Government ministers, leaders of other political parties and MPs laughed and joked their way though the final session of India’s five year parliament even though it has been the worst ever in terms of achievements and performance, and has been marked more by protests and demonstrations than by debate and decisions.
Disruptions stopped parliament working for 37% of allotted time. More than 70 of the 289 bills introduced were not dealt with and lapsed and 20 were passed with debates lasting less than five minutes Violent attacks peaked when a pepper spray was used last week. That led to three Congress MPs acting as bouncers, standing close to Palaniappan Chidambaram, the finance minister, when he presented his pre-election mini-budget to ward off anyone who tried to assault him and grab his papers, as had happened to other speakers in recent months.
Such is the depths to which this pillar of India’s democratic institutions has sunk.
This illustrates the collapse of respect for institutions – and the gradual imploding of the institutions themselves – that is one of the themes of my new book IMPLOSION: India’s Tryst with Reality that was published this week and is now available in bookshops and on-line sales across India.
Yet MPs complimented and fawned on each other in the closing session last Friday. Sonia was “a graceful leader”, said Sushma Swaraj, the BJP’s leader of the opposition. The BJP veteran leader, L.K. Advani, was “seen with moist eyes” according to the Hindustan Times . Sushilkumar Shinde, the ineffectual Home Minister, told ” Swaraj your tone is sweet, sweeter than sweets “, even though she is better known for screeching. Mulayam Singh Yadav, leader of the Uttar Pradesh’s Samajwadi Party, thanked Sonia Gandhi, saying she had always acted “whenever I passed on slips requesting something” – better slips than suitcases, or were they promissory notes, one might wonder!
The MPs have reason to be pleased with themselves because they know that India’s traditional tolerance of non-performance and corruption will enable them to return after the general election that is due in April-May and behave just as badly again. Though the BJP disrupted parliament for months during this parliament, the precedent was set by the Congress when it was in opposition during the 1998-2004 BJP government’s time. The MPs know that India is too large and diverse a society for them to be ousted in a coup or by Arab Spring type mass demonstrations, and many revel in the weakening of institutions because it increases their powers of patronage and opportunity for corrupt fixes.
In my book, I argue that the role of politics, democracy, governments, institutions, laws and regulations, which were lauded 20 to 30 years ago as India’s special strengths, have been progressively undermined. They have been replaced by arbitrary powers wielded by individuals, be they ministers, bureaucrats, policemen, or regional politicians and gang bosses.
Democracy, which provides for MPs and their equivalents in state assemblies to run riot instead of debating and passing laws, does India damage in other ways. In my book, the conclusions chapter says:
“India has been in a state of denial for years. It is rightly proud of its vibrant and chaotic democracy that has survived and been accepted almost without question across this vast and diverse country for over 65 years. But it is in denial because it has not been prepared to recognise that the vagaries of democracy are providing smokescreens that obfuscate many of the negative aspects of how the country works.
Democracy is a fig leaf
“Democracy creates an environment where jugaad fixes are easy, and where the failures of the system in terms of poor governance and weakened institutions make the fatalism of chalta hai a welcome safe haven. Democracy has therefore become an unchallengeable fig leaf covering what is not achieved. It allows the negative and underperforming aspects of Indian life to flourish, and it blocks changes and acts as an excuse for what is not being achieved.
“The country can no longer afford to allow this to continue. If it does, systems will deteriorate further, possibly leading to implosions as the functioning of institutions is undermined and destroyed. India is far too large and diverse for a revolution to gain hold and dramatically change the way that it is run, but implosion, where government authority crumbles, systems break down, society becomes more lawless, and investment and growth slumps, can
already be seen.
“This is not an argument for doing away with democracy, but to recognise and change the negative way in which it operates. Democracy has helped to hold India together since independence, providing an outlet for people’s frustrations and anger, sometimes ousting prime ministers, chief ministers and their governments.
“Though far from perfect, it has given the great mass of the population a feeling that they have a say in how the country is run, however faint and rare that may be and however much they are cheated and maltreated by those they elect.
“But it has also provided an excuse and a cover for the gradual criminalisation of politics that has been allowed to grow for decades to such an extent that election campaigns are distorted, large bribes are paid when coalitions are being formed, and many members of parliament and state assemblies have criminal charges pending against them, often for serious offences.
“Democracy is also used as an excuse for ineffective government…..But, while the recent years have been bad, the problems are deeper and will not be solved simply by switching to another prime minister or political party that carries the baggage of the past.
“The mission of legitimate governments should be to create inclusive economic development with a sharing of wealth and governance by strong, impartial institutions. On that count, India has failed as corruption and bad governance have facilitated the emergence of a self-serving political system, a politicised bureaucracy, an unprofessionaljudiciary, and mindless and often cruel policing.”
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