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History of parliament must-read for scholars

By Bhartruhari Mahtab

After a long night of darkness, India has emerged, in over seven decades, as the largest and one of the most vibrant democracies in the world. The credit rightfully goes to the successive generations of leadership and the people of India who, despite many odds, highs and lows, constantly fortified our republic transforming it into the formidable citadel of democracy.

The author, while tracing the genesis of democracy from Greco-Roman and Westminster sources, fathoms the roots of democratic institutions in India in far greater antiquity, much before its occidental evolution. Singh has quoted Vedic hymns which refer to sabha and samiti and the tradition of “the true King going to The Assembly”.

For instance, there is a quote from The Atharva Veda, which goes, “We elect you to rulership, the wide glorious quarters elect you. Be seated on this high point (the throne) in the body of the state and from there vigorously distribute natural wealth and material prosperity to the people.” He hints that originally the kingship was elective and it later became hereditary due to the evolved rule of primogeniture. The Upanishadic counsel was “open the door to thy people, for the obtaining of sovereignty”. There are references which show that an assembly could not start its proceedings and take decisions without quorum. There was provision for quorum hailers or ‘gana pukaraks’. The king was to be guided by the mantri parishad and “the public opinion”, described as “the multi-fiber rope capable of taming the lion”.

Layout 1A careful reading of the chapter on the genesis of democracy debunks the myth that democracy is wholly a western concept as ancient India was dotted with many republics and monarchy and republics coexisted side by side and often switched over from one form of government to another due to interplay of various forces.

Singh, a scholar of constitutional law and parliamentary history who is intimately associated with the procedures and mechanics of parliamentary control, has with his painstaking research, hammered the point that India was a cherished home of democracy from hoary past. He captures in his lucid, highly engaging style, covering history, procedure, methods, and even anecdotal accounts, giving us what is an excellent manual on what parliament stands for and how it functions.  As Dr Shashi Tharoor puts it, “Accessible to the scholar as well as to the lay reader, The Indian Parliament, marries Mr Singh’s meticulous understanding of this complex institution with a succinct and exact writing style, leaving very little unsaid, without succumbing to verbosity or a daunting excess of pages.” The chapters on the budgetary process, on parliamentary questions, and on various devices that allow members to raise issues in the Houses are particularly noteworthy. Parliament is the think tank of our polity, and not merely a ‘talking shop’ or a glorified debating club, a view, rightly put across by Mr Singh.

The devices for raising discussions in parliament have been explained in clear, concise and perspicuous terms supported by tables, boxes and examples for quick grasp. I endorse the view that “the committees bring unity out of plurality, direction out of confusion and decision out of discussion”. I concur with the author that a parliamentary committee is a high tribunal of parliament where the game is not government versus the opposition but between parliament and the well-entrenched bureaucracy. The book makes out a case for further strengthening the committee system as the committees bring greater sense of participation among the members and establish balance between the legislative, representational and deliberative functions of parliament and save valuable time of parliament and the government.

It is my innate belief that parliamentary democracy is a dynamic, ever-evolving concept. There are books written from time to time, but a book on democracy and more so on parliament must elucidate constitutional jurisprudence, political philosophy and capture contemporary as well as historical developments. The chief merit of this book is that it’s not only a fine blend of constitutional precepts and parliamentary practices but it also documents the flaws and failings of our parliamentary democratic system and throws open questions for wider and deeper reflections so as to further strengthen our democratic edifice. The chapter on “Making of the Constitution” quotes the founding fathers from the Constituent Assembly, bringing out their views and voices first hand.

The author has attempted a scholarly code of duties for the members of parliament, something which perhaps no Indian text book has so far attempted. It’s not that MPs are not conscious of their undefined charter of duties but certainly the code or charter of duties here would be a constant reminder to the legislators and remain a constant benchmark and illuminate the electorate. The powers and functions of parliament have been dealt with exhaustively and authoritatively. The devices for raising discussions in parliament have been explained in clear, concise and perspicuous terms supported by tables, boxes and examples for quick grasp. I endorse the view that “the committees bring unity out of plurality, direction out of confusion and decision out of discussion”. Singh emphasizes rightly that a parliamentary committee is a high tribunal of parliament where the game is not government versus the opposition but between parliament and the well-entrenched bureaucracy. The book makes out a case for further strengthening the committee system as the committees bring greater sense of participation among the members and establish balance between the legislative, representational and deliberative functions of parliament and save valuable time of parliament and the government. In fact, the chapter on the committees fills the void being a condensed but comprehensive write-up which would be found very instructive and useful by the legislators, present and future and the students alike.

The book brings out the finer nuances of the working of the Indian parliament, the duties of its functionaries, its interface with other constitutional bodies and the Fourth Estate and the role they play in strengthening democracy. Parliamentary privileges have been described, and I concur with him, as “a shield rather a sword” so as to protect and uphold the dignity, authority and the independence of parliament and its members so that they discharge their functions without let or hindrance. The glossary is certainly a value addition which would be found immensely useful by the readers. It is an absorbing and instructive book replete with historic and contemporary precedents in the parliamentary annals of India. It is indeed a brilliant, insightful book dealing with the powers, functions and procedures of parliament, elections and electoral systems and nature and role of political parties in a parliamentary democracy. The author rightly claims that we are, despite its many flaws and failings, “a gold plated democracy with a gold plated press”. The introduction to the book is a philosophical tract enshrining the vision and the informed thinking of an elder statesman enhancing immensely the value of the book.

Singh has described the intricacies of democratic institutions, the dynamics of parliamentary government, the public perception of parliament, the intermittent democratic disquiet and the future of democracy itself. Besides, the book draws attention to the general concern about the working of parliament, its often obstructive politics, its highs and the lows and the areas, including the political perceptions across the political divide, in need of reforms and reorientation. However, I feel that the author should have added a chapter on wit, humor and sarcasm, bringing out the fuller picture. The book’s fine structural symmetry and incisively analytical approach makes it a lively text book on the parliament of India, and a much awaited welcome addition in the field of parliamentary studies, written as it is by one who has had a long-time ringside view of the working of the Indian parliament. The author has obviously read and assimilated a wide range of parliamentary literature, lively instances and precedents in the narrative and woven a commendable narrative—an anthology, as much as an anatomy, of the Indian democratic system. It’s a compelling book for the scholars of constitutional and parliamentary studies, the legislators (present and future), public servants, students and all those who desire to study and understand the workings of the largest democracy of the world.

—The author is 5th-term MP and chairman,
committee on subordinate legislation, Lok Sabha

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