For decades, democracy as a global institution has been struggling to cope up with an acute crisis of delivery. As several research reports have suggested, democracy'democracy. The key to the strategy to overcome this crisis, of course, lies in the way democracy is conducted. And obviously, the principal role in the conduct of democracy is that of elected representatives. When on the threshold of celebrating 75 years of our Independence, it is pertinent to enquire about what ails India's system of public representation.
Firstly, there are some key systemic flaws, in-built in the Westminster model that we adopted immediately after Independence. Many, like KL Munshi in the Constituent Assembly, had serious reservations about the efficacy of this model. However, for various reasons, the Westminster model was opted for. According to jurist MC Chagla, the preference for Parliamentary democracy '... was mainly due to (the fact that) before Independence we had been working through our Legislatures, both at the Centre and in the states more or less on the British model and so we were accustomed to the practices and conventions of that system'.
One of the ills of the Westminster model is the fact that an elected representative here is simultaneously accountable to his/her constituency, party and the house that he/she belongs to. This understandably creates crass confusion, facilitating flawed interpretation and leading to convenient prioritisation at times, while in reality ending up with accountability to none. More often than not, accountability to the electors, to the voters and thereby the constituency very understandably dominates. Then comes accountability to the respective houses and lastly comes the party. Post the anti-defection law of 1985, the primacy of political parties saw great decline as the decision about the validity of defection is left to the presiding officer of the house and not to the respective political party.
Regardless of the ambiguity in this arena, our representative democracy has worked fairly successfully; thanks to the contribution of the likes of Rambhau Mhalgi, a Maharashtra politician of the 70s. Three times MLA from Pune and twice MP from Thane, Mhalgi was known for adhering to high ethical standards, total commitment to his party's (BJP) ideology and complete dedication to the cause of his constituency, thereby the idea of democratic public representation. And remember, all this he did alongside his practise as an advocate, as full-time politics was a luxury to him. Recently, his birth centenary was observed where he was remembered by veteran politicians cutting across party lines as one of the ideal elected representatives of the last century.
Three things made Rambhau Mhalgi stand apart: firstly, supremely exceptional qualities in him as a public servant. He was punctuality personified. When the discussion was primarily about dealing with financial corruption, Mhalgi used to refer to 'misappropriation of time', as time any day is a resource much superior to all others. Acutely conscious of the extremely demanding nature of politics, he used to utilise his travel time between Pune and Mumbai to prepare for his Assembly debates on the way to the latter and for his court cases while coming back to the former almost every evening. More importantly, unlike many politicians today, never shy of strictly abiding by the values like transparency and accountability, he refused to give up on the front of disciplining his supporters.
Secondly, he was known for using very adroitly all legislative/parliamentary tools to raise issues of public concern. Having worked for years on opposition benches in the Assembly, he found himself on the treasury side in 1977 in the Lok Sabha. But here too, he set new standards of dexterity in using parliamentary tools without making government leaders ever feel awkward. More importantly, he raised the bar of the quality of people's representation by adopting new and innovative ways. One of the most remarkable was his practise of publishing a 'Report to the Electorate' every year. Later, many MLAs and MPs in Maharashtra from several political parties adopted this practise and continued with it for years.
However, the most noteworthy of Mhalgi's contributions was his emphasis on an institutionalised mechanism to build the capacities of elected representatives. His mentor, Pandit Deendayal Upadhyay, had realised that for an elected representative, to be electable is a must for his personal survival, but to be able to govern is important for the success of democracy. And to make that happen, Mhalgi wanted to set up a school for politicians and realise the dream of his mentor. Considering the gravity of multiple challenges before democracy, the centrality of the idea of capacity building of elected representatives cannot be undermined. This is because if democracy is failing the people, elected representatives are failing democracy. When common voters find that the representative they elect fails in understanding the complexity of issues, lacks basic skills and is incapable of finding solutions to myriad problems that they face, they start losing confidence in democracy itself. Happily, Rambhau Mhalgi's passionate follow up of the cause of training of elected representatives at various levels was later translated into reality and an institution for the same was set up in 1982 in Mumbai. Known as Rambhau Mhalgi Prabodhini, this academy is untiringly working for strengthening democracy in its own way. The essential message of Mhalgi is that for democracy to deliver, elected representatives must improvise their performance in every respect, in all possible ways!
(The writer is president, ICCR and BJP Rajya Sabha MP and can be reached at email@example.com)