Need for restoration of faith in democracy

| | in Usual Suspects

Last week, at a farewell dinner for M Venkaiah Naidu who is all set to assume charge as India’s next Vice President and Chairman of the Rajya Sabha, Prime Minister Narendra Modi drew an important distinction between good Government and the quality of democracy. India, he suggested, has taken important strides in the direction of good Government. However, the quality of parliamentary democracy had not kept pace with the positive changes in the sphere of public administration. There was, he argued, a deficit that needed to be made up urgently if popular faith in our democracy was not going to be irretrievably impaired.

Arguably, the Prime Minister’s warning to our MPs was triggered by the Government’s needless defeat in the Rajya Sabha on a Constitution Amendment Bill. Maybe being outvoted by an Opposition that was somehow determined to settle scores with the Government — and on any issue — was inevitable given today’s Rajya Sabha composition. However, had the BJP ensured the presence of all its MPs and Ministers who are also members of the Upper House, it is conceivable that the amendment proposed by three Congress MPs would have been voted down. As things stand, the success of the Congress amendment by a simple majority but its inability to muster a two-thirds majority meant that the original Constitutional amendment to establish a Backward Classes Commission — with the same powers as the Commission on Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes — is now null and void. To get it through, the Government will have to undertake its legislative journey all over again in the Lok Sabha.

Since that defeat, the BJP Legislature Party has acquired a greater sense of urgency. The hitherto half-empty Treasury benches are now filled with MPs and there are many more Ministers in evidence in the Upper House. The story is likely to be replicated in the Lower House where the Government has a clear majority. Moreover, once BJP president Amit Shah acquires membership of the Rajya Sabha later this week, there is also likely to be a rush among party MPs to perform.

However, the issue is more important than the defeat of a single piece of legislation and the imminent entry of the redoubtable Amit Shah into Parliament. When Parliament reconvenes for its Winter session after Diwali, the numbers game is likely to witness a shift. For one, the BJP will have overtaken the Congress as the single largest party in the Upper House. Secondly, if the proposed expansion of the NDA materialises with the addition of the Janata Dal (United) and, more important, the AIADMK, it is entirely possible that the Government will no longer dread the passage of every piece of legislation through the Rajya Sabha. After more than three years, the Modi Government may well be in a commanding position in both Houses of Parliament.

India has gotten used to dysfunctional governance, particularly when fractious coalitions ruled the roost. Even this NDA Government, despite a clear and undisputed leader at the helm and a majority in the Lok Sabha, was often compelled to apply policy brakes because the numbers were against it in the Rajya Sabha. However, the emphatic BJP victory in Uttar Pradesh and the return of the JD(U)-BJP coalition in Bihar has been a game changer. Today the Opposition stands extremely demoralised and dispirited. Many Opposition parties, despite putting up spirited resistance, have more or less reconciled themselves to a second Modi term.

While no election is won till the last vote is counted, Modi on his part is looking ahead to 2022 when India will celebrate 75 years as an independent nation. The Government’s focus will be on a transformative agenda that will allow India to see its future as a prosperous regional power that is devoid of peculiarly Third World problems such as poverty, creaking infrastructure, infuriating Government inefficiency and, above all, corruption. If there is no worthwhile Opposition to create roadblocks in the path of the Government, it is only natural that the people will look to the Government to not only deliver good governance but also guarantee robust democratic politics. It is in this context that the restoration of healthy parliamentary traditions acquires importance.

Over the past few years, since the Modi Government assumed power and even before, the functioning of the national Parliament has been imperfect. Once a culture of disruption takes root, there is an automatic temptation on the part of MPs to forget their routine duties of rigorous scrutiny and look for easy ways out. If the NDA Government manages to establish a workable majority in the Rajya Sabha, it will simultaneously have to work to re-establish the credibility of Parliament in the public imagination.

In bidding farewell to Venkaiah Naidu from the political arena, the Prime Minister compared the situation today to the period from 1942 to 1947. In that period the building blocks of Independence were put in place. There were significant achievements — the most important of which was forcing the pace of Britain’s departure — but also major mistakes. As India prepares the ground for the transformation of 2022, it is important that the decimation of dynastic politics is coupled by the restoration of faith in parliamentary democracy. The new Vice-President will have to manage the restoration of the Rajya Sabha to its full glory as part of the larger national Mission 2022.

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