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New Delhi

Vice-president Hamid Ansari. Photo: PTI<br />

Vice-president Hamid Ansari. Photo: PTI
Vice-president Mohammad Hamid Ansari on Wednesday flagged the systemic failures in India’s parliamentary democracy pointing out that politicians who make it to Parliament are endorsed most often by less than 25% of the electorate. Ansari, who is the speaker of the Rajya Sabha, had during the just-concluded monsoon session admonished members of Parliament (MPs) in the upper House as a “confederation of anarchists”.
On Wednesday, in an address to the Kerala Legislative Assembly to mark the 125th anniversary of the House, Ansari faulted what he called the “first-past-the-post system”, saying it encouraged candidates to cultivate vote banks that, in turn, caused divisions and tensions in society.
This system, Ansari said, required successful candidates “to obtain not a majority but a plurality of votes cast. With a multiplicity of candidates in the fray, and in the absence of obligatory voting, this often results in the successful candidates being electorally endorsed by no more than a quarter or a third of the electorate”.
This, he said, was commonplace not only in parliamentary elections but also in state assembly polls where statistics suggested that “the elected representative may not be, often is not, a true representative of his or her electoral constituency”.
“This is a very big concern. The quality of representation which is required is not there,” said Trilochan Sastry, founder member of the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), which works in the field of governmental and electoral reforms.
“There is a disconnect between people and Parliament and so they don’t feel it necessary to vote and so the voting percentage has gone down too,” he said.
Echoing Ansari’s comments, Sastry said that in the 2009 general election, there were an average of 14 candidates per Lok Sabha constituency. “There are too many candidates and too few people who vote,” he said.
The first-past-the-post system also “encourages candidates to focus on securing votes of a segment of the electorate and thereby accentuate or reinforce social divisions based on narrower considerations that derogate from inclusiveness and promote divisive tendencies and social conflict”, Ansari said.
Slamming the conduct of MPs inside the national legislature, Ansari noted that many observers and commentators had highlighted the “induction of un-parliamentary practices” that, in turn, led to legislatures becoming “sites for adversarial combat in which the hallmark of an effective legislator is often seen to be an ability to shout and disrupt proceedings, preferably from the well of the House”.
This led to stalling of legislatures, resulting in loss of working hours devoted to discussion of matters of public interest and debating government policies and passing laws, Ansari said.
The record of decades also showed that “the notional time allocation is different from the time actually utilized for conduct of business. The reason for this is the uniquely Indian contribution to parliamentary practice known as disruption. It has been a source of concern for many years now and is inviting public ire”, the vice-president warned.
“For a diplomat of his (Ansari’s) standing, to react at this extreme shows the extent of his anguish. There is no question that the Parliament is today what it was meant to be,” said S.L. Rao, Bangalore-based sociologist and former director general of the National Council for Applied Economic Research. “The functioning of the Parliament which is the place for cut and thrust of debate on conflicting opinions, that debate seems to have practically died,” he added.
India’s Constitution guarantees the freedom of expression, which includes the right “to argue, to debate, and to agitate”, Ansari said, but pointed out that the “unstated major premise is that the exercise of this right cannot be arbitrary... The boundaries of freedom do get transgressed when agitation takes the place of debate”.
This was why all legislatures made rules of procedure but unfortunately all “these rules of procedure are being violated brazenly and with impunity”, he said, adding: “A corrective, in the shape of disciplinary action by the Presiding Officers, is hampered if not made dysfunctional by the refusal of the legislative body or a good segment of it to support the Chair and ensure civility and compliance by the defaulting member.”
Ansari conceded that several meetings of presiding officers, including one in November 2001, had identified many contributory factors for this including “misgivings created at times by seemingly unresponsive attitude adopted by government and retaliatory posture by treasury benches” and “lack of sufficient training and orientation, especially of new members, in parliamentary procedures and etiquette”.
The correctives, he suggested, include increasing the number of working days of Parliament and legislative assemblies “to make available sufficient time for scrutiny of legislative proposals, discussion on issues of public concern raised by members and overall accountability of the executive”, making more stringent the observance and enforcement of parliamentary etiquette and norms of civility and incorporating into the legislator’s oath to “include observance of rules of procedure of the legislative body concerned”.

Anuja contributed to this story
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