in the minds of the general public, that there has been a steady decline in the standard of our Parliament and Parliamentarians. Parliament being primarily a deliberative body, heat and noise becomes inevitable, but it is time the members realized that the time of the House is very precious.

Indeed, a look at the average time spent by the Lok Sabha per sitting, shows a steady decline over the years with the Seventh Lok Sabha recording an average of seven hours and nine minutes per sitting, and the average of the thirteenth Lok Sabha being five hours and twenty one minutes. Similarly, the number of sittings annually, which started off at a peak with 151 in 1956, has come down to new lows of 51 in 1999, 85 in 2000 and 81 in 2001. It is only the members of Parliament who have to answer for it. The members are to discharge their committed obligations towards their electorate. It can only be done if they understand the value of their debates in Parliament and the opportunity to seek redressal. If the time of Parliament is wasted, they will not be able to achieve what they desire, and what the people expect from them. The need of the hour is that they should not deviate from their main objective of deliberating, discussing and achieving their objective in Parliament, rather than forcing unjustified adjournments and wasting the invaluable time of the House.

“Two fundamental requirements for upholding the dignity of Parliament are the integrity of the system itself and of the people who operate it. The importance of ethical values and morality in public life has long been recognized. In order to maintain the highest traditions in Parliamentary life, members of Parliament are expected to observe a certain standard of conduct both inside the House and outside it[3]”.

It is also increasingly being felt that there is a conflict between the political interests and ambitions of the various political parties to which the members owe allegiance, and the felt needs and problems of the common man, and it appears sometimes that the former take primacy too often over the latter. Bills, which if passed by Parliament, can prove to be greatly beneficial for its citizens are lost in the labyrinth of politics and vested interests, and several times, genuine and well-intentioned bills introduced by the party in power or even by the private members fall prey to political rivalries and one-upmanship.

The Parliament is a heritage, a storehouse of wealth of wisdom. It should be the ardent duty of its members to add to this wealth and maintain the heritage and to increase its integrity rather than to destroy the wealth of wisdom. Walter Lippman, one of those perceptive thinkers of a foregone generation has said, “Those in high places are more than administrators of government bureaus. They are more than the writers of laws. They are the custodians of a nation’s ideas, of the beliefs it cherishes, of its permanent hopes, of the faith which make a nation out of a mere aggregation of individuals.”

Shri K. R. Narayanan, former President of India, has rightly observed that, “(t)he responsibility for the orderly functioning of the House rests on all its three constituents, namely, the members, the Ministers and the Presiding Officer. Rules of procedure are there not to dampen the spirits of the members but to help them to raise matters in an orderly fashion. By violating the rules, no one benefits. In exceptional circumstances, when the members are truly agitated by an event or an issue, the Presiding Officer, leaders of political parties and groups, and party whips can all sit together and explore ways of finding a solution. Indeed, this is the most effective method of dealing with all serious Parliamentary problems[4].”

It would be too pessimistic to think that now, further, that the frequent disorders which prevail in the House and its repeated adjournments cannot be controlled. The wisdom of the House, its integrity, is not in doubt. Even at this point of time, the House is full of wisdom of its members, and intellect, and the Speaker, Shri Somnath Chatterjee, has rightly said that the wrongdoing of one or two members should not adversely affect the image of Parliament.

I have personal experience while working as Additional Secretary, LS, that there is recognized and acknowledged talent in the House. There are intellectuals and wise and hardworking members, and their every step towards drafting meaningful and beneficial legislation and maintaining the dignity and integrity of the House is marked.

The complexities of present day politics with a multiplicity of Political parties and groups have caused a great responsibility on the Presiding Officers as such the system has a direct bearing on the offices of the Presiding Officers. Over the years, illustrious individuals have graced the prestigious office of the Speaker, Lok Sabha and Chairman, Rajya Sabha, and having upheld the dignity of the chair, have added new meanings and dimensions to their statutory and inherent powers. In the current scenario, the Presiding Officers have to face tumultuous situations because of the different perceptions of coalition partners and parties supporting the coalition from outside. In such a situation, it becomes sometimes very difficult to run the House very smoothly, but the wisdom, articulation, patience of our different Presiding Officers have to some extent overcome these difficulties. Whenever there is uproar in the House, it is adjourned, the Speaker holds meetings with leaders of different parties, his powers of persuasion prevail and the House meets again to go about its normal business. The role played by several illustrious Speakers of the Lok Sabha and Chairmen of the Rajya Sabha over the years is admirable, and they have laid down excellent and lasting precedents to ensure the smooth functioning of the House and the effective resolution of conflicts and deadlocks.

