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The Parliamentary System, by Arun Shourie

Elected But Not Representative. 1975 and 2011. A Tale of Two Years.

Arun Shourie’s twenty-first book, published in 2007, is even more relevant today than it was when first published. Current events have made this a must-read for every concerned citizen.

This book is divided into three sections. Each is related to the other, but also distinct in what it covers.

Let’s look at the first section. Are our elected parliamentarians really the voice of our people? If you look at the table on page 29, a most distressing sight awaits you.

“99 percent of the members got into the Lok Sabha by getting less than half the electors to vote for them. Almost 60 percent got in with the endorsement of less than 30 per cent of electors in their constituencies. … Even if we consider only the electors who actually turned out to vote, 60 per cent of the members got in on a minority vote.”

This means that nearly two-thirds of our Parliamentarians have won from their respective constituencies despite having less than half the people who voted vote for them! If you look at the entire eligible electorate, the number is a staggering 99%! In essence, there are less than six MPs in the Lok Sabha that have won by polling more than half the votes of the entire electorate in their constituencies! When our parliamentarians talk about speaking for the people, it is manifestly not the case. Forget the nation; they cannot even claim to speak for the eligible electorate. They speak for a minority, a tiny one at times. One can always blame voter apathy for the low turnouts, but to cast blame wholly on low turnout is to turn a blind eye to the larger issues at play.

 A problem that has emerged in the last twenty years or so in Indian democracy is the rise of marginal, regional parties that have exerted a disproportionate influence at the national level. The problem with the Congress party, that has been in power in all but thirteen of the sixty-five years following India’s Independence in 1947 (1947-77, 1980-89, 1991-96, 2004-present), has been the utter ruthlessness with which it crushed and compromised democratic institutions and put in a place a system of cronyism that grows more pernicious by the day – more on that later in this review.

The problem with the decline of the two major national parties, the Congress and the BJP, as evidenced in their declining share of seats and votes at the national level, has been that either party has to rely on the support of regional, minor parties, to reach the majority mark in the Lok Sabha. These smaller parties in turn have used their peculiar position of influence and opportunity to loot the nation with impunity, and to often hold critical economic and social reforms hostage to their own agendas.

 Take the General Elections to the Lok Sabha. In 1999 the Congress Party polled 28.3% of the votes, winning 114 seats. In 2004 it polled 26.7% of the votes – less than in 1999, yet it won 145 seats. Being a national party it is reasonable to assume that it would have contested in approximately the same number of seats in both elections, so the decline in percentage of votes polled cannot be attributed to a decline in the number of seats it would have contested. The BJP fared no better, or worse. In 1999, it polled 23.6% of the votes, netting it 182 seats. In 2004 it polled 22.2% of the votes, yet its tally of seats fell to 138.

 The situation is no better even at the state level, where one would assume that regional parties would dominate. In the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, in 59 seats in the state of Uttar Pradesh, not a single candidate polled more than 20% of the votes of the total electorate. Some polled as low as 11, 12, 13, and 14 percent of the electorate votes. Considering that only about 60% of the population is eligible to vote, these candidates had the votes of less 6-7% of the total population in their respective constituencies. For them to speak as though representing the will of the entire people is ludicrous.

 Even if we look at the state level, like the 2004 Andhra Pradesh Assembly elections for its 294 members for instance, the Telugu Desam Party polled 37.6 per cent of the votes, and won 47 seats. The Congress party polled 38.6 per cent of the votes, and won 185 seats! A mere one per cent difference in votes polled resulted in an almost four times the number of seats won!! Most observers have credited the Congress victory to astute calculations in the way their party nominees were decided on the basis of caste and religion, and not on intrinsic merit or track record of achievements. The results have been incontrovertibly successful.

“Nor is the pandering confined to caste groups and religious groups. The number of traders who would have to pay more if Delhi’s Rent Control Law is modernized must be a minuscule portion of Delhi’s electorate. Yet, they have been able to bend the entire political class to prevent for a decade the Act which has been passed from being notified!” [pg 59]

“Never is the political class as unanimous as it is when doing the wrong thing.” [pg 59]

The consequences can be dire for the country. Arun Shourie quotes from Mancur Olson’s “Power and Prosperity” (Kindle edition) to this end – “Mancur Olson distinguished between a stationary and a roving bandit.” He observes what happens when politicians who have little mass following, little appeal among the electorate beyond the narrow confines of one or two districts, and who are certainly not in the noble field of politics for the betterment of the people.

