India is not only the biggest democracy in the world—815 million of its 1.29 billion population are eligible to vote—but also the most diverse.
It has 36 states and union territories, many of them the size and population of large European countries. Its people speak 22 major languages, and perhaps a hundred more, which are not officially recognised, as well as hundreds of dialects.
Despite this apparent unwieldiness, India has defied naysayers who doubted the country could hold together at all, let alone as a democracy. Today no one seriously questions that the modern Indian republic has grown deep democratic roots and traditions. Its citizens hold the independent Election Commission in high esteem for conducting free and fair polls, and setting benchmarks in using technology and managing massive logistics.
Yet, the succinct title of a recent article by historian Ramachandra Guha, “There’s more to democracy than holding elections,” sums up the biggest quandary that India now faces. For in between elections, the nation seems unable to govern itself decisively, with a chaotic, gridlocked, dysfunctional parliament.
Guha blames both the present government led by prime minister Narendra Modi as well as the preceding government led by Manmohan Singh of behaving as if electoral victory made them immune to all criticism. But it is equally true—again, of both sides—that the losers of Indian elections behave as if they are absolved of all principles, even to the extent of blocking legislation by reneging on their own previous policies.
However, there are deeper, structural flaws in India’s parliament that need to be fixed for it to function effectively. While India’s electoral democracy works, its parliament barely does. Much of this is due to the obsolescence and unsuitability of many rules and customs originally adopted from 19th century England and America, which themselves have since amended their systems.
The main systemic bottleneck is the intractable deadlock between the two chambers of parliament. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) swept into power in last year’s parliamentary election to the Lok Sabha, the lower chamber, with both the biggest mandate and the first single-party majority in 30 years. However, even with allied parties, it is outnumbered in the upper house, the Rajya Sabha.
There, the opposition Congress party, though decimated in last year’s election to the Lok Sabha, still has the largest number of members. And thus, effectively a veto on all legislation except money bills, which it has been using gratuitously. The Rajya Sabha is partly modelled on the US Senate to represent India’s states, and resembles it by its members having six-year terms and being elected by rotation, one-third of them every two years.
But they are elected indirectly, from state legislatures, like the Senate used to be until 1913 when Progressive Era reforms changed it to a direct public election. Thus, Rajya Sabha membership is effectively a party nomination. And since India does not have primaries, which was yet another Progressive Era breakthrough in American politics, it is essentially a patronage position doled out by party leaders.
Furthermore, India’s 1985 Anti Defection Act, enacted to prevent the then-prevalent switching of party affiliation by legislators, has had the unintended consequence of making it impossible to disobey party leaderships’ whips on virtually every issue in parliament. Together, these have had the effect of giving disproportionate clout to the leaderships of parties who have lost the popular mandate. Their lingering “unelected” presence in the Rajya Sabha gives enormous leverage against the public will to just a few individuals. This is untenable in the long run.
The issue of checks and balances between legislative chambers in bicameral systems has been dealt with in one of two ways by other democracies. The US, as mentioned above, took the route of retaining the Senate’s powers, but making it directly elected in order to better reflect the public mood, albeit by rotation over six years.
The UK, on which most of India’s parliamentary system is based, took the other option. In 1911 and 1949, the powers of the House of Lords, which is not elected but nominated, were amended so that it can no longer block legislation passed by the Commons. It can only delay it by a year. India now needs to consider similar constitutional amendments.
There are other structural impediments in both chambers of India’s parliament that also need reassessment. These include the lack of specific, numbers-based rules to decide the agenda for discussions, motions, and votes. Today, such a rule exists only for the “nuclear option” of a no-confidence motion against the government, which requires 50 Lok Sabha MPs’ signatures. All other matters are essentially decided by consensus, which has become nearly impossible to achieve. Thus, even routine agenda items can rarely be agreed on, leading to frequent protests and disruptions that have made parliament a byword for unruliness and gridlock, and the target of stand-up comedians.
Updating parliament’s 19th-century rules for the 21st century is a necessary, but not sufficient, precondition to making it more effective. Ironically, one of the other developments that would help is for the present day take-no-prisoners political culture to go back in time. It is not that civility was always the norm in the past. But what was commonplace then was communications between government and opposition, both overt and through back channels. More of that can only be good.