It is essential and obligatory, for the maintenance of our national unity that we should have respect for each others’ points of view, allegiance to the Constitution, Head of State, Parliament, Judiciary and the Presiding Officers of the Houses. Respect for Parliament is an important intangible that contributes to the sustenance of our national unity. If there are duties on the Parliamentarians to maintain the dignity of the House, they have their difficulties also, because they are to air their feelings, wishes and concerns of their constituents who are their masters, but a balance needs to be drawn, taking into consideration these difficulties, so that the effectiveness and pre-eminence of Parliament is maintained. The members are to genuinely realize that as Members of Parliament, they represent not only their constituents but the entire nation itself.

Live telecasting of the proceedings of Parliament on television, was started with a view that the Constituents of each Member of Parliament may see and evaluate their performance in the House. It ought to have disciplined the members more. Often, the electronic media tries to hype the news about the performance of the members and it adversely affects the credibility of members in the eyes and minds of their constituents and lowers the overall dignity and authority of the House and adversely affects the image of the nation. Therefore, the media too needs to exercise restraint and form a true and positive judgment in this regard.

Role of Political Parties in the Functioning of Parliament

The genesis of the role of political parties in the functioning of parties in India dates back to the era of the independence movement. The Indian National Congress was the first main national party in India, and it played an important role in the freedom struggle. Several leading freedom fighters, intellectuals and patriots were members of the Congress party, and at the time of independence, it was the only major political force in the country. By the late 1960s, four major national political groups emerged in the country, the Congress, the Social Democrats comprising the Praja Socialist Party and the Samjukta Socialist Party (led by Ram Manohar Lohia), the Rightists comprising the Jana Sangh and the Swatantra Party, and the Leftists made up of the Communist Party of India and the Communist Party of India (Marxist). The two major regional parties of this time were the DMK in Tamil Nadu and the Akali Dal in Punjab. Even during this period, it was the Congress, which dominated, being in power at the Centre, States and even the local bodies. It was with the fall of the Congress Party from its position of dominance in 1967 that other political forces, and regional level parties got an opportunity to spread their wings. This process got a major boost in the late 1970s after the Emergency, when anti-Congress sentiment amongst the people was at its peak, and continued through the 1980s. Today, there is a multiplicity of parties at the regional as well as the national levels. Political outfits based on considerations like regionalism, casteism, lingualism and communalism have proliferated and consequently, the political scenario has become increasingly complex, unstable and uncertain. Many of these parties, while claiming to be ‘national parties’, have little or no support outside their home-states or regions. Several of these regional parties are typically dependent on a ‘personality cult’ wherein the leader of the party has an image larger than that of the party itself. Family-based politics too is a distinctive feature of most such parties, and their leadership is dominated by members of one family, and often passes on to the children or close family members of the founder or the party ‘supremo’. These typicalities of Indian political parties today, show us that we still have a long way to go in achieving a truly and fully functioning democracy. It is an undeniable fact that unless the political parties adhere to democratic methods within their party, they will not be able to truly respect the democratic traditions in the governance of the nation. It is thus, essential that every political party evolve a truly democratic culture in their internal administration. The Dinesh Goswami committee recommended in 1990 that election symbols be withdrawn from parties that did not hold elections according to their own Constitutions, and this recommendation was implemented only in 1998. Subsequently, several political parties hurriedly held organizational elections to abide by this norm. The parties should ensure that proper inner-party democracy is established, and that internal elections are not reduced to a mere farce or lip service.

Criminalization of Politics

In recent years, with the growing political instability, it has become routine for political parties to take the help of criminal elements in society in order to secure election victories, and enhance their standing in the legislatures. Criminalization of politics and politicians is evident from records. Almost every party has criminals amongst its membership and leadership, and it is only in the percentage of such elements to the total strength of the party, that we find variances. Reliance on criminal elements by even established political outfits has become the order of the day. Today we have criminals fighting elections while in jail. This points clearly to the fact that constituents are vulnerable vis-à-vis such candidates. It is the moral and legal duty of each political party to see at the time of selection of candidates for election, that only the persons who are not involved in criminal proceedings should be selected and priority should be given to them at all costs, and it is only when they recognize and discharge their duty that we can achieve a polity free of crime and corruption. Parties can and must select candidates who are not criminally involved, who have a great reputation in society and who can win elections on their merit and popularity rather than on the basis of criminal methods. Great attention needs to be paid to qualities and qualifications in the choice of candidates rather than to see that who can easily win the elections in spite of being a known criminal.

