Book House

Former Vice President M. Hamid Ansari on the hopes and perils of reimagining Parliament

M. Hamid Ansari
  • The book “Challenges to A Liberal Polity” by M. Hamid Ansari brings to light some of the most critical issues, which influence our thoughts every day.

  • From Nehru’s vision for India as a major world power to the issues of citizenship, religion, democracy, the idea of plurality and Muslim identity in Indian society, inclusion/exclusion of Indian Muslims, the ‘mainstream’ decision making process in India, the role of women in order to build a compassionate society, implication for dissent, Muslims’ role and contribution to Indian culture, civilization and nation-building in the post-Independent India, among others, the book thrashes some of the burning issues of Indian polity and society.

  • Comprehensive, argumentative and evocative, this title will not only interest a wide spectrum of readers but also politicians, policymakers and students and scholars of Indian politics, history and sociology.

  • Read an excerpt from the book below.

It would be fair to measure Parliament’s functioning on three counts: (i) as a legislative institution in terms of its functioning; (ii) as an instrument of control over the functioning of the executive; and (iii) in terms of presentday realities and the role of civil society organizations and institutions. A decline in terms of its assigned responsibilities is much too evident and credible observers have opined that we are now more a symbol than substance of a vibrant democracy. So are the shortfalls as an instrument of control over the executive. Particularly noticeable is the tardiness in galvanizing the functioning of the Standing Committees; one observer has described their irrelevance as ‘breath-taking’. The responsibility for both principally, but not wholly, rests with the executive of the day and can be induced through collective action of the political parties combined with public pressure. Similarly,

• Attendance by Ministers in meetings of the Standing Committees should be made obligatory and should not be confined to Secretaries of the Government.

• The two Houses of Parliament should revert to the earlier practice of sitting for 90–100 days.

• There should be a binding mechanism to check disruptions and time lost should be recouped within a specified period.

• To accommodate civil society concerns, rules and procedures for the functioning of the Petition Committees of the two Houses should be reviewed.

The imperative to retrieve the institution is evident to adherents of democratic values and of the Constitution. The apprehension that a dormant Parliament could become the first stage to its oblivion is real and lends credence to allegations of India becoming ‘the world’s largest illiberal democracy’. The primary objective of proposed correctives should in some measure be to induce Parliament to accommodate in its functioning the realities of our times, restore its primacy in the functioning of institutions of the Indian State, and convince a younger generation that it remains relevant.

India is and claims to be the largest democracy in the world. We are an active participant in the deliberations of the Inter Parliamentary Union (IPU). Some years ago this body had developed and circulated a self-assessment toolkit to (a) evaluate individual parliaments against international criteria for democratic parliaments; and (b) to identify priorities and means for strengthening Parliament. The toolkit focused on six questions:

• The representativeness of Parliament

• Parliamentary oversight over the executive

• Parliament’s legislative capacity

• The transparency and accessibility of Parliament

• Parliament’s involvement in international policy

Thus, both domestic debate and international norms beckon us to undertake a self-assessment. Therein lies the corrective.

An observation in another context yet relevant universally is to be noted: Parliamentary democracy, evolved by time, fashioned by chance and fashioned by experience, still places the possibility of an ever better system, in our hands. Free and fair elections, reform by statute rather than by force, government for the many without forgetting the few, the liberty of the individual made possible by the collective endeavour, not arbitrary tyranny but the rule of law; the shared sovereignty of the people—these are worth taking pride in, protecting and enhancing.

In our case, however, it was adopted by choice, perhaps implanted, with all the risks of rejection. Is this what is happening? A look at the data on the functioning of State legislatures (Articles 168–212 of the Constitution) sustains the apprehension of a system failure and self-abdication.

In a lecture in December 1952, Ambedkar listed seven conditions on ‘Conditions Precedent for the Successful Working of Democracy’: (1) no glaring inequalities in society; (2) a strong opposition; (3) no tyranny of majority over the minority; (4) equality in law and administration; (5) observance of constitutional morality; (6) a functioning of moral order in society; and (7) public conscience. He concluded by mentioning some cases of failure and said, ‘We ought to be very cautious and very considerate regarding our own future.’

Seven decades later, we have to concede that we are on a slippery slope. We have practiced electoral democracy mechanically without making it fully representative. Our electoral procedures and practices have accentuated, rather than diminished, social cleavages. We have allowed money power in all its manifestations to distort the electoral outcomes. Our political process depicts a declining observance of constitutional morality. Our society exhibits a disturbing disregard for moral order and public conscience and, in the words of an eminent academic, the lines between legality and illegality, order and disorder, state and criminality, have come to be increasingly porous.

Our system is in dire need for rejuvenation—and our commitment to the principles and values of the Constitution.

Excerpted with permission from Challenges to A Liberal Polity: Human Rights, Citizenship and Identity, M. Hamid Ansari, Penguin Viking. Read more about the book here and buy it here.


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