India Needs Some Radical Electoral/Political Reforms

Recently, a report in the Times of India said that the central government is planning to initiate an all party discussion on synchronizing Lok Sabha elections with the respective state assembly elections by 2019. If indeed implemented, this would be the first step towards rationalizing the currently dysfunctional political system that holds back India in more ways than one. More such bold reforms are needed, with a special focus on consensus building, a quality the Modi government clearly lacks, to usher in a new era in Indian politics and decision – making.

The committee set up by the government to look into this issue, the report mentions, says that in order to align the elections in 2019, the tenure of some assemblies would have to be curtailed while of some others would have to be extended. This would require serious intent on the part of the political parties, not simply because it would require some of them to cut short their term in office, but also because such a move, if enacted, could potentially transform the way elections are fought in this country.                                                 Presently, all political parties go an a charm offensive with their respective vote base right before their elections to ensure a victory, offering them freebies and announcing huge projects, which are seldom implemented when they actually get into power. But, a trend has emerged in Indian politics since the Lok Sabha election of 2014, or perhaps since the Gujarat Election of 2012, where electorates have increasingly started voting for development, not just on the caste or communal lines as preferred by political parties and have constantly busted the anti-incumbency myth by re-electing those leaders who have a proven record of ‘good governance’.                                                                                             Thus, in order to capitalize on that trend, simultaneous national and state elections is imperative since such a move would go a long way in diverging national issues from state level problems, thereby nurturing the much needed democratic maturity in the Indian electorate, the lack of which up till now has allowed vested interests to take advantage of them. But, as mentioned earlier, this group of vested interests would do whatever is in their power to stop such a development and it must be the responsibility of the Modi government, which constantly makes loud claims about its integrity, to make sure that such an important reform does not indefinitely remain in political limbo.

Notwithstanding the above, there are many such reforms in the political system which are needed urgently to unshackle India from socio-economic adversities. Although, one would like to see a cap on spending in elections or stricter regulation of political parties at large, such reforms are unlikely to happen given that all parties, including AAP, have many skeletons in their closets. That being said, one would like to see reforms which seek to divide the functions of the legislature and the judiciary as explicitly as possible. I am talking, of course, about the need to restrict the powers accorded to the upper house of parliament and to clearly define the role of the judiciary which constantly enters executive domain, leading to mis-governance.

Now, Rajya Sabha, the upper house of parliament referred above, is a touchy subject, with the central government being accused of bypassing it through constant ordinances or by introducing money bills like Aadhar, which do not require approval from the upper house. While some might argue that the government is indeed trying to sidestep the Rajya Sabha, I would argue that it does not have any other choice. This is because Rajya Sabha is a collection of unelected individuals whose job is nothing but to forward their party’s shallow agenda which often goes against the country’s interests. Although, the government might not be able to push through reforms that would limit its powers, given its record, it can think about using the ongoing cash-for-vote controversy in the Rajya Sabha elections to its advantage and attempt to introduce reforms that makes the upper house more accountable to the people of the country. This can be done either by initiating a discussion on turning Rajya Sabha into a Senate like body where its members are directly elected or by at least mandating the cancellation of elections if any foul-play is found.

Another area of concern for the political establishment of the country is the judiciary’s constant intervention in executive functions. Be it the diesel ban in Delhi or the shifting of matches in IPL or the formation of a drought management fund, the judiciary’s constant overreach into executive domain disturbs the balance of powers and creates further disruptions in the already dysfunctional system. Its argument is that it if the government did its job better, it wouldn’t need to interfere. Hard to argue against that. But this was the same judiciary which struck down the National Judicial Appointments Commission (NJAC) which aimed at giving the executive more power in appointing judges to the courts on the ground that government intervention would impact the independence of the judiciary. So, while it does not want the executive interfering in its workings, it finds no problem in directing the government on how to go about its job. Now, whether that is constitutional or not is best left to experts; what we must first realize that the judiciary is not perfect, simple because it does to the government what the government does to us. Such a situation creates a lot of confusion between the so called ‘three pillars’ of democracy and ultimately, it is the country which stands to lose. Thus, judicial reforms are an urgent need and the government must come up with comprehensive reforms to address the problems associated with the judiciary. Also, such reforms invite rare bipartisan support and government doesn’t stand to lose any political capital by coming up with the same.

In conclusion, there is long way to go before India can shred the tag of being a ‘Banana Republic’. Aligning central and state elections is a huge stride forward. But this would require all political parties to come on the same page vis-a-vis holding 32 elections in 2019. One can wonder in-numerous reasons why all parties would not agree to that, not the least of which is the fear of another Modi Wave!

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New System of Government in India?

