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Parliament story

Published : Feb 12, 2010 00:00 IST

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TODAY, Indias party-based democracy may appear irreversible. But the fact that the Constitution was silent on political parties until 1985, when the Tenth Schedule to the Constitution was inserted to provide for the disqualification of elected members for defection, might suggest that the Constitution-makers had perhaps envisaged a party-less democracy. By not regulating the role of political parties, the Constitution-makers showed their indifference to the potential implications of an unregulated party system, which include the absence of democracy within political parties and the first-past-the-post system resulting in the victory of candidates with minority voter support in multi-cornered contests.

At the time of Independence, it appeared unlikely that the Congress, which played a dominant role in the national movement, would soon cede space to other political parties, making the party system appear competitive. It took more than a decade after Independence for non-Congress parties to have a meaningful presence in Parliament. Therefore, it is far-fetched to suggest that our Constitution-makers were keen on a road map for party-based democracy, when conditions were not even favourable for the growth of vibrant opposition parties. Reconciling the original intent of the Constitution-makers with the party-based electoral democracy thus remains an academic challenge.

Any scholarly work on the early phase of Indian democracy is useful to understand how the contemporary party system began to take root. Subhash C. Kashyaps History of Indian Parliament chronicles this political evolution and draw the readers attention to certain historical facts. The chief merit of this two-volume set is that it abridges and updates the authors six-volume History of Parliament published in 2000. The author, who has served as the Secretary-General of the Lok Sabha and also as a member of the National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution, is eminently qualified to fill the scholarly vacuum on the history of the Indian Parliament.

Kashyap begins with the assertion that there is ample historical evidence to show that republican forms of government, deliberative representative bodies and democratic self-governing institutions existed in many parts of India from as early as the Vedic age. He then suggests that Parliament and the parliamentary institutions in India as we know them today grew through many relentless struggles for freedom from foreign rule and for the establishment of democratic institutions, and the successive doses of constitutional reforms grudgingly and haltingly conceded by the British rulers. However, it is exactly this thesis which the historian Sunil Khilnani seeks to refute in his book The Idea of India, published a decade ago. Khilnani claims that Indias constitutional democracy, like the British rule it supplanted, was established in a fit of absentmindedness.

He agrees that there was, in pre-Independence India, a restricted and partial familiarity with forms of representative politics and an acquaintance with the operation of the legal systems installed by the British. He adds that pre-Independence political currents were not influenced much by democratic principles. Khilnani even criticises the Congress movement before Independence and its leaders, including Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi, as being not wedded to practices of internal democracy.

Khilnani remarks that the original framers of the Indian Constitution were either very optimistic or perhaps insufficiently imaginative when it came to reflecting on the consequences of the extension of democracy.

Kashyaps chronological approach to the history of Parliament has no space for a discussion of those consequences and effects, which could have illuminated our understanding. But this is not to underestimate the books overall contribution to bringing out interesting nuggets of information on the Lok Sabhas history. The book shows that Nehru, as Indias first Prime Minister, was quite tolerant of dissent within the Congress and outside the party and this helped build the institution of Parliament.

We also learn that the precursor to the Indian Parliament was the Constituent Assembly (Legislative), which functioned from 1947 to 1949 for purposes of ordinary law-making in addition to being entrusted with the drafting of the Constitution. This became the Provisional Parliament of India immediately before the commencement of the Constitution.

The Provisional Parliament was a unicameral legislature and its membership was limited. The Constituent Assembly was not organised on party lines but was an effort to give representation to the countrys diversity. While the majority of the members belonged to the Congress party, the remaining ones did not belong to a political party or group. Party-wise representation was not a dominant consideration for the Congress party while selecting some non-Congress candidates for the Assembly.

The members of the Provisional Parliament were identified as attached and unattached. In 1950, there were 22 unattached members. Their number went up to 28 in 1951, whereas there was an increase of 17 in the total membership. The Opposition remained unorganised and insignificant in the face of the overwhelming majority of the Congress.

The non-existence of an organised opposition gave rise to an opposition from within the Congress party. The total membership, which was 296 in 1950, increased to 313 in the following year with the inclusion of the princely states representatives. The Provisional Parliament lasted for two years, two months and 22 days, and had an important contribution to make by facilitating the First Amendment to the Constitution.

With the enactment of the Representation of the People Act, 1951, which provided for political parties and the holding of the first general elections in 1952 by an independent Election Commission on party lines, the clear transformation from a party-less Parliament to party-based representation took place. Still, there was no recognised parliamentary party other than the Congress in the first Lok Sabha during 1952-57 because of the stringent conditions for recognition laid down by the Speaker G.V. Mavalankar. The conditions were a minimum strength of one-tenth of the total membership of the House, a party ideology and programme, and an organisation inside and outside the House. The Opposition began to make its presence felt in Parliament from the Second Lok Sabha. The author discusses the composition, functions and contributions of each Lok Sabha, from the first to the 14th.

Kashyaps book helps to understand the elements of continuity and change in the functioning of the Indian Parliament. He observes that Parliament, which was considered to be primarily a law-making body, gradually became a multifunctional institution. Law-making came down to occupy less than 20 per cent of its time from about 50 per cent.

His other observations are insightful. During 1947-62, the Lok Sabha was largely elitist, urban, English-educated and Western-oriented. Even though non-matriculates constituted the second largest group on the basis of educational background, the single largest professional group was that of lawyers. In the last few decades, Kashyaps study has found that even though the number of graduates became the highest ever and the number of non-matriculates had drastically come down, the Lok Sabha had more representatives coming from small towns and villages. The largest professional groups came to be those of agriculturists and full time social and political workers. It is not surprising that with the spread of education, the number of non-matriculates has come down from 22.9 per cent of the House in the First Lok Sabha to 3.49 per cent in the 14th Lok Sabha.

It is not clear why the author thinks that the essential prerequisite for the success of parliamentary polity of the Westminster model is a system of two major parties built on some ideological basis. He seems to suggest that the Indian parliamentary polity has failed because of the plethora of political parties contesting and winning seats in the legislatures, thus making coalition governments inevitable at the Centre. He does not explain why multiparty democracy cannot be a success in the parliamentary system. Is it because he assumes that coalition governments are inherently unstable? Such assumption is not tenable because coalition governments have been stable both at the Centre and in the States.

Even as one is inclined to consider Kashyap as a votary of the two-party system, he makes a rather puzzling statement that a healthy party system could not grow in India because Congressmen did not keep the promise carried in the last paragraph of the 1942 Quit India resolution, which categorically declared that when power comes, it shall not belong to the Congress, but to the entire people of India.

He also recalls how the Congress ignored Mahatma Gandhis advice to dissolve the party and did not heed his warning that a revolution would sweep the country if the Congress became the master of the people, rather than their servant. This makes one wonder whether what he calls as the failure of the two-party system made him an apologist for party-less democracy. The author avoids an elucidation of his view on the subject. The book, which chronicles the history of the Lok Sabha, could have been titled so.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Feb 12, 2010.)

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