According to the prevailing election law, no candidate can be debarred from contesting an election unless he has been convicted and sentenced to imprisonment by a court, for certain offences. If an appeal is pending in a higher court against the order of the trial court, the candidate still has the right to contest. As a result of this, even candidates accused (and convicted) of committing heinous crimes like murder, rape etc. by a trial court, can still be elected to a legislature, so long his appeal is pending before a higher court. The Law Commission of India[5] has suggested that in order to keep criminals out of the election process, all persons against whom charges are framed in respect of offences mentioned in the Representation of the People Act, 1951 must be debarred from filing nominations in elections. There is an urgent need for this recommendation to be implemented, in order to ensure the sanctity and integrity of our legislative process and our democratic traditions. A combination of restraint by the Political Parties and an amendment in election laws seems to be the only way in which our democracy can be saved from the cancer of criminalization of politics.

As a result of the growing criminalization of politics in India criminal elements have gained entry into the sacred halls of Parliament, and the most obvious consequence of this has been rising incidents of unbecoming, rude and arrogant behaviour, disrespect to the Chair and other Parliamentarians and deliberate disruption of Parliamentary proceedings without justification. Since the smooth operation of the political system depends entirely on the character and sincerity of the people who operate it, it is essential that all sorts of corruption, both political and economic should be weeded out. All of us have to work together to reaffirm our commitment to the Constitution and the principles of governance. The need of the hour is thus, that our Parliamentarians take steps to maintain integrity and probity in public life. We are in the process of being carried away by the strong current of degeneration of morality, and it is imperative that we adopt all possible methods to remedy the situation, by exercising a strong will. Where truth is being strangulated and defaced by ruses and the principle organs of our Constitution are affected, we will have to act with resilience to ensure that truth is protected from being made a travesty of. One possible method of ensuring that our politicians adhere to ethics and morality in their public lives is by evolving a system wherein the leader of every political party at the time of its registration, is made to subscribe an oath of allegiance to the Constitution and to abide by it and uphold its integrity. Similarly, no member should be enrolled to a political party unless he or she subscribes to a similar oath before an authority designated by the Election Commission. Apart from this, there should be a stringent code of ethics prescribed by the Election Commission, and every member of a Political Party should be made to subscribe and to it, and non-compliance with which, would invite penal consequences, expulsion, vacation of seat and cancellation of party membership, debarment from joining any other political party and from contesting any election for a period of at-least five years. Similarly, the oath and code of ethics should be made compulsory for independent candidates as well.

The malaise of declining moral values is not restricted to politics alone, but has touched and affected every institution, and spread to the lives of the common man, resulting in the degeneration of morality amongst the citizenry. India is a progressing nation, and faces all the problems and issues associated with economic development. Apart from these, the burgeoning population too is a matter of concern. It is the need of the hour that steps are taken to ensure transparency, accountability and probity in every aspect of public life, otherwise we face the prospect of further decline in ethical and moral values in every aspect of our lives. Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, the father of our Constitution has said, “History shows that where ethics and economics come in conflict, victory is always with economics. Vested interests have never been known to have willingly divested themselves unless there was sufficient force to compel them.”

It is only when the culture of ethics and morality becomes deep rooted in our society, and when probity becomes a way of life for every citizen of our nation, that we can ensure a polity, free of crime, corruption and inefficiency, and achieve the aspirations, goals and dreams embodied in our Constitution.

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[1] Dr. Phul Chand, ‘Parliament and the People’, from ‘Parliament and Legislatures’ – Commemorative Volume for the All India Presiding Officers’ Conference, 1986, Bureau of Legislative Studies, Old Secretariat, Delhi

[2] Somnath Chatterjee, ‘Parliament and the People’, from ‘Fifty Years of Indian Parliament’, Lok Sabha Secretariat, New Delhi, 2002.

[3] Manohar Joshi , ‘Fifty Years of Lok Sabha’, p xxiv, from Ibid

[4] K. R. Narayanan, ‘Parliament and State Legislatures – Imperative of Discipline and Decorum’ pg. 5 from Ibid

[5] One Hundred and seventieth report on ‘Reform of the electoral laws’, Law Commission of India, May 1999 p. 40