An important discussion on the need for change in the prevailing parliamentary system of government is slowly gaining prominence in India. This is particularly important in the current political discourse, which is witnessing the opposition  continuously blocking important legislation in the upper house, where the ruling BJP lacks majority. Now, it is the responsibility of the media to keep the debate well and alive in the mainstream, because, only a set of reforms in the system of government would usher in the transformative change which they wish to see in the Indian democracy.

The issue was first raised by Jay Panda, an elected MP from Orissa, who got slapped with a breach of privilege notice from prominent members of the upper house, a move which clearly iterated just how insecure they all are about the powers that they possess. Mr. Panda, in his article in a daily newspaper, had called for reforms in the upper house of parliament, which has turned into nothing but a way for nominated, unelected members to assert their political will. He suggested that the Rajya Sabha, must either be a democratically elected body or the powers vested in it must be systematically reduced. In my opinion, the former is a bad idea because a country which is perpetually in election mode, does not need another round of polls to deal with. Moreover, the current members are as it is nominated by state legislatures and given the sheer diversity of the Indian electorate, it is unlikely that a Rajya Sabha election would change the prevailing status quo. Thus, reducing its powers seems like a viable option.

At a book launch on the very topic, Dr. Shashi Tharoor, Lok Sabha MP from Kerala, suggested that India should adopt the presidential system of government, wherein the executive is separate from the legislative branch of government. The most prominent argument given for adopting the presidential system is that of United States, which became a dominant world power with such a system. However, one must realize that United States is a two-party state with both of these two parties, Democrat & Republican, having a sufficient degree of internal democracy, something we can’t say Indian political parties, leaving aside the BJP and the Left Front. Also, it is unlikely that one party would continue to hold majority in the lower house – the BJP does now – given the increasingly different electoral choices of the Indian people and having a weak coalition with a distant executive is nothing but a recipe for disaster. In any case, the ongoing political gridlock in Washington is testament to the fact the presidential form of government faces difficulties similar to the ones faced by India. Thus, in my opinion, the parliamentary system must continue, albeit with a much less powerful upper house. 

Whatever the ultimate decision may be, the underlying issue is that the current system needs fixing and we must rejoice that the discussion has at least begun on the same. However, as often happens in India, important debates usually lose momentum to make way for benign issues which keep dominating the news for no apparent reason. One can only hope that this particular issue finds it way in the prime-time discussions on news channels and someday we might see a consensus being built around the same.

I write this article, knowing that such debates are unlikely to become mainstream in the foreseeable future but, with a sincere hope that someday, the Indian parliament would truly become the ‘Temple of Democracy’ it claims to be.

The Sorry State of our Union!

One can easily infer that a country is in a bad shape when the opposition in it’s premier legislative body spends more than half of its session blocking government bills by protesting over trivial issues and then passes the same bills without any discussion at all. Well, this is what’s happening in the world’s largest democracy, India. Our beloved politicians have made it clear that they serve their respective political parties and not their country. The future remains uncertain.

The winter session of the Indian parliament commenced with the Modi led NDA government declaring November 26 as constitution day in honour of B.R. Ambedkar, the principal architect of the constitution. The next few days saw the Sonia Gandhi led Congress party brag about their party’s legacy, reminding the BJP that it was the Congress Party who oversaw the drafting of the Constitution and not the RSS, the ideological parent of the BJP. It was an incredibly saddening sight to see the Congress party stoop so low that it can’t even appreciate the Constitution without indulging in partisan politics.

The next third of the parliament’s session was wasted over discussions on unimportant issues like the perceived intolerance levels in the country and the Congress protesting over the Supreme Court’s summons to the Gandhis over the National Herald Case. Amidst all of this, it was the roll out of the ambitious GST regime which suffered along with other legislative business which remained in limbo.

Once the dust settled and efforts undertaken by the chairman of Rajya Sabha, the Congress decided to end the road block and pass six extremely important bills without any discussion at all, making it clear that the MP’s work on the directions of the party high command and not for the benefit of the constituent. Among the bills passed were the Juvenile Justice Bill, Atomic Energy Bill, Commercial Courts Bill, all of which had meaningful national interests underlying them but our parliamentarians did not find it prudent to have a debate on the same.

All the above issues reiterate the redundancy of the upper house of parliament, as contented by Jay Panda, a Lok Sabha member and I think a serious debate needs to commence on whether the Rajya Sabha should continue in its present form or not.
Conclusively, I think it can be ascertained that the political dynamics of this country is changing and some people aren’t rather happy about that who would constantly try to throw tantrums as and when they can. However, the Modi government should not pay attention to these morons and fearlessly continue with the development agenda. Lastly, I think it’s high time the Indian youth immerse themselves into politics and start speaking up about the injustices in society. Only then will the politicians listen.