“… the ones who form the smaller groups can loot the most and with the greatest impunity, as predation by their members will affect the total the least! Those who are most incompetent, who are most unpopular, will also loot with abandon as in their own eyes they are least likely to return. And so will the ones who are most secure, the ones whose return is not affected their loot – recall the number of ministers and their controllers who are returned by their caste-followers irrespective of their performance, and think of what they do in office.”

[pg 23]

He provides the examples of the Akali Dal in Punjab, the DMK and AIADMK in Tamil Nadu, the Janata Dal in Karnataka, and other parties that have little to no influence or votes beyond their respective states, yet exercise inordinate control over proceedings at the national level. The problem is not unique to the Congress. The BJP has had to face the same pulls and pressures from smaller parties with which it had to ally to secure a majority in the Lok Sabha in 1998 and 1999.

Political leaders are most reluctant to take any step that might cause offence to the lower bureaucracy, the police, primary school teachers, for instance, as these groups can have a devastating effect at the time of elections.” [pg 60]

“I remember Arif Mohammed Khan describing to me the Cabinet meeting at which V.P. Singh’s Government lunged for the Mandal Commission’s ruinous proposals. He recalled one Minister telling V.P. Singh, ‘Sir ise laagoo kar dijeeye, bees saal ke liye koi hamen sarkar se hila nahin sakegaa.'” [pg 60]

Interesting point that

The true center, that is the left wing of the right combined with the right wing of the left, is never mobilized at all.Yet this central body of opinion probably corresponds best to the wishes of the electorate as a whole.” [pg 67]

Arun Shourie has several prescriptions that could address this critical problem – that of a lack of true representativeness of our parliamentarians, and that of the narrow, sectarian base that they exploit to come to and retain power. A lottery system, multiple preferences for voters, a negative vote, barring a person from contesting elections against whom a court of law frames charges, de-recognizing a party that fields candidates with criminal antecedents and so on. Each has its merits, and each has its demerits. The biggest stumbling block is that to get these reforms debated and passed would require the cooperation of the very same politicians whose power and influence would be undercut by the legislation!

To cover the second section of the book, let’s go back in time.

To 1975. But before we do that, let us also establish a frame of reference from the current, so that what we talk about what happened in 1975 can be put in proper perspective. In 2011 the country was rocked by nationwide protests – all peaceful, where millions of middle-class Indians, typically pilloried as the most apathetic among all voting classes in the country, took to the streets in support of Gandhian Anna Hazare’s call and to protest the rampant corruption and scandals that had rocked the country and the establishment of a strong and independent Lokpal (legal ombudsman) authority.

During debates and arguments that ensued in the print and television media, several politicians, mostly from the ruling UPA alliance and the Congress party, made the argument that Parliament was supreme. Parliamentarians were therefore supreme. To pressurize Parliamentarians into passing a law to curb corruption was therefore tantamount to challenging the supremacy of Parliament. Citizens could request, they could petition, they could plead, but they could not demand. The voice of the citizenry should cease, in a manner of speaking, to be vocal after it had cast its ballot. To oppose Parliament, and its elected representatives, was to oppose the country and democracy itself.

Therefore, let us go back in time, to 1975.

On 12 June 1975, Justice Jag Mohan Lal Sinha of the Allahabad High Court held Mrs. Indira Gandhi, then Prime Minister of India, guilty of corrupt electoral practices on two counts. The Supreme Court granted her a conditional stay on 24 June 1975, permitting her to continue as Prime Minister. The appeal was to be heard on 11 August 1975.

On 4 August 1975, members of the Lok Sabha suddenly received ‘Election Laws (Amendment Bill)’.” The bill was specifically worded to save Mrs. Indira Gandhi from the High Court’s judgment.  “… to nullify the ground in Justice Sinha’s judgment.” Furthermore, Parliament “was asked to legislate that these ‘clarifications’ shall apply with retrospective effect in regard to any election that has been held before the commencement of the Act.” [pg 117]

Furthermore, these ‘clarifications’ were put out of reach of the courts altogether by putting them into the IXth Schedule.

“Hence, from now on, even after a person has been pronounced guilty, the matter will go to the President. he shall decide whether the infraction is grave enough to merit disqualification.”

