Wednesday, 1 April 2020

Why democracy doesn’t deliver… The Buck Stops Nowhere!

Updated: September 29, 2012 12:01 pm

There are no two opinions about the fact that India is facing a systemic crisis. Governance is crumbling, corruption is mounting and brazenly illegal actions are proliferating. The two starkest symbols of systemic breakdown are provided by Parliament’s failure to function and the frequent cases of mega corruption that are being exposed. The popular lament that these failures reflect the decline of Indian character is true as far as it goes. It doesn’t go far enough. This view fails to explain why the self-corrective mechanism to prevent such lapses in any healthy functioning democracy does not work in India’s democratic system. There may be culprits breaking law in every society. But in democratic societies there is the law of the land that checks them. That is not happening in India . There is therefore cause to reflect and the need to understand why the Indian democratic system is not working as it should.

Consider first the paralysis in Parliament. Shouting brigades of MPs who even descend to ugly verbal altercations and fisticuffs have prevented the House from functioning almost throughout its entire term. The MPs certainly deserve condemnation for their misconduct. But why could they not be prevented from disrupting Parliament? The argument offered by their apologists to justify their behaviour is that such things have also happened in the past when the ruling party was in opposition. Do two wrongs make a right? Is misconduct to be treated as precedent justifying its repetition? In the past the overall crisis in the nation was not as potentially fatal as it is today. Why, then, does our democratic system not have a remedy to prevent this paralysis? The short answer to that is that an effective remedy exists. It is not being utilised. There was clear dereliction of duty which allowed Parliament to be paralysed.

This is what parliamentary rules themselves have to say about the role of the Lok Sabha Speaker when such situations arise: “It is the Speaker who decides as to when a member shall speak and how long he or she shall speak. It is left to her to ask a member to discontinue the speech or even decide that what a particular member said may not go on record as part of the proceedings. If she is satisfied, the Speaker can direct a member to withdraw from the House for a specific period of time. A member who flouts her orders or directions may be named by the Speaker and in such cases may have to withdraw from the House.”

By any objective assessment did the Lok Sabha Speaker Mrs. Meera Kumar during the recent parliamentary crisis exercise her powers to discharge her responsibilities? Clearly she did not. On the other hand with considerable tact and patience she functioned in the best traditions of her predecessors. Her performance may have been excellent on the yardstick of conventional functioning. But can we afford the conventional and permissive approach that has informed the performance of our Speakers in the past? I suggest that we cannot. If we want to stop the rot that is overtaking our system we have to break new ground. Speakers in both Houses of Parliament need to adopt a new, no-nonsense approach in the exercise of the powers assigned to them by the system. MPs need to be disciplined. It is the Speaker’s responsibility to ensure that. Until now Mrs. Meera Kumar has failed to achieve results. Is it not dereliction of duty?

As for corruption and the breakdown of governance one needs to iterate only what has been pointed out before. Whether it is terrorism, or police excess, or breakdown of law and order, or individual flouting of law, or corruption—in each case that reflects collapse of governance, some law or other is violated or ignored. The single measure to ensure that every law and every rule of the statute book is scrupulously observed would introduce remarkable improvement in governance. If the Prime Minister, ministers and chief ministers cannot prevent the breakdown in governance there is the President and through him each Governor in all the states empowered to ensure that either they perform adequately or they are forced to demit office.

President Pranab Mukherjee, like Speaker Meera Kumar, may be functioning with exemplary rectitude insofar as Presidents are traditionally expected to function in our democracy. But in the past during normal times a permissive attitude to observance of laws and rules was acceptable. Today it is not. If the nation wants to end the rapid decline of the system it is imperative that the President and the Speaker exercise the powers respectively assigned to them with ruthless resolve. India ’s silent systemic crisis is too deadly to permit permissiveness. Someone must accept ultimate responsibility for the decline. To maintain order in the House is the Speaker’s responsibility. To preserve and protect law and Constitution is the President’s responsibility. Neither responsibility is being adequately discharged. There would be cynics criticising the current incumbents of high office to dismiss any hopes. One urges them to recall the traditional ideals of India ’s village panchayats immortalised in Munshi Premchand’s classic story, Panch Parmeshwar. The one on the seat of judgment ceases to be subjective. Systems should not rest on personal predilection but on the responsibilities of office. Mr. Pranab Mukherjee and Mrs. Meera Kumar can rise to emulate this ideal. The buck must stop with the President or Speaker.

By Rajinder Puri

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