Sign up to our newsletter Back to news
Wanted: Vyapam reforms to overhaul our democracy
Something has gone terribly wrong with our republic. There are ominous clouds over the approaching monsoon session of Parliament. When MPs should be deeply concerned with the fragile nature of our economic recovery, debating how to create a million jobs a month, they are straggling back to work in a stupor having forgotten why they were elected. Meanwhile, an MP drives away from a car accident where a child has been killed; a minister calls the death of a journalist probing Vyapam a ‘silly issue'; a politician slaps a passenger on the Chennai Metro; and a UP minister has an inconvenient journalist burned to death. The rest of the fraternity is glued to the TV set watching an endearing puppeteer manipulate the fortunes of a foreign minister and a chief minister. But Lalitgate has been overtaken by the more serious and sinister Vyapam scam. The Congress party has threatened to throw Parliament’s monsoon session into chaotic paralysis unless ministers of the ruling party resign. The BJP’s leaders have their eyes only on the approaching Bihar election.
Surely, India deserves better politics. First, the country is continuously in election mode, and this delays crucial reforms and executive decisions. Instead of worrying about jobs, BJP’s leadership is concerned only about controlling the damage of Lalitgate and Vyapam before the Bihar election. Secondly, legislators are in double training on how to jump into the well, disrupt Parliament and drown the nation’s agenda. The BJP did it the last time and the Congress is promising tit for tat. The people be damned — no one cares about the delay in the GST or the land acquisition law or the lives of the jobless young — as long my salary as an MP is doubled.
Instead of wringing our hands in dismay, we can implement some fairly simple political reforms. First, force our Speakers to exercise powers that they already possess in order to discipline rowdy, disruptive members. Irish MPs in Britain used to be physically picked up by marshals and thrown out onto the street until they realized that the punishment was too costly. Second, make MPs work longer. Why does India’s Parliament meet for 67 days in a year when Britain’s meets for 150 days and the US Congress for 200? Why is our monsoon session only for three weeks and not three months? Allow Parliament to be summoned if two-thirds of the members want it, as in the UK. Give the opposition a chance to let off steam and set the work agenda. In the UK, leader of the opposition sets the agenda for 20 out of 150 days.
Third, India should adopt fixed-term elections, as the UK has just done and other democracies did long ago. Whereas the Constitution envisaged a five-year electoral cycle, state governments have insisted on falling, upsetting the cycle. If legislatures had a fixed term, they would not be hostage to the whims of the leader of the majority party. Elections would be held on two fixed dates, every five years at the Centre and every two-and-half years in the states. If a government fell in a no-confidence vote, the House would not be dissolved; legislators would be forced to cobble a new government or face President’s rule. LK Advani suggested fixed-term elections; Sharad Pawar endorsed it and included it in the Nationalist Congress Party’s manifesto. Manmohan Singh and Pranab Mukherjee liked the idea but the UPA did not implement it. Today, the Nachiappan Committee is seriously examining it. Although Advani wanted simultaneous state and central elections, I think an interim date, halfway through the five years, gives some protection against an unusually foul government.
The fourth reform is to replace the present ‘no-confidence motion’ with a ‘constructive vote of non-confidence’ as in Germany, which means you can only bring down the government if you have an alternative in place. This will also bring more stability. Finally, separate legislators from sports bodies. Lalitgate may not have happened if sports officials had to resign by law on the day that they became legislators. A successful democracy is, in the end, a daily performance and it is time we looked our legislators in the eye, reminding them that pigs can’t fly nor walk on two legs, and do not take us for granted.
Gurcharan Das, July 31th 2015