India's Parliament turned 60 last week. This landmark in the life of the legislative body of the world's largest democracy was marked by special sessions in both houses of Parliament.
Newspapers provided a wealth of fascinating black-and-white footage and other archival and anecdotal material about the inaugural session on May 13, 1952, almost five years after India won its independence. After the country's founding fathers decided that the new Indian state would be a secular democracy, a Constituent Assembly spent those years painstakingly working out the specific forms of the state and the checks and balances it would require. Then, elections to Parliament were held and Parliament convened.
The occasion was certainly one that required celebration, particularly since Indian democracy has comprehensively refuted early critics who said it was unsustainable because it started from a much more perilous foundation than the democracies of the West. For all its faults, parliamentary democracy has acquired a stability and currency and history in India, even as it has often faltered in the neighboring states of South Asia. The Times of India observed in an editorial:
Commemorating 60 years of its inception, the Parliament of the world's largest democracy stands today at an important juncture. Envisaged as the foremost lawmaking body of the land, it continues to be the custodian of Indian democracy. As a forum, it represents the diverse views and opinions of 1.2 billion people, cutting across religion, creed and community. It is both the guarantor of Indian sovereignty as well as a champion of the country's federal character. Helmed by great statesmen, it withstood the trials and tribulations of a fledgling democracy and gave birth to institutions that unleashed the forces of prosperity.
But if the majority of Indian people were less than impressed with the compliments that the current members of Parliament doled out to themselves, it was because, by general consensus, Parliament has in the last decade experienced something of a crisis. It is commonly perceived today as a body of stasis and an enabler of private interests (some detailed by the journalist P. Sainath in a piece last year called "The Union Cabinet Gets Healthier"), hobbled by partisan squabbles and disrupted repeatedly by boycotts and walkouts. Facts and figures collated by political observers prove that this is indeed true, and last year one prominent Member of Parliament asked if it would not be more practical for India to move to a presidential form of government. For all its shortcomings, one of the reasons why the septuagenarian Anna Hazare attracted such a wave of support last year for a movement to pass the anti-corruption Jan Lokpal Bill was that his team appeared to have expended more energy on the specifics of such a measure than "the foremost lawmaking body of the land," which had vacillated on it for years.
Having been birthed by the idealism and daring of a very liberal idea of what the Indian state and government would be like, Parliament at 60 has become an arena of exhaustion and cynicism at a time when most other spheres of Indian life are rippling with new ideas and energy. In a piece on May 12 called "60, still shy to speak up" in The Telegraph, Sanjay Jha wrote:
Pranab Mukherjee and Manmohan Singh may find two concerns weighing heavy on their minds tomorrow when they, as leaders of their Houses, initiate the discussion on “60 years’ journey of Indian Parliament”. One, the MPs’ propensity to disrupt the Houses and two, the questions being asked by some citizens about the efficacy of parliamentary democracy.
Most MPs have hit out at the second trend but it can be argued that they themselves are at least partly to blame, having reduced the Houses of lawmaking to platforms for partisan brawling. While debating skills have dried up over the decades in both Houses, slogan-shouting and disruptions have become routine, undermining Parliament’s credibility.
Tomorrow, senior leaders from all the parties are expected to make the right noises on all these subjects. [They did.] Yet, a resolution passed on Parliament’s golden jubilee 10 years ago to ensure smooth running of the Houses has failed to attract a modicum of heed from any party. MPs concede the charge of decline but blame the party leaderships for the regular, organised disruptions. Nowadays, the parties often declare their intent to abort proceedings in advance, before the cameras. When discussions do take place, the fall in standards becomes apparent. One reason is the paucity of speakers with ability to use Parliament as a sounding board for fresh ideas. A second reason is the palpable lack of interest, research or commitment — betrayed particularly by the smaller parties — on a variety of complex issues.
