House on dead-end street

Politics won't let Parliament live, democracy insists it can't die

Dear Citizens, I write to you, my creators, to put me out of my prolonged agony. The slow, torturous death to which I am being subjected could only have been imagined by the most unusual of scriptwriters. Even in my current misery, I am occasionally capable of a certain ironic detachment. I can say with perfect confidence that I am the only entity to have reached the kind of suspended existence that the great villain Ajit had imagined: Raabert, ise liquid oxygen mein daal do, liquid ise jeene nahin dega,oxygen ise marne nahin dega. I never knew what that meant until now: politics mujhe jeene nahin dega, democracy mujhe marne nahin dega(Politics will not let me live, democracy will not let me die). I am considered so indispensable that I will not be allowed to die; I am considered so useless that every political party wants to get rid of me. But this existential joke on me is not just a joke. It is a burden I cannot bear much longer.

Everything that made me come alive has been systematically decimated. I am now on artificial life support systems because I have been starved of the very things that make me tick: debate and discussion. As with any fading entity, my childhood memories are stronger than more recent ones. I remember Jawaharlal sitting in my chamber for hours on end even when he did not have to. I remember my halls echoing with national