In India, the world’s largest democracy, some see system as a handicap

Mahesh Kumar A/AP - Indian police officers detain members of left wing parties during a protest in support of a one-day general industrial strike in Hyderabad, India, Feb. 28, 2012.

For the 64 years since independence, democracy has perhaps been India’s greatest asset, the magic that has kept the country’s dizzying array of linguistic, ethnic and religious groups together as a nation.

But at times democracy seems like India’s greatest handicap, too. In the race to catch up with China, to unleash India’s economic and entrepreneurial potential, Indians are increasingly worrying about the costs of democracy, or indeed whether the country simply has too much of it to function effectively.

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Indian Parliament’s legislative slide
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Indian Parliament’s legislative slide

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As economic growth slowed last year and corruption scandals mounted, as crucial legislation stalled in a fractious Parliament and the government failed to muster much support from even its own coalition partners, a deep sense of political malaise settled over India’s middle class, said Baijayant “Jay” Panda, a member of Parliament. “There is a widespread belief that the kind of democratic system in which we operate is failing us.”

Although the poor still vote in large numbers, popular faith in the country’s politicians among the middle class has perhaps never been lower. In a survey conducted by the Hindustan Times newspaper and the CNN-IBN television news channel last fall of 25-to-50-year-olds from the urban middle class, a third of respondents said India should be run by “a strong leader who does not have to contest elections,” and a quarter opted for leadership by “experts and professionals not answerable to political leaders.”

Less than a fifth of respondents thought the country should be run by “elected political leaders,” just a few percentage points above those who preferred military rule.

This is expression of what Panda calls the “less democracy” crowd, sections of the middle class who rarely vote but instead yearn wistfully for a benevolent dictator, and “the business fraternity, which has long envied countries like China . . . where a business-friendly government is not hamstrung by democratic complications.”

It is not hard to find fault with India’s imperfect democracy. The explosion in the number of political parties based on caste and community allegiances, the steady rise in the number of lawmakers facing criminal charges and the corrupting role of undeclared money in campaign finance are all significant and growing problems.

But it is perhaps in Parliament that the malaise has been most obviously apparent in the past year.

As hundreds of thousands of protesters thronged the streets demanding action against corruption, as tens of millions of children suffered some of the worst malnutrition rates in the world, as growth stuttered and investors fled the country, Parliament seemed to function on a different planet.

That was never more apparent than in 2011’s closing days, as India’s upper house of Parliament extended its final session in an attempt to pass critical legislation meant to combat corruption.

It was culmination of months of popular protests. But with much of the nation glued to the debate on their television screens, and as the clock ticked toward midnight, Parliament erupted in chaos.

Lawmakers stormed into the well of the house jostling, screaming and tearing up the bill, using any tactic they could to fill up time and derail the vote. In vain, the speaker tried to calm the storm.

“I am afraid the Chair has no option (Interruptions) . . . most reluctantly . . . (Interruptions) . . . Please . . . (Interruptions) . . . ” reads the transcript. “I’m afraid I can’t do anything.”

And so, at two minutes past midnight, the curtain came down on another tumultuous year in India’s Parliament, and the anti-corruption bill was punted into 2012.

Chaos was the norm in Parliament, legislation the exception, as the body sat for just 73 days, with 30 percent of its time lost to disruptions or adjournments. Other bills critical to the country’s progress — on taxation, land reform, pension funds and judicial standards — were among dozens pending.

Breakdown in trust

For many historians and columnists, it is politicians, not democracy, who are letting India down.

“Democracy is India’s destiny,” columnist Ramachandra Guha said. “Given its diversity, disparity and size, it cannot be managed by anything other than a democratic system. But clearly the system is not functioning at the moment — which has more to do with the actors than the system itself.”

Guha blames Parliament’s dysfunction on a “very vicious and bitter partisanship” between the country’s two main parties, the center-left Congress and the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, whose relationship, he argues, is far worse than relations between Democrats and Republicans in the United States.

“Any modern democracy critically depends on a relationship of trust between government and opposition,” Guha said. “The relationship of trust has completely broken down, and that is deeply disturbing for the future of Indian democracy.”

One of the root causes, argue parliamentary experts at PRS Legislative Research, is that the rules and regulations of Parliament have not been updated since they were inherited from the days of the British Raj. The government still controls Parliament’s agenda and which debates merit a vote. The result is that the opposition often has no option but to disrupt proceedings to get its voice heard.

“One of the primary roles of Parliament is to hold the government to account, but the government can decide what is voted on,” said M.R. Madhavan of PRS. “For the opposition, the choice seems to be capitulate or disrupt.”

Plea for debates

Rajeev Chandrasekhar, an IT billionaire turned independent member of India’s upper house of Parliament, was so frustrated by the lack of debate that he wrote to the prime minister last year appealing for three special sessions of Parliament a year, each of five days, for nationally televised debates on the main issues facing the country.

“If parliament can be convened especially to hear President Barack Obama of America, surely we can convene a special session to discuss priority issues like poverty that affect more than 400 million fellow Indians,” he wrote.

Chandrasekhar said his petition has received considerable support from fellow lawmakers and ordinary Indians. So far, though, there has been no response from the prime minister’s office.

The irony, say PRS Legislative Research and Panda, is that a few simple procedural tweaks could make Indian parliamentary democracy function much more smoothly — such as removing the government’s veto on which debates can be voted on, setting aside time in the calendar for the leader of the opposition to decide Parliament’s agenda, and making it easier for private members to introduce bills. It is time, Panda said, to reach for these “low-hanging fruits.”

 
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