But one might that say that Parliament suffers currently from a deficit not just of political morality, but of constitutional morality. In taking an adolescent approach or an inflexible party line towards the complexities of governance and representation in a polity as complex as India's, Parliament has, as the country's most prominent debating chamber, set a bad precedent for debates all around the country.
Of course, the problems of hyperpartisanship have immobilized debate in many other prominent arenas of democracy. In their just-published book "It's Even Worse Than It Looks," the American congressional scholars Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein discuss how approval ratings for the U.S. Congress are at a historic low because of the breakdown of a working relationship between the Democrats and the Republicans.
But one might argue that Parliament in India has had a special responsibility toward itself and the Indian people because of the relative youth of Indian democracy, a matter that greatly exercised the mind of BR Ambedkar, the prime force behind the text of the Indian Constitution. That is to say, in a country in which caste and community have historically enjoyed greater power than the call of individual reason and a tradition of respect for differences, Parliament was envisaged by the founding fathers as a theatre where the virtues and values of constitutionalism could percolate down to an often obdurate and unreceptive citizenry new to democracy. It is certain that the members of the inaugural gathering of Parliament in 1952 were much more conscious of this responsibility than Parliament today. The point that India has become a "populist democracy" more than a "constitutional democracy" was elegantly argued in a 2008 essay called "Constitutional Morality" by the sociologist Andre Beteille in the Economic and Political Weekly (the piece is restricted to subscribers, but a restatement of its premises were made by the historian Ramachandra Guha recently here).
This lack of appreciation of constitutional morality has meant that virtually every week in Indian public life there erupts an ugly and sometimes violent fracas -- whether the decision to censor a book or film, or the protests by Islamic groups that scuppered Salman Rushdie's visit to the Jaipur Literary Festival, or the attempts by Hindu right-wing groups recently to break up a "beef festival" -- in which a group or party behaves as if there was no such frame of rights in India as a Constitution, and acts on injured sentiments or grievances rooted in readings that go back into the long night of Indian history.
These eruptions show that Parliament has not succeeded, to borrow a phrase from President Barack Obama's book "The Audacity of Hope," in making the Constitution "a living document" in the minds of Indian people. It is the Constitution that gives Parliament its dignity, but one might say that Parliament has not repaid the favor. In a special issue of the Indian magazine Seminar published in 2010 to mark the 60th anniversary of the Constitution, the political scientist Ananya Vajpeyi marked the liberating power of the Consitution for "an overly large, unremittingly poor, vexingly diverse and precariously free post-colony like India," and Pratap Bhanu made the very compelling argument that for Ambedkar, "the real anxiety was not ‘Constitution’ the noun, as much as the adverbial practice it entailed." Mehta wrote:
Ambedkar grasped singularly the core of the constitutional revolution: it was an association sustained not by a commonality of ends, or unanimity over substantive objectives (except at perhaps a very high level of generality). It was rather a form of political organization sustained by certain ways of doing things. It was sustained not so much by objectives as by the conditions through which they were realized. This was the core of constitutional morality. A constitution thus was not a relationship between concrete persons, but rather a relationship between abstract personae bound together by abstract rules.
It is precisely this abstraction, this distance from specific persons and wished for substantive outcomes that allowed a constitutional culture to emerge. Ambedkar was a powerful and trenchant critic. In this context, caste was an impediment to constitutional morality in a very specific way. It is the form of social existence that prevented the emergence of those abstract personae so central to constitutional morality. It is the one particularity that constantly undermines the formation of the self, central to constitutional morality. For constitutional morality requires various forms of dissociation: the ability to dissociate a person from their views; the ability to trust someone despite deep disagreement based on the knowledge that there is a shared agreement on processes to adjudicate that disagreement. Caste identity, by its very character, made such dissociation impossible.
So one might remind Parliament, flushed with pleasure at 60, of the responsibility it has not just to the present, and to the needs and problems of more than 1 billion people in an era of great churning and change, but also to history and to the narrative of Indian democracy. Sixty is, after all, a time to take the long view of a life.
(Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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