A lone voice of dissent arose from Mohan Dharia, who, despite being shouted down by fellow Parliamentarians, gave voice to his concerns:

“… there is no doubt in my mind that the Bill in the amended form has been brought forward … to circumvent the issues which have been held by the High Court in favour of the petitioner and against the Prime Minister.

You cannot cow me down that way. So, my submission to the House is that this Bill is nothing but surrender of parliamentary democracy to the coming dictatorship and therefore I oppose this Bill vehemently.”

Mohan Dharia’s protests were dismissed as “completely irrelevant and beside the point” by Gokhale. “Parliament is supreme,” said communist leader Indrajit Gupta.

These chilling words were spoken by Gokhale, words that were to find echo almost forty years later .

“I agree that we might have to have an overall look, may be, even at the Constitution itself, to see that no future situations arise where the final word of Parliament itself is challenged.” [pg 121]

A cynic may argue that the failure of the Congress Party to act out its noble intentions in 1975 is what led to the needless disparaging of Parliamentarians in 2011!

The debate that followed in Parliament has to be read to be believed. The faces may change. The style of the language may change. The content does not. The servility does not. The demand for complete subservience from the ultimate One does not diminish. The craven desire from the sycophants to outdo each other in their show of truckling to the One does not change. Each Congress parliamentarian was louder than the other in proclaiming his support for the Bill, and each more vituperative in voicing their contempt for the judiciary.

“It is a joke that the Prime Minister of a country was sought to be removed from office and debarred from contesting an election because of what a single judge said in one of the High Courts of the country and simply because he has held her guilty of corrupt practices under an Act which was passed 22 years ago? Are we to accept that position?

To my mind it is ridiculous machinery under which they are subjected to judicial scrutiny while they are elected by a vast majority of the people and electoral colleges…” [H.R Gokhale, Law Minister, Rajya Sabha, 6 August 1975]

Lest some members from the left of the political spectrum claim that they have always been in favour of a democracy and the supremacy of the law of the land, here is something to consider, from the mouth of Indrajit Gupta, esteemed leader of the Communist Party of India:

“In many other matters, the jurisdiction of the court should be taken away … We cannot leave it to the vagaries, prejudices, biases, the learning and knowledge of these judges, or for that matter, the collective body of judges.” [Indrajit Gupta, CPI Leader, Rajya Sabha, 6 August 1975]

The speeches that were made in the august house of Parliament, by the even more august members of Parliament, when debating this Constitution Amendment bill, should be prescribed readings for every student of Civics.

“Speakers were soaring higher and higher, both in proclaiming sovereignty of the people, as well as in demonstrating loyalty to the highest symbol of those people, the embodiment of sovereignty, Mrs. Indira Gandhi. The next speaker outdid them, doubly so.”

‘kya constitutional framers to yeh pata tha ki aises ghatiya aur kamine judge bhi is desh mein ho sakte hain?’ (क्या constitutional framers को यह पता था कि  ऐसे घटीया और कमीने judge भी इस देश में हो सकते हैं?).

‘In fact, I am of the opinion that this judge could be an agent of the CIA or he is mad. Either his place is in America or in the lunatic asylum in Agra.’

Such fecundity, clarity of thought, and preciseness of delivery has rarely been seen or heard in Parliament. Arun Shourie, regrettably, omits the name of the distinguished parliamentarian.

Swaran Singh, a mild mannered person, was equally mild-mannered in his prose.

” If the Constitution stands in the way, or anybody stands in the way that person would be wiped out, that institution would be wiped out, but the things must change.’ “[Pg 157. Parliament, 26 October 1975]

No one should accuse our parliamentarians, or at least those belonging to a certain party, of not being capable of acting with alacrity. Should the occasion, and more importantly, the need, arise, they are not averse to moving with a speed that can only be called ‘greased lightning’, to use a hackneyed phrase.

