Will new Parliament building stand the ‘test of democracy’? | Latest News India - Hindustan Times
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Will new Parliament building stand the ‘test of democracy’?

May 27, 2023 02:13 PM IST

Parliament is India’s pride. As it moves to a new home, HT looks at its journey, and the promise for the future.

In a democracy, the people are sovereign. But this abstract notion of popular sovereignty has a concrete manifestation. That is the Parliament of India, for it is here that, through their representatives, the citizens of India exercise their sovereignty. And with a new Parliament building on the cusp of being inaugurated, Indian citizens are about to move to a new home.

The old Parliament building, a magnificent structure, has been the site where India’s politics has evolved throughout the post-Independence era (Illustration: Mohit Suneja)
The old Parliament building, a magnificent structure, has been the site where India’s politics has evolved throughout the post-Independence era (Illustration: Mohit Suneja)

Indeed, it is in Parliament, over the last seven decades, that India’s citizens have expressed their political preferences. They have kept the executive in check and made it accountable through relentless questions and votes. They have framed laws. They have debated fiercely.

Read: PM Modi shares video of new Parliament building with this ‘special request’

It is in Parliament that India’s social, regional, linguistic, religious, and ethnic diversity has come alive. And it is here that the idea of the political equality of all citizens, through that extraordinarily powerful idea of universal adult franchise and one-person one-vote, has permeated through the Indian political consciousness. The scale of this achievement is stunning, because it stands so sharply in contrast with the inequalities and hierarchies that continue to be embedded in Indian society and social relations.

The old Parliament building, a magnificent structure, has been the site where India’s politics has evolved in the post-Independence era. The test of the new Parliament building, beyond its aesthetics, is whether it can be as hospitable a home to the same democratic tradition and improve it further.

The initial era

For the first 15 years, from 1952 to 1967, Parliament reflected the legacy of the freedom struggle. The Congress, as the party that won India freedom, exercised political dominance and Jawaharlal Nehru, with his stature, oratory and command over the party, towered above all else. But Nehru also took the legislative branch seriously and recognised that the reputation and quality of Indian democracy would be made and unmade by the functioning of Parliament.

It helped that while the Opposition was numerically weak, it had leaders who did not hesitate to challenge the Congress. From the communists to the socialists, from the culturally conservative Jan Sangh to the economically liberal Swatantra Party, India’s various political formations ensured that Parliament reflected the various ideological currents within Indian polity. If there was one clear weakness in this phase, it was that India’s social diversity wasn’t reflected adequately and dominant social groups continued to speak disproportionately for all citizens.

The next phase, from 1967 to 1980, saw both an expansion and contraction of Indian democracy and Parliament was home to both trends. The reduced Congress majority in the Lok Sabha and the changed composition of the Rajya Sabha due to election of non-Congress governments in a range of states in 1967 meant other parties and leaders, and as a corollary, newer social groups that they represented began to find a greater voice in the functioning of Parliament. The rise of the Janata Party in 1977 then led to formations which had primarily been in opposition finally getting a chance to move to the treasury benches. Democracy became messier, but it also became somewhat more representative.

Read: New Parliament to feature artworks offering glimpses of India’s past, diversity

But in the interregnum, Indian democracy also faced its toughest test. Elected by an overwhelming majority in 1971, within four years, Indira Gandhi assaulted the idea of parliamentary democracy in India like no one before her did, and no one since has done, by imposing an internal emergency. The Opposition was jailed. Parliament became a rubber stamp to legitimise arbitrary executive decisions, including major constitutional amendments. The press was censored. And fundamental rights lay suspended. But the Emergency lasted only two years, and citizens ensured that no one leader or party could take over what was their sacred home, Parliament, abuse it, and get away with it. It is a lesson that popular representatives ought to always remember.

The tumultuous years

In the third phase, between 1980 and 1989, Parliament saw the return of Congress dominance. But despite Indira Gandhi’s return to power, and Rajiv Gandhi’s overwhelming victory in 1984, the biggest victory for any party to date in the Lok Sabha elections, it was clear that Indian citizens had become more vigilant. The Opposition was weak but forceful. Regional voices began to find space.

Parliamentary democracy however faced another challenge when segments of citizens decided that it was not through the democratic route, but non-democratic and violent pathways, that they would transform India’s political order. From Punjab to Assam to Kashmir, domestic insurgents, often encouraged by external powers, began challenging parliamentary supremacy. It was to the credit of Indian democracy that eventually, all these extra-constitutional methods failed. Instead, Parliament showed that it had the ability to accommodate divergent aspirations if they opted for the electoral route.

From 1989 to 2014, India’s Parliament became messier but also more diverse. Regional parties, for whom power in Delhi had been a distant dream, suddenly exercised influence in shaping the composition and nature of the executive branch and the legislative agenda. India’s subaltern communities saw a rise in representation. There was a collision of ideologies as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) grew in strength. Prime Ministers understood that being the head of the executive no longer meant that the legislature could be taken for granted. If the 1990s saw a change in India’s economic direction, the first decade of the 2000s saw Parliament enact welfare legislations to ensure that economic reforms had a human face. Indian democracy matured, Parliament became more diverse, and governance had to become more accommodative and flexible of the demands expressed in both the chambers.

The final phase

And in the final phase, from 2014 to the present, the old Parliament building witnessed the return of one-party dominance to the extent that the biggest non-BJP party (Congress) did not have enough numerical strength to even claim the official spot of leader of opposition. Executive dominance over the legislature returned. Laws began to bear a stronger ideological imprint of the party in power.

Yet, it was only in Parliament that even a strong executive had to face its toughest questions from a weaker and more diverse, but still rather assertive, Opposition over its policies and actions. It was here that the most powerful government since the early 1970s had to bow to public opinion and withdraw legislations at key moments (think of the amendment to the land acquisition act and farm laws).

Read: New Parliament to house sceptre symbolising 1947 power transfer

A Parliament is way more than the structure that houses it. And despite its remarkable strengths, India’s parliament suffers from significant weaknesses.

Disruptions by the Opposition distract from the core task of deliberations. Bills pushed through by the government in a hurry, often without proper legislative debate and committee scrutiny, represent a betrayal of the mandate that citizens have given their representatives. Partisan speakers or chairs of the chambers erode the legitimacy of the institution. The control of party bosses over party finances and ticket distribution, the sanctity of the whip, and the use of an anti-defection law beyond its original intent has meant that individual parliamentarians have little agency and end up toeing the party line on all occasions. Key national issues are often not debated. The executive seeks to avoid giving clear and definitive responses to parliamentary questions. The number of women parliamentarians remains abysmally poor when compared to their population. The presence of religious minorities, particularly Muslims, has shrunk in the past decade. The Rajya Sabha often fails in functioning as the House of the Elders and a chamber of states, its original mandate, and ends up echoing the polarised political mood of the Lok Sabha.

But despite these weaknesses, there is little doubt that the Parliament of India is India’s pride. As citizens find a new home, recognise the democratic legacy of the old home, address the infirmities that have crept up, and ensure that the new Parliament building is truly representative of all of India, in terms of its political and social diversity, and gives a voice to all, as inconvenient and uncomfortable as those voices may be for the powerful. It is only then that the new will be a worthy successor to the old.

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