A ringside view of democracy: Review of ‘House of the People’ by Ronojoy Sen

That is what this “biography” of India’s Parliament gives the reader for the most part.

Published : Apr 20, 2023 11:00 IST - 9 MINS READ

A meeting of the Constituent Assembly in 1950.

A meeting of the Constituent Assembly in 1950. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

Writing an institutional history of India is among the most difficult of tasks. It is not easy to trace the independent impact of institutions on the political process; institutions mostly craft their working around individual personas. Rules and procedures have remained fungible for the most part and rarely, if ever, become sacrosanct. Often, the procedure itself becomes a source of blocking outcomes and the process becomes the punishment. All through, institutions have remained peripheral to the popular imagination of politics in India.

House of the People: Parliament and the Making of Indian Democracy
By Ronojoy Sen
Cambridge University Press
Pages: 320
Price: Rs.1,095

The book under review is an attempted biography of the institution of Parliament based on some data and several interesting anecdotes. It is more a descriptive account and narration of what transpired in the working of Parliament than a search for the causation behind its progressive decline. Institutions can rarely be understood through self-enclosed studies but finding the causation beyond the shifts in its working can be complex and elusive.

While the workings of institutions are symptomatic of the generic social and economic crisis, the study of interactions, personalities, and incidents should help us understand the microcosm of the political life-world. Bringing both these aspects together is what could produce a rich analysis of the changes in Indian democracy. House of the People: Parliament and the Making of Indian Democracy gives us a ringside view of the latter with larger social, political, and policy changes in the backdrop, without necessarily bringing them together.

The book begins with a detailed account of the Constituent Assembly debates and how India opted for the Westminster system over other forms, including briefly discussing the possibility of the presidential system. It goes on to give us a detailed account of the changing social composition of Parliament and its enlarging, inclusive character.

The book argues that more inclusion meant more disruptions and did not necessarily reflect the agenda of the social groups being represented, especially the Dalits and the Other Backward Classes. This becomes important in light of the fact that even today India is discussing the possibility of 33 per cent reservation in Parliament for women.

Chapter 4 focusses on the working of the parliamentary committee system and its growing ineffectiveness, especially under the current regime, often referred to as an “electoral autocracy”. The most interesting read for this reviewer was the chapter on corruption, criminality, and immunity; however, it does not connect these factors to their social dynamics and limits them to their impact on the decline of the democratic potential of Parliament.

Through well-planned chapters, the book manages to raise pertinent issues that lie at the heart of understanding democracy in India. It could well have made an additional effort to connect the microdynamics of politics outside Parliament to help us understand the microdynamics in the working of Parliament. The book is immensely helpful in framing the questions that need further probing.

Nehru’s accommodative role

Representation in Parliament was seen as an important mode of bringing consensus outside the institution. The book refers to the intriguing incident of Jawaharlal Nehru standing in support of the candidature of Syama Prasad Mookerjee from Bengal.

Nehru pleaded with Rajendra Prasad that Congress refrain from fielding a candidate in order to facilitate Mookerjee’s election to the Constituent Assembly. He apparently felt that Mookerjee was an “outstanding personality” and that there was the need to make space for the viewpoint of the Hindu right, even if it did not have the necessary support to be elected.

The Congress went along with Nehru’s decision in spite of resistance from its member from Bengal who thought that “the feeling is that a man belonging to the Hindu Mahasabha should be treated as a leper out of regard for the departed soul” (page 40), referring to Gandhi’s assassination. Incidentally, Nehru also supported the inclusion of Dr Ambedkar, reflecting the founding philosophy of “centrist liberalism”.

One may have to reflect how such an accommodative mode of representation worked in support of strengthening Indian democracy. It led to the founding legitimacy of institutions without eroding the hegemony of dominant social groups and their ideological proclivities. Nehru’s own accommodative role, given his stature, helped establish democratic conventions but did not necessarily challenge the dominant mores and modalities in which social power worked itself out.

Politics of representation

The dilemma of representation and its equation with social power across caste, class, gender, and region is further probed in the chapter on the social composition of Parliament. The provision for reserved constituencies for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes facilitated adequate representation for these groups and a progressive rise in the representation of the OBCs, even if their share remained well below their estimated share in the population.