“Mrs. Gandhi’s appeal was to be heard by the Supreme Court on 11 August 1975. The “Government rushed the 39th Amendment to the Lok Sabha. This sweeping Amendment was passed within two hours. The very next day, it was rushed to, and passed by that other limb of sovereignty, the Rajya Sabha, The next day was Saturday. No problem. State legislatures were summoned for emergency sessions. They endorsed the amendment! On 10th August 1975, the President gave his assent. So, literally a day before the hearing was to begin, not just the law on the basis of which the Supreme Court was to judge the appeal was changed, the Constitution itself was changed ruling the Supreme Court to be completely out of court!” [pgs 126, 127]

Among the surfeit of Constitution Amendment Bills that were brought to Parliament, the common refrain was the same (emphasis mine, on top of the Congress Party’s emphasis)

“.. we are reasserting with all emphasis that the Parliament is supreme and there are no limitations on Parliament in respect of the amendments of the Constitution.” [pg 152]

Not to be left behind was the “ever-law-abiding A.R. Antulay” – “Why should there be the power for the Supreme Court to interpret the Constitution? why should they have the power of judicial review even of ordinary legislation?” [pg 167]

The icing on the cake to this charade was provided by the Supreme Leader, the Chosen One, Mrs. Indira Gandhi herself. Note her words carefully, and compare them with the words used by Congress Parliamentarians and several in the media when complaining about the audacity of the common man to question its elected representatives.

“To non-cooperate with Parliament is to non-cooperate with the people.” [pg 158]

The justices of the Supreme Court of India, who heard the appeal against these Constitution Amendments, were however made of sterner stuff.

Justices K.S. Hegde and A.K. Mukherjea pointed out, “… one cannot legally use the Constitution to destroy itself.” [pg 181]

” ‘Two-thirds of the Houses of Parliament need not necessarily represent the even the majority of the people of this country. Our electoral system is such that even a minority of voters can elect more than two-thirds of the members of the either House of Parliament.

Therefore the contention on behalf of the Union and the states that the two-thirds of the members of the two Houses of Parliament are always authorized to speak on behalf of the entire people of the country is unacceptable.’ ” [pgs 181, 182]

” were … the President to sign his approval of these amendments, he would be violating the oath he took upon entering office, the judges reminded all concerned. For when he enters office, the President takes the oath to ‘preserve, protect and defend the Constitution.’ ‘Does the oath to merely mean that he is to defend the amending powers of Parliament?’ the Judges asked. [pg 182]

The betrayal to democracy of the Congress Party and the Parliament of 1975 that went along with the subversion of democracy and the shameful attempts at emasculating the Indian Constitution represented little more than depriving India and Indians of their independence, less than thirty years after she had gained it from the British.

Dr. Ambedkar’s words, as he delivered this closing speech as the Constituent Assembly met for its last session, are worth reproducing from the book in some detail here (bold emphasis added).

“The point is that she once lost the independence she had. Will she lose it a second time? … What perturbs me greatly is the fact that not only India has once before lost her independence, but she lost it by the infidelity and treachery of some of her own people. In the invasion of Sindh by Mohammed-Bin-Kasim, the military commanders of King Dahar accepted bribes from the agents of Mohammed-Bin-Kasim and refused to fight on the side of their king.

It was Jaichand who invited Mohommed Gohri to invade India and fight against Prithvi Raj and promised him the help of himself and the Solanki kings. When Shivaji was fighting for the liberation of Hindus, the other Maratha noblemen and the Rajput Kings were fighting the battle on the side of Moghul Emperors. When the British were trying to destroy the Sikh Rulers, Gulab Singh, their principal commander sat silent and did not help to save the Sikh kingdom. In 1857, when a large part of India had declared a war of independence against the British, the Sikhs stood and watched the events as silent spectators.” [pgs 70-71]

[‘Constituent Assembly of India Debates’, 35 November, 1949, Book VI, Volume X, og 977-78]

It could be argued, by a miscreant of a mischievous bent of mind of course, that in the last few decades, the only President to have truly upheld the dignity of the post of President would have to be Dr APJ Abdul Kalam. But we won’t say that. Nor would it be appropriate to claim that Mrs Pratibha Patil has been more loyal to the party than to the post of President. These claims would simply not hold up to the close scrutiny of the loyal.

Even the Supreme Court has been manned by judges who have questioned the validity of the argument that the Indian Constitution has a “basic structure” that cannot be tampered with. “… there has been a continuous stream of judges, all of them happen to have been hailed as progressives, who have scoffed at the very notion that the Constitution has a Basic Structure which cannot be violated.” [pg 201]

This is third part of the book, and I am not going to cover that in this review, long enough as this review has become. Perhaps in the future.

Book Details:

Hardcover: 265 pages

Publisher: Rupa (February 2007)

Language: English

ISBN-10: 8129111926

ISBN-13: 978-8129111920

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Abhinav Agarwal

Abhinav Agarwal

Son. Husband. Father. IIM-B gold medalist. Analytics product manager. Reading and photography hobbies.