60 years on, the future beckons

India became independent on August 15, 1947, but it was 60 years ago, on this very day, that we began our journey as a parliamentary democracy, which truly liberated us from the clutches of imperial subjugation and lifted us into the realms of sovereignty. Six decades later it is a matter of great pride that the Indian Parliament continues to be the epitome of our democracy. Indeed it is the investment of our national conscience in the higher philosophies of freedom, liberty, civility and pluralism espoused by our forefathers. Parliament is our constitutional value system put into daily practice — a value system which may appear to an unaware observer as having been borrowed from the West, but in reality is the product of the cultural ethos of ancient India that dates back to the age of the Vedas, where sabhas and panchayats reflected a consensual decision-making process in matters of state policy.
India’s parliamentary voyage has not been without its share of challenges. After much debate the Constituent Assembly decided that a parliamentary system was more suited to our needs than a presidential one, with the Lok Sabha being the “House of the People” and the Rajya Sabha the “Council of States”, reflecting the tendencies of our quasi-federal polity. The promise of more effective parliamentary control over the executive tipped the balance in its favour as compared to the American system. Many, in hindsight, question this. But one must then temper this with the stark reality of our neighbourhood which has seen many an authoritarian executive overrun the elected legislature. While some of our neighbours even today share a promiscuous relationship with military dictatorships and puppet regimes, the Indian people proved to the international community that a “Third World” Asian nation could make parliamentary democracy work.
The credit for this goes to our forefathers and, in particular, to our first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who helped India cultivate parliamentary culture. Pandit Nehru encouraged free and frank debate inside Parliament on all his policies and reminded his contemporaries that “there can be no higher responsibility or greater privilege than to be a member of this sovereign body, which is responsible for the fate of the vast number of human beings who live in this country”.
From ushering in indispensable social reforms to igniting the engines of India’s economic growth, from warding off external influences antithetical to the pursuit of an independent foreign policy to providing release to domestic pressures, some of which were of the separatist kind, Parliament proved that it was competent to undertake the herculean task of nation-building. When the Supreme Court ruled in favour of the zamindari system, it was this Parliament that broke the back of feudalism by undertaking land redistribution and even abolished the Privy Purses. There is no doubt that the judiciary, media and the executive are all committed to the idea of democracy but it is Parliament which is the custodian of the will of the people. Every other pillar of democracy has the liberty of stuttering but this luxury cannot be extended to Parliament. For we represent that noble Gandhian notion of democracy where “the weakest shall have the same opportunities as the strongest”.
India today has changed drastically — both in terms of demographics and socio-economic realities. We are one of the youngest nations in the world but plagued by high levels of disparity whether it is in terms of access to justice, information, economic and educational opportunities or basic essentials.
Consequently, the gap between the haves and have-nots is widening. It is therefore constitutionally and morally imperative that this Parliament rise above its role of a mere lawmaker and recast itself as an arbiter of a new socio-economic dynamic. Our late Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, took the earliest step in this direction by ensuring decentralisation of power by giving constitutional recognition to panchayati raj institutions.
Over the last eight years, India has steadily treaded this path by passing historic legislations like Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, Right to Information and Right to Education. We will now have on our agenda, in the near future, the Right to Food Bill and millions of our citizens who are deprived of their rations courtesy an inefficient public distribution system shall be looking at us with hope to secure for them the very basic entitlement of two square meals a day. Time has also come for us to rise above partisan politics and seriously consider much-needed reforms in the judiciary, police, electoral process, agriculture, labour and financial sector. I do realise that we live in an age of coalition politics but that does not give anyone an inherent licence to douse the burning passion of national aspiration, which is ready to explode and propel India to the status of a superpower with the dry ice of the cold and calculated coalition “numbers game”. Any procrastination on our part shall play into the hands of those who are ideologically inclined towards anarchy, be it the Naxals or other elements that seek to undermine Parliament by attacking its majesty.
I am confident that even today Parliament houses the finest men and women in public life. But it’s time for us to undertake a serious introspection about how we function. Parliamentary time being lost to disturbances has consistently increased, which means we have less time to engage in meaningful discussion. Yes, Parliament must reflect the “people’s rage”, but how should one express it? Stalwarts like Nehru, Lohia, Krishna Menon, Jyoti Basu, Hiren Mookherjee, Madhu Limaye, Piloo Modi, Atal Behari Vajpayee, Indrajeet Gupta, Bhupesh Gupta, Jagjivan Ram, Somnath Chatterjee and Pranab Mukherjee never resorted to entering the Well of the House to convey their points of view. Rather, they made use of their exceptional oratory skills to do the same. In the past good speeches made by stalwarts in the course of parliamentary debates always attracted more press coverage than disruptive behaviour.
Today the media ends up providing little space to constructive debate on important legislation and tends to focus more on inane, trivial controversies and disruptions. This occasion, therefore, would also be a good opportunity for my friends in the media, who cover Parliament, to review their style of coverage after 60 years.
The entry of criminal elements into Parliament is also a worrying trend. Clearly, the time has come for the political class to arrive at a consensus on these important issues so that phrases like “probity in public life” are not rendered hollow.
Parliament is the temple of democracy which requires its high priests to display exemplary character, one that deserves the prefix of “honourable”. The people of India should not be made to settle for anything less than “honourable”.
Let me remind my colleagues that we have been bestowed the unique privilege of occupying the corridors of power. But with great power comes great responsibility. The success of our parliamentary system depends upon our combined ability to answer the questions posed to us by the times. These questions shall test our character and commitment. History will judge whether we were able to answer those questions.

The writer is minister of state for parliamentary affairs

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