Saturday, December 01, 2012

Parliament versus Democracy

By Swapan Dasgupta

In 1927, Carl Schmitt, a German philosopher associated with the conservative parties of the Weimar Republic, proffered a curious formulation in his celebrated book The Concept of the Political. According to him, the existence of a state presupposed the idea of the political. And the defining feature of the ‘political’ was a clear distinction between friend and enemy.

Schmitt’s ideas are anathema to the liberal ideal of a state that believes in harmonising existing and potential areas of conflict and, indeed, de-politicising its citizenry. It is, however, remarkable that politics in India is fast becoming a clash between antagonists who perceive the other side as not merely a competitor but an enemy. This is all the more remarkable because the ‘alternative’, fringe narrative suggests that the enmity of competitive politics is largely spurious and contrived. Arvind Kejriwal as repeatedly asserted in the course of his made-in-media campaigns that there is an unholy “setting” involving the Congress and BJP.

Had the relationship between the two principal political formations been indeed one of covert understanding, it is unlikely that contemporary politics would have become so utterly dysfunctional.  From spats over the ground rules of parliamentary proceedings to bad blood over executive decision-making, there is hardly any facet of politics and government that does not resemble a combat zone. Moreover, this schism has spilled over into civil society. Even a cursory perusal of the social media will suggest that India is in the midst of an undeclared civil war. So far the instruments of combat have been words. But if the fault-lines continue to widen, even the superficial civilities could be replaced by more lethal behaviour.  

Take the case of the executive decision to permit foreign investment in multi-brand retailing, an issue that led to parliamentary proceedings being disrupted for the first few days of the winter session. Going strictly by the letter of the Indian Constitution, the UPA Government was entirely within its rights to notify such a decision, without taking recourse to parliamentary approval. The Constitution, after all, does allow the executive enormous discretionary powers, far more than is sanctioned in other democracies. At the same time, the doctrine of parliamentary supremacy allows the elected representatives to insist on ministerial accountability.

Assume, for the sake of argument, that Parliament, after deliberating on the subject, decides in its wisdom to disapprove the measure. Since a Government defeat does not imply that the UPA-2 no longer commands a majority to govern, there is no obligation on the part of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to resign. Simultaneously, since the Government did nothing unconstitutional in notify the change in the business rules of the retail trade, it is under no obligation to withdraw the measure.

Remaining intransigent is an option that is in theory open to the Government in the event of a defeat in Parliament this week. But regardless of whether it retreats gracefully or puts up a brave fight to protect its turf, the implications are bound to be grave.

Regardless of whether the DMK and Samajwadi Party vote with the government or not, these two parties have made public their disapproval of any form of FDI in multi-brand retail. Going strictly by the parliamentary strength of those parties that supported the Bharat Bandh on September 20, it would seem that only a minority in Parliament is willing to endorse this particular reform. This implies that there is a potential conflict between a Constitution principle that facilitated the decision in the first place and the principle of democracy which encapsulates the “general will” of the people. Therefore, even if the Government passes the floor tests in both Houses, preying on the fears of an early election, it is possible to argue that in passing the parliamentary test it failed the test of democracy.

Interestingly, Schmitt, who wrote his major works in the last years of a tottering Weimar Republic, had anticipated a conflict between liberal principles (epitomised by the Weimar Constitution) and democracy. By his logic, a liberal parliamentary state can become undemocratic by defying the popular will, which the Weimar Republic did frequently because of a provision that enabled Chancellors to govern and pass laws by the approval of the President.  Likewise, an authoritarian state can in theory be more democratic by being in tune with the public mood.

Schmitt was clearly partial to authoritarian forms of government and his writings were devoted to assessing the larger shortcomings of a liberal political order. But this largely forgotten German professor is not central to our concerns. What is more relevant is that India is being confronted with a systemic crisis caused by the inability of the political class to reconcile parliamentary government with democracy.

Thanks to the government’s brazen disregard of the public dissatisfaction with corruption and inefficiency, the gap between executive credibility and the popular mood is growing. In more normal circumstances, the established opposition parties would have filled the moral and political vacuum. Unfortunately, both the BJP and Left are busy licking self-inflicted wounds. This state of uncertainty could even lead to a situation whereby a UPA-3 is voted in at the next general election, but without securing public trust. In that event, the polarisation between friend and enemy won’t remain confined to just the institutions of parliamentary government and democracy. Indian nationhood is also certain to suffer grievously.

Maybe, exceptional situations demand out-of-the-box responses.

Sunday Pioneer, December 2, 2012

1 comment:

Lakshmisha.K.S said...


The recent protest at India Gate, Are they symptoms of the greater dissatisfaction with the current ruling disposition's misgovernance?

My belief is that People revolt when aspirations are created (as in post 1991 reforms) but later they are not completely fulfilled, as against totally destitute people (like in N.Korea)

If UPA 3 manages to come to power not due to popular mandate but secular mandate, Will people rise up and revolt? Will Modi be able to tap this undercurrent of resentment? Will it be enough?