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It is tempting to view Modi’s failure on the farm laws as payback for ignoring Parliamentary norms. After all, not only did the Bharatiya Janata Party introduce the massive changes to the agriculture sector through executive ordinance, it eventually passed them in the Rajya Sabha using the dubious device of a voice vote (a mechanism which, believe it or not, allows a motion is to be passed based on which side of the House the chairperson thinks has been louder).
If that is indeed so, the memo is yet to reach Modi. The BJP, in fact, repealed the farm laws in the same brusque way they were passed, muzzling any discussion in Parliament on the issue. To add to that, the Rajya Sabha chairman – and till recently senior BJP leader – Venkaiah Naidu used another voice vote to suspend 12 MPs for alleged indiscipline in the previous monsoon session. This act, PDT Acharya, former secretary-general of the Lok Sabha, told Scroll.in, was itself against the rules of Parliament.
Is this disregard for Parliament yet another sign of democratic backsliding under Modi? Indeed, the BJP’s highly centralised decision-making process and unwillingness to engage in democratic give-and-take means that, increasingly, the most effective opposition comes not from within Parliament and the state legislatures but from the street.
Both the farm laws and the Citizenship Amendment Act sparked off massive protests, as people opposed to those policies decided – quite accurately – that mass mobilisation would do a much better job of pushing their point of view than channelling them through the Parliamentary opposition.
However, we might be giving too much credit to Modi if we lay the entire blame for legislative decline at his doorstep. The more unpalatable truth is that India’s Parliament has long been a weak institution. In fact, it’s so frail that in 1985, it willingly shot itself in both feet by passing the Anti-Defection Law, legally binding (elected) MPs and MLAs to their (unelected) party high commands.
States leading the way
In fact, the fraying of Parliamentary norms is visible even more sharply in state legislatures, which have long been rubber stamps for their executives. In 2012, for example, the Gujarat Assembly simply suspended the entire Opposition and carried on with business with only the ruling party. In 2015, the Puducherry Assembly convened for a grand total of eight minutes for one session. The next year, Haryana managed to pass 14 bills in the space of just 90 minutes.
As think tank PRS Legislative Research has noted, state legislatures in India barely sit and are so weak, they do not even examine budgets: they simply rubber stamp them on the direction of the government.
As worrying as this constant disrespect of legislatures is, even more so is the fact that this kind of politics has been able to garner democratic legitimacy through elections. Contrary to theories that causally link the failure of the farm laws to lack of procedure in Parliament (rather than, say, the disruptive content of the laws themselves or the highly organised opposition in Punjab-Haryana), voters seem to actually love strong, go-it-alone strongmen. Survey data has consistently shown that Indians prefer strong leaders who do not care for Parliamentary procedure.
In fact, as demonstrated by the longevity, judicial support and strong political consensus around the Anti-Defection Law, the pushes and pulls of Parliamentary democracy are often coded in the public narrative about the system being “chaotic” and “inimical to good governance”. As the Supreme Court put it, binding MPs and MLAs legally to their parties will actually “strengthen the fabric of Indian Parliamentary democracy by curbing unprincipled and unethical political defections”.
The idea that, like in the United Kingdom or the United States, an elected representative in India could legally vote as per the wishes of her constituents, conscience or in the interests of the country – in opposition to her party – is a position with rather limited purchase in India.
A stark way to see this attitude at work is, of course, the rise of Modi itself. Survey data from Lokniti-Centre for the Study of Developing Societies has shown that the BJP’s win in 2014 owed itself greatly to the charisma of Modi: the choice of prime ministerial candidate was the most important factor for voters, edging out local candidates. So powerful is this phenomenon that the BJP explicitly campaigns on the redundancy of the local candidate, arguing that every election is a direct vote for Modi.
In theory, a prime minister is elected by MPs in a Westminster system. But as is clear, in practice, BJP MPs are itself elected to the Lok Sabha due to their prime ministerial candidate. In such cart-before-horse electoral power structure, there is simply no incentive for Modi to hand over power to his MPs.
While Modi is the biggest symbol of this centralisation, he’s not the only one. The recent 2021 West Bengal Assembly elections also saw most voters vote directly for Mamata Banerjee and the welfare programmes run in her name. In such a situation, a Trinamool MLA – even if she is elected by lakhs of voters – will be unlikely and, in fact, unable to challenge her government, headed as it is by Banerjee.
However, if the Indian situation is to be viewed in a global context, functioning representative legislatures are rare across the world. The Parliamentary system, for example, first arose in England in the 17th century as a way to democratically challenge the monarchy. As it so happens, the development of Indian democracy did not follow that template. The challenge to British colonial rule was principally via mass movements that intended to (peacefully) break the law using civil disobedience.
While legislatures existed in the colonial period, Indians who truly believed in them as a path to change – such as liberals like Tej Bahadur Sapru – lost all power after the rise of Gandhian mass politics.
Adding to this is the fact that institutions in India are often weak and Indian voters are possibly right to think they will be able to wrangle greater patronage benefits by hitching their wagon to charismatic leaders rather than the diffused power structure of local representatives. In addition, some people attribute the democratic failure of Parliament to the fact that Lok Sabha constituencies are too big for any meaningful feedback loops between voters and their representatives.
In these circumstances, picking charismatic leaders might be a pragmatic choice for Indian voters whose one chance to wrangle anything out of the state is at election time.
Notably, the rise of political centralisation is a worldwide phenomenon with even legislators in the United States – where floor crossing was once common – now having to vote in party blocs since voters care far more about national than local issues.
All in all, there seem to be no easy answers with, unfortunately, a lot going for centralised, charismatic leaders. Modi is often seen to be the cause of this phenomenon but in the end he might largely be a result of it. As we saw in 2021 Bengal, even if Modi is defeated, it has been by another charismatic leader, who then, in turn, proceeds to crush local candidates in her own way.
So if, like me, you are worried about the fact that Indian democracy is weakest at what should be its most important node – the directly elected MP or MLA – perhaps you should be prepared to fret for a bit.
To burrah or not to burrah
Ethnic stereotypes are, unfortunately, a part of life. But the least one can expect is for the news to stay away from them. No can do, said news channel Aaj Tak.
At its recent event “Agenda Aaj Tak”, an anchor quite unabashedly asks how Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal could step into Punjabi politics since he doesn’t eat meat, doesn’t drink and – drumroll – doesn’t dance the bhangra (how did she know his dance preferences?).
This wasn’t an inadvertent faux pax. As per Aaj Tak’s worldview, obviously the chief minister of Punjab would know the bhangra. So naturally they introduced him along with a full posse of dancers.
Map (self) goals
I get it: it’s tough representing a three-dimensional globe on a flat surface. But really, the Mercator projection – used in almost all maps today – is a bit too suspiciously Eurocentric.