Parliament also witnessed a healthy rise in the share of non-dominant OBCs, but they remained dispersed among several OBC groups. Ronojoy Sen refers to Niraja Gopal Jayal’s observation in her work that the “presence of SC or Dalit MPs in Parliament did not necessarily result in the empowerment of these groups or effectiveness in raising issues related to Dalits”. (page 98)

The “vernacularisation” of Parliament does not necessarily reflect a push for more egalitarian social dynamics. It merely reflects the formation of newer elites within the subaltern castes. (Such neosocial elites from the marginalised groups, whom I refer to as “mezzanine elites”, point to a certain kind of halted democratisation.) It creates new power centres but does not substantively alter the social power dynamics.

“The “vernacularisation” of Parliament does not necessarily reflect a push for more egalitarian social dynamics.”

In fact, one could argue the Dalit middle classes and political elites work more as class groups than reflect their caste consciousness. One can make sense of this class formation through what Ambedkar refers to as “graded inequalities”. It is an attempt to preserve one’s privileges while struggling to undo the undue privileges of dominant groups above one’s caste location. Institutional norms and independent procedures do next to nothing in altering these equations. One needs to ask how the study of institutions will help us understand the political dynamics when they merely reflect the reality outside the institutional framework.

In fact, the situation is so grim that Prakash Ambedkar (Ambedkar’s grandson) argued a few years back for the scrapping of political reservation for the SCs and STs as it served no purpose. Such leaders serve their political parties rather than their social constituencies. Not that scrapping it is going to be helpful in any meaningful way. It only manifests the deep limitations in understanding representation bereft of the larger social dynamics. The symptom can be located but its cause is fairly dispersed and requires an analysis of a complex interplay of factors.

Disruptions in Parliament

In another chapter Sen notes the increase in disruptions in Parliament after the 1990s. He ascribes this to the changing social (caste and class) composition, the role of regional parties, and the live telecast of the proceedings. Disruptions sometimes work effectively to achieve desired outcomes. The protests for the formation of the separate State of Telangana are a case in point. However, disruptions could also be mala fide to hide or block a debate.

Opposition MPs protesting in the Lok Sabha during the second phase of the Budget session of Parliament, on March 28. 

Opposition MPs protesting in the Lok Sabha during the second phase of the Budget session of Parliament, on March 28.  | Photo Credit: ANI/Sansad TV 

Disruptions highlight disagreements without allowing for their resolution. They are also a reminder of a demonstrative political culture which seeks to be heard when there is so much else happening in media. The expansion of speed and scale in the era of mediatisation has made “attention capturing” a new skill necessary to survive in politics, and populists have taken it to a new low with bizarre demonstrations and outlandish statements.

Entertainment and expressions of intensity have become legitimate ways of appealing to the electorate without being closely connected to purpose and outcome of such performance. Institutions seem to reflect the changing process but it is not clear if their workings hold clues to make these newfound skills more purposive.

The new normal

Finally, in the chapter on criminality, corruption, and immunity, Sen traces the increase in the number of candidates with criminal records and the rise of history-sheeters in politics, as well as the role of money and corruption and the increasing trend of defection. The anti-defection law, he says, turned out to be an “ineffective legal solution to a political issue” (page 256). In that case why is it that MPs who defect are not punished by the electorate?

The fact that it has become so normalised may have something to do with the “end of ideology” and “neoliberal consensus”. Since political parties do not differ in any significant manner in their policy priorities and what they promise in their campaigns, how does it matter which party the candidates belong to? Most political parties offer transactional welfarism, learn from each other, and replicate populist programmes.

Similarly, the use of unaccounted money in the course of elections has become normalised. In the recent byelection in Telangana, voters not only bargained for money but even staged dharnas and protests when the agreed amount was not duly dispersed.

Finally, the growing criminality in politics and why criminals get elected has something to do with how we have come to perceive power. Most movements of the opposition have failed to displace the dominant tropes of what we understand by power and where it resides.

What is intriguing is not that those with criminal pasts get elected; the picture becomes complete when we juxtapose this with the failure of social activists such as Irom Sharmila, who got about 200 votes in the Manipur Assembly election in 2017. We could add Medha Patkar, too, to this list.

It is not that electorates do not respect or trust them; they simply do not perceive them to be powerful enough to deliver on electoral promises. Civil power and political power are seen in different registers. The recent farmers’ protests drew large social support but failed when they turned into political campaigns.

It is the vicissitudes of power that institutional workings reflect. Power is seen either in its raw ability to exercise force or in its benign libertarian-paternalism. Institutions and their procedures have, if ever rarely, succeeded in changing this equation.

Ajay Gudavarthy is Associate Professor, Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. His most recent book is Politics, Ethics and Emotions in ‘New India’ (Routledge, London, 2023).

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