Debates on our democracy have also focused on the meaning of political representation and the paradox emerging from it. Who represents? Who is represented? How can the system be made more representative? How should we ensure that every segment of our very diverse society is reflected in the elected body?

This can only be done by the political parties in their normal functioning. Apart from the less than satisfactory score on functioning within the prescribed procedures, students of Indian polity have raised questions about (a) the social composition of Parliament and (b) the changing concepts of representation.

The first is reflected in the community/caste-wise composition, the educational and occupational background of the members and in the decisive transformation of the social base post-1990. Available statistical data and academic studies sustain it. The second, no less relevant, is the changing public perception of what constitutes representation. A modern democracy is representational in nature, and hence determining the modes of representation and making it operational become critical.

In the aftermath of Independence, we chose the adult franchise and the first-past-the-post system; the data of the electorate’s participation in early general elections tells its story candidly. The political discourse subscribed to “unity in diversity”, but the intent in the early period was on the former rather than the latter. It has been opined that “the first two parliaments were dominated by men who were quite patriarchal . . . and felt that their social background did not affect their views and perceptions and sense of responsibility as representatives.” The nature of representation started changing in the 1970s and underwent a drastic transformation in the post-1990s.

Greater public awareness of their rights in a democratic polity led to greater participation in the political system. This is evident from the change in the nature of representation in the 1970s and particularly in the post-1990s period. Questions of representation of diversity, and of federalism, came to the fore and cannot be wished away. Alongside are questions about whom the representatives represent. Since “caste remains a key variable” of our social structure and has been a vehicle of socio-political change, many studies have been undertaken on the caste and community backgrounds of state-level elected representatives to examine how caste-based representation has translated into politics from a dynamic perspective.

They indicate a distinctive “evolution of the caste profile of the Hindi belt MPs” and “the growing politicisation of the OBCs, [which] was the direct consequence of the Mandal Commission’s Report, largely due to their mobilisation in favour of reservations resulting in a transfer of power from upper castes to OBC politicians”; “[which] process is even more pronounced at the state level among some of the larger states of the Hindi belt.” The outcomes vary since the arithmetic of caste varies from state to state. The caste/ class transfer of socio-economic democratic power, however, remains an existential reality of Indian polity.

A rival claimant to representative power is civil society. This is a global phenomenon of recent origin and has emerged as both complementary and antithetical to questioning or supplementing the representativeness of Parliament. It has manifested itself in both forms in our polity. An obvious reason for this is that “while Parliament has become increasingly representative in descriptive terms, it has also simultaneously become unresponsive in terms of legislation and governance and has tended to avoid accountability by closing ranks.”

The situation with regard to the Parliament has been summed up by an eminent political scientist: “Our democratic sensibilities have become so weak that more and more metaphorical instances of such steamrolling of norms and principles emerged every day. A stark example of this can be seen from legislative functioning. The reduced recourse to parliamentary committees to vet bills, the ramming of legislation without enough discussion, the sleight of hand in converting ordinary bills into Money Bills, are various techniques of bulldozer governance that are practised more and more frequently. To add to that, the instruments of suspending members of legislatures for long and indefinite periods and muting their mikes when they are speaking in the House are other strategies that are fitted into the armoury of this genre of governance.”

It would be fair to measure the Parliament’s functioning on three counts: (i) as a legislative institution in terms of its functioning; (ii) as an instrument of control over the functioning of the Executive; and (iii) in terms of present-day realities and the role of civil society organizations and institutions. A decline in terms of its assigned responsibilities is much too evident, and credible observers have opined that we are now more a symbol than substance of a vibrant democracy.

There are also shortfalls in the Parliament’s functioning as an instrument of control over the Executive. Particularly noticeable is the tardiness in galvanising the functioning of the departmentally-related standing committees. The responsibility for both principally, but not wholly, rests with the Executive of the day and can be induced through collective action of the political parties combined with public pressure. Similarly, the attendance of ministers in meetings of the standing committees should be made obligatory and should not be confined to Secretaries of the government; the two Houses of Parliament should revert to the earlier practice of sitting for 90 to 100 days; there should be a binding mechanism to check disruptions and time lost should be recouped within a specified period; and to accommodate civil society concerns, rules and procedures for the functioning of the petition committees of the two Houses should be reviewed.

The imperative to retrieve the institution is evident to adherents of democratic values and of the Constitution. The apprehension that a dormant Parliament could become the first stage to its oblivion is real and lends credence to allegations of India becoming “the world’s largest illiberal democracy”. The primary objectives of proposed correctives should be to induce Parliament to accommodate in its functioning the realities of our times, restore its primacy in the functioning of institutions of the Indian State, and convince a younger generation that it remains relevant.

Excerpted with permission from “Reimagining Parliament: Hopes and Perils” by Hamid Ansari in The Great Indian Manthan: State, Statecraft and the Republic, edited by Gurdeep Sappal and Pushparaj Deshpande, Penguin India.