The three estates of democracy can’t act as outside observers

Published: 12th January 2013 11:00 PM  |   Last Updated: 12th January 2013 05:50 PM   |  A+A-

Is the state of democratic discourse in India waning or disaggregating? This is the question that parliamentarians and politicians should be asking. More urgently as India’s performance on law and order front is rated as abysmal and unacceptable by the people. Public protests during recent weeks reflect their pain and agony over the continuing inability of the state’s organs of power to protect women, girls and young children, even within the urban contours of major cities, including the national capital.  

With the Parliament in a silent mode and UPA on the backfoot, the onus has shifted to the media, which has taken the role of a grievance-ventilating outlet. It has become a platform for the people to put their views across to our lawmakers.

It can be said that independent India has rarely been as disjointed as it appears today. The political class is being forced to come to terms with the fact that its actions are under 24X7 public scrutiny. In the process, India’s vociferous television media, notwithstanding its limitation to handle complex issues, is performing its watchdog role consciously and conscientiously.

The three estates—legislature, executive and judiciary—cannot afford to act as outside observers.  The organs of the state need to do much more, particularly at the cutting-edge levels. The safety and security of the people, particularly the marginalised groups, is their constitutional obligation.

Unfortunately, India’s Parliament reflects how non-serious our lawmakers are. The sessions of the two Houses are getting fewer and shorter. More time is wasted on disruptions and adjournments than on actual work. When it opened six decades ago, it was a highly revered institution, packed with stalwarts who won freedom for India and where debates were of high quality. These days, disorder has become the order of the day. The whole of the Winter Session in 2010 had been washed out when an unrelenting Opposition refused to give up its demand for formation of a Joint Parliamentary Committee to probe the 2G scam. Since then, the days during which Parliament functioned even when in session can be counted on fingers.

India’s many challenges require political arrangements that permit leaders to concentrate on governance and take decisive action, whereas its parliamentary system increasingly promotes drift, indecision, and a narrow focus on survival in power. Now the cavalier attitude reflected in the Opposition’s frequent disruptions risks discrediting parliamentary democracy itself.

That is one thing India cannot afford. But its politicians must recognise that for themselves. Pluralist democracy is India’s greatest strength, but its current manner of operation is the source of its major weaknesses. The disrepute into which the political process has fallen, and the widespread cynicism about the motives of politicians, can be traced directly to the flawed workings of the parliamentary system.

The state of the executive is no better. There is no doubt that in a parliamentary democracy, any party that is voted to power is entitled to set the agenda. But the civil and criminal administration must remain insulated from political interference in day-to-day administration and maintenance of law and order. Implementation of the Supreme Court’s guidelines for police reforms would have helped improve the situation. But most state governments have shown little enthusiasm to do so. Besides freedom to work according to the law, the entire system of policing requires modernisation and restructuring.

The judiciary must also put its house in order. Chief Justice Altamas Kabir has hit the nail on the head when he said delayed justice was responsible for the rise in crime against women. No one disputes that we need more courts and faster trials. There is already a provision in the CrPC to discourage adjournment of rape trial on flimsy grounds. Yet, the apex court has itself been forced to remark: “We are distressed to note that it is almost a common practice and regular occurrence that trial courts flout the said command with impunity. Even when witnesses are present, cases are adjourned on far less serious reasons or even on flippant grounds.”

It should also be possible to incorporate in the system incentives and disincentives targeted at investigators and judges, particularly when there were judges at the apex level, who heard cases but did not give verdicts before they retired. Similarly, the provision of presidential pardon should be done away with. After all, it is the certainty of punishment in time, rather than the severity of it, that deters crime.

Being the foremost institution of Indian democracy, the Parliament must rise to the occasion. No public servant, including the elected representatives, can get away by complaining about inadequate infrastructure. The precept that a lazy workman always blames his tools is the only answer to the indolent public servants who find faults in the system and imperfections of the existing infrastructure for their tardiness in coping with such directions.

Menon is a former additional secy, Cabinet Secretariat


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