For helping to pony up a running cost of roughly INR 13 million per day, the average taxpayer of India would understandably hope that the halls of the country’s Parliament would resound with eloquent debate. But in fact, the time spent on discussing serious issues is declining. Studies have variously put the time spent debating, for example, budget-related issues at an average of about 23 percent of the total during the 1970s, compared to just 10 percent today. Where has that time gone? With the forcing of adjournments and the disruption of proceedings being the preferred method of today’s MPs to express dissent, precious little time is left for reason and debate. In March, the drama surrounding two pieces of proposed legislation – both of which would have far-reaching ramifications – make it evident that the democratic process still has far to go. And as process goes (or stutters) in the world’s largest democracy, so too in countries around the region and world.
The Women’s Reservation Bill, which has sought to reserve a third of the seats in the Indian Parliament for women, had been hanging fire since 1996. A lack of political consensus across parties, and a lack of numbers on the part of successive governments, has allowed the bill to languish for close to a decade and a half. However, under the stewardship of a tenacious Sonia Gandhi, and support from both the right and the left, the bill was introduced and passed in the Rajya Sabha. If it now makes it through the Lok Sabha when it is tabled (most likely at the end of the budget session in May), 181 of the 544 seats in that body and 1370 out of the 4109 seats in the 28 state assemblies would be reserved for women, on a rotating basis. Those are large numbers from anyone’s perspective.
And large numbers can be frightening, particularly for politicians. Vociferous opposition from the socialist – mainly Yadav – lobby across parties has been couched in the purported concern that only elite women who would benefit from these sweeping changes. Unruly opposition to the proposal has already led to seven MPs being suspended from Parliament. Thereafter, the bill was pushed through the Rajya Sabha after parties supporting it issued ‘whips’ to their members, directing them to vote in favour. While whips are often used in mature democracies to gauge members’ thinking on crucial issues, in India this has largely become a tool with which to enforce party discipline, with members risking not only expulsion from the party but losing their seat in Parliament. Such a forced consensus, while politically expedient in the short term, clearly poses the threat of deterring healthy debate, including within parties.
Indeed, in the sound and fury over what is little more than a reluctance to share a piece of the pie, several issues of real democratic importance have been completely glossed over. How, for instance, will the rotation of constituencies affect governance? Will increasing quotas (there is already one for Scheduled Castes and Tribes) change the nature of parliamentary democracy in India’s first-past-the-post system? Should the reservation be time-bound? Meanwhile, purported concerns about potential ‘proxy’ candidates and the bahu-beti syndrome, or politicians fielding their wives and daughters on reserved tickets, hold no water in a context of the very real beta-damaad (son and son-in-law) dynastic politics – be it the Nehru-Gandhi clan, the Scindias or Reddys – where family connections determine one’s political career.
At the same time, it is hardly useful to assert that female elected representatives should share the ‘right’ to benefit from nepotism. What is required is to demand mechanisms of accountability and good governance – and, before the bill reaches the Lok Sabha, wide-ranging debate on the issue, in order to develop political consensus.
Ironically, while the Women’s Reservation Bill is hailed as Congress President Sonia’s Gandhi’s achievement, it was still able to get the required two-thirds majority to be passed in the Rajya Sabha – where the governing United Progressive Alliance (UPA) is in the minority – only due to the unconditional support of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the left. However, this says more about Sonia Gandhi’s dexterous consensus-building, a much-needed skill in the era of coalition politics, than about genuine cross-party commitment to women’s entitlements.
This lack of engagement with substantive issues was displayed soon after, over what is known as the Civil Nuclear Liability Bill, the next step in nuclear commerce after India signed the civilian ‘123’ nuclear deal with the US in October 2008. Controversially, the bill puts the responsibility of paying compensation for any mishap on the operator of a nuclear-power plant, rather than on the supplier or foreign companies building nuclear facilities in India. The Indian government would thus be indirectly responsible – through the Nuclear Power Corporation of India – for paying compensation in case of, say, a nuclear accident. Clearly, no lesson has been learned from the Bhopal disaster, when intervention by New Delhi allowed the multinational Union Carbide Company (and today Dow Chemicals, which purchased UCC in 2001) to walk away after throwing mere crumbs of compensation to the dead and injured.
Winning the ‘no-confidence’ motion in the Lok Sabha in July 2008 after the left parties withdrew support from the ruling UPA seems to have added to the bluster of the Congress. Today, the largest ruling party appears to have decided that parliamentary dialogue on contentious issues simply is not worthwhile – or is just unnecessary. In mid-March, it was only after the opposition raised a ruckus in the Lok Sabha that the government reviewed its decision to table the nuclear legislation and discuss what would appear to be an issue of massive national importance. Thereafter, National Security Advisor Shiv Shankar Menon, at the behest of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, hastened to ‘clarify’ that the bill was aimed to “introduce a transparent, orderly and predictable system of compensation to victims and fix responsibility for a nuc-lear incident.”
Such a move is, of course, better late than never, but the arguments should have been fleshed out prior to the tabling of the bill in the first place. Along the same lines, talking to the opposition might not have been a bad idea, as well. Admittedly, confusing nuclear weaponry with power generation – a reference to Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Prakash Karat urging Congress MPs to go to Hiroshima and Nagasaki to see “the effects of nuclear bombs” – hardly represents reasoned discussion. But taking the rhetoric down a notch on all sides could do away with both Karat’s thoughtless haranguing and Menon’s forced backpedalling.
With India promised to add 63 gigawatts of nuclear energy by 2032, legislation required to create a practical framework for civilian nuclear liability is undoubtedly urgent. With major global and national companies itching to exploit the Indian nuclear market, legislation that protects individuals and communities is non-negotiable. Simultaneously, the debate over the safety and sustainability of nuclear power must be revived, and taken out of the seminar rooms of academics and rarefied civil society. Not only must reasoned discussion over this and other important issues become talking points with the proverbial person on the street – but they must get back into the halls of Parliament, too.