Parliament is the sanctum sanctorum of democracy and India’s Parliament has a rich democratic heritage. Since Independence, the Opposition, as a watchdog of democracy, has used Parliament to ask the right questions from the government and mandate the government to reply to those questions in a time-barred manner.
Since we do not take part in any open general meeting like the Buddhist Council of the fifth century B.C. where many disputes between different points of view on social and religious issues could be settled, Parliament is the place for deliberations, debates, exchange of views between the Opposition parties and the government. But nowadays, the Indian Parliament is losing much of its fervour.
The institution has now become a cauldron of heated exchange of words and vituperative outbursts. Amid this tumultuous situation, no question can be raised. Passage of bills is stalled. No fruitful discussions become possible. Dr BR Ambedkar had suggested that disputes be settled by constitutional means, not by recourse to popular protest.
Ambedkar’s warning has been totally disregarded. Quite a few decades after Independence, India remains a democracy but not as a Constitutional democracy, as a populist one (Ramchandra Guha, India after Gandhi).
It is the responsibility of both the Opposition and the ruling party to restore the sanctity of Parliament for the sake of a vibrant and argumentative democracy. Similarly, the Executive often tends to avoid the Legislature while taking momentous decisions which may impact both our national economy and governance. The rulers off and on try to ride roughshod over the principle of transparency, one of the major essentials of a democratic system.
Openness is one of the essential features of democracy. It stimulates the flow of information. Organisations in and out of government regularly report findings, educate the public, and push political leaders to consider a full range of options, spreading worthwhile ideas from one sector to another. Openness also reduces corruption. An independent and investigative media creates higher expectations regarding transparency and disclosure of potential conflict of interests. The politics of cover-up should not have any space in democratic governance.
Joseph T. Siegle, an Associate Director at the Centre for Institutional Reform and the Informal Sector at the University of Maryland, has stated in Why Democracies Excel that democracies are political systems characterized by popular participation, genuine competition for executive office, and institutional checks on power.
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Our Constitution has an in-built system of checks and balances in the form of various democratic institutions. But if such important institutions are reduced to irrelevant entities through an overdose of politicisation, it is dangerous for democratic governance, because the rulers will get an opportunity to enjoy unbridled power.
Very recently, the attitude of the government towards human rights groups, has come under the scanner of Amnesty International, the human rights organisation working across the world. It has stated that in India the Centre is treating the rights groups like criminal enterprises. (The Statesman, 27 October 2018). This is an unpalatable tag, indeed, so far as our democracy is concerned.
To ensure a viable democracy, the emphasis should be on a discussion of its essentials, and strengthening of institutions that support democracy, not the party in power. The federated system also places checks and balances on the various levels of government, thereby guarding against an overconcentration of power at the national level. But if the party at the Centre has a brute majority, the federal system becomes a victim. Actually, this happened in the 1970s and it eventually culminated in the declaration of Emergency.
A caste-ridden society is an anathema to democracy. It hinders social development and if there is no social development there is very little scope for democracy to expand. Our country is not free from the evil of oppression of the members of the weaker sections by the upper castes.
Even after 70 years of Independence, ‘honour killing’ has almost become a common feature in our society. Poor governance is responsible for the rising incidence of the crime. Sadly enough, the undemocratic measures taken by the village bodies like khap panchayats or any village body, legal or illegal, to settle local disputes are hardly confronted by the mainstream administration.
Declining political morality and rising corruption in the polity are major deterrents to the progress of democracy. Jawaharlal Nehru, in his letter dated 5 May 1948, addressed to the chief ministers expressed his concern over the growth of corruption, both at the Centre, and in the provinces. He stated that this must be tackled efficiently or else the nation will sink in this morass.
According to Transparency International CPI (2017), India has slipped in the corrupt nations list to 81 from 79 of 2016 CPI. Some recent incidents of corruption in which a huge amount of public money has been involved and the brunt of which the nation is still bearing, speaks of poor financial governance and if this continues, the common people will feel insecure and start losing faith in the country’s democratic governance.
We cannot think of a perfect democracy without individual freedom. Article 19 of our Constitution has indubitably established this right. Amartya Sen has remarked that freedom of speech is indeed a very important part of human freedom and development consists of expansion of people’s freedom. But when the free-thinking, secular authors, social activists, journalists, RTI activists are either killed or bullied by the political or religious fanatics, there is reason to be worried about the future of our democracy.
Many believe that democracy cannot thrive in a poor country. But without democracy, poverty cannot be alleviated. The two are inter-related. Even now, 21.9 per cent of our population is still below the poverty line. Many more are just above it. In the Global Hunger Index 2018, prepared by global NGOs namely Concern Worldwide (Ireland) and Welthungerhilfe (Germany), India’s rank is 103 out of 119 qualifying countries. For a viable democracy, therefore, the uplift of the socio-economic condition of the people is a primary condition.
The public intellectuals have a major role to play in saving the future of our democracy. As Professor Thapar has said, a society like the one we live in needs its public intellectuals: people who can ask the right question at the relevant moment. But their indifference is just encouraging the enemies of our democracy. Therefore, to make our democracy safe and secure, our mindset needs to be changed.
The writer is a retired civil servant.