It’s Messy, But It Works

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Plenty has been said over the past few days on television and in drawing rooms about the levels to which Indian politics has sunk. CPI general secretary A B Bardhan’s statement that the going rate for members of Parliament was Rs 25 crore is now folklore. And the bag of cash produced dramatically in the well of the House by the BJP MP from Morena at the fag end of the debate on Tuesday seemed to confirm the public’s dim view of politicians. It was indeed a new low in the history of Indian democracy. Do we then dismiss Parliament as a charade? Let’s not forget that the unprecedented act by the Morena MP, Ashok Argal, came after several hours of passionate debate and possibly at a time when the opposition had realised that they didn’t have the numbers to bring down the government. And the way the television channel, which claimed to have visuals of Argal getting the money, kept mum about it instead of airing them or giving them to the police was fishy to say the least. Over the better part of two days, the best speakers from major political parties held forth with varying degrees of eloquence on the Indo-US nuclear deal and its consequences for the country. Lalu Prasad was his inimitable self, leaving the House in splits with his brand of humour; Mohammed Salim showed why he is so highly regarded as a speaker in Bengal; Rahul Gandhi — not the finest of orators with his tinny voice — gave a statesman-like performance exhorting MPs to rise above party differences; and the Speaker, Somnath Chatterjee, did a fine job in extremely stressful circumstances. And the best part was that there was a mad scramble for seats in the visitors’ gallery to hear speeches. That is precisely what Parliament is supposed to do — debate issues of national importance before voters — but often ends up not doing. The figures for business conducted by Parliament speak for themselves. The number of sittings of Lok Sabha has come down from an yearly average of 124 in the first decade of 1952-61 to 81 between 1992 and 2001, a decline of 34 per cent. For the same period, the decline for Rajya Sabha was 20 per cent. The picture in the state assemblies is no different with an average of 20 to 50 sittings a year. This has had a direct impact on the number of Bills passed by Parliament. The annual average of the number of Bills passed has come down from 68 in the first decade to 50 between 1992 and 2001. Last year was particularly bad. In 2007, Parliament worked for the least number of days in non-election years during the last eight years. Though we — the citizens of India — vote our legislators into Parliament, we unfortunately know little about many of them. Undoubtedly, Parliament is a great leveller where farmers, teachers, business tycoons and scions of political dynasties sit next to each other. But a study by the Public Affairs Centre, Bangalore, on the present Lok Sabha throws a good deal of light on the actual composition of Parliament. The interesting bit of the study is an analysis of the wealth of MPs. This has become possible after the Supreme Court in a 2002 ruling made it mandatory for all candidates who contest Lok Sabha polls to declare their assets. The study says that on an average an MP is worth Rs 1.64 crore. If the scheduled caste and scheduled tribe members are taken out, the figure rises to Rs 2 crore. There is, of course, great variation in the wealth of individual MPs. But the average assets of MPs of all major parties are Rs 1 crore and upward. Only the members of the communist parties have assets well under Rs 1 crore. This shows that by and large only rich people are getting elected to Parliament. On top of that, nearly a quarter of the MPs have either criminal charges against them or cases pending in courts. Another finding is that a larger proportion of elected MPs have criminal cases against them compared to those who were defeated in the elections. This is not a pretty picture. But we must not make the mistake of judging Indian democracy and Parliament only by its low points. Except for a brief period during the Emergency, India’s democratic institutions have proved to be far more robust than what most people would have expected in 1947. Indeed, they stand out in comparison to most developing countries. Indian democracy can often be exasperating and messy. The Argal episode and the chaos that followed was one such instance. But we can rest assured that this will only be a temporary blip. After all, Aya Rams and Gaya Rams have been around for several decades. For all its chaos, Indian democracy and its institutions have served us reasonably well. Yes, in spite of the tamasha in Parliament that you all saw last evening.


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