Sunday, March 14, 2010

A Very Costly Bill

India is a democracy or, at the very least, that’s what some of us have been led to believe. And one of the major reasons that you can claim that India is a democracy with a straight face is that the country has a Parliament that, in some form or the other, represents the people of India. What allows Parliament to claim that it represents the people of India? That’s because it’s composed of MPs, elected by their constituencies and it is assumed that the manner in which an MP conducts business in Parliament will, in some ways at least, correspond to the people of his constituency. After all, the system is built on a mutual back scratching basis—put simply, the MP tries to act in a way that would help his constituents; if his constituents think that he’s done a good job, they re-elect him.

Sadly, the woman’s reservation bill (and more importantly, the Anti-Defection law, but more on that later) does a fairly good job of blowing this concept out of the water. Maybe the bill is well intentioned and, God knows, women in India can do with all the help they can get, but the feature of the bill which necessitates the rotation of parliamentary seats such that two-thirds of all parliamentarians will be compulsorily unseated every five years pretty much ends any incentive for an MP to even put up an act of representing the people of his constituency. As Pratap Bhanu Mehta puts it:

“The rotation principle is a peculiar one in a democracy because it produces democracy without democratic accountability. You don’t, as an individual, now seek the verdict of those whom you claimed to serve. Even the rightly heralded reservations at panchayat level have generated this problem, producing both an accountability deficit and a weakening of an institution as a whole.”

Ironically, Subhashini Ali has even claimed this rotation principle is actually one of the redeeming features of this bill as it would “discourage personal fiefdoms” and the rise of pocket boroughs.

In order to prevent fiefdoms in some constituencies, to uproot legislators from 2/3ds of India’s constituencies regardless of whether they are fiefdoms or not is an extreme use of the broad brush. To try and present an analogy, it would be like a law which requires 2/3rds of all companies in the country, regardless of their size or market power, to be penalised as if they were monopolies.

From where I see it, the only faction this bill will benefit will be large, established political parties. You could bring in a class/caste angle too, I guess, but for most part that’s a red herring, although, the logic behind asking for sub-quotas is the same as what drives the original bill and it would be slightly hypocritical to support one without the other. However, by periodically culling 66% of all sitting legislators, MPs, on their own, will have little or no clout left in their constituencies; the Party will be his mai-baap if he wants a re-election, not the voters.

Of course, this bill can hardly be credited of being the first legislation which tries to actually make an MP and, by extension, Parliament, less accountable to the voter. The pioneer there would be the Anti Defection law which makes it mandatory for an MP to follow his party whip. Never mind the merits of the way he is voting or how it affects the people he represents—unless he agrees with his party, he will actually be stripped of his post as “representative” of his constituency.

By and large, though, middle-class India is grateful for the law. After all, it does bring a semblance of order to the dinner table—the unruly kids are rapped on their knuckles and ordered to keep their elbows off the table. However, the fact of the matter is that pelf and corruption go hand and hand with power—it has always been like that and will always be like that. The only antidote is to distribute the loaves and fishes to as many people as possible—so it’s better that 500-odd MPs are corrupt rather than just 5 party cabals, the ideal case scenario being when all of India partakes of those loaves and fishes.

Also, what makes this law doubly galling is that fact that parties in India, who control our democratically elected legislators, are highly undemocratic themselves. The Congress depends on one Family for its leadership, BJP presidents are appointed by funny people in khaki shorts and the last time I checked, politburos weren’t exactly paragons of democratic propriety.

Our political system started out by being modelled on Britain’s—I’m afraid that it might end up being more like China’s: our parliament will eventually end up being an ineffectual rubber stamp and all power will lie with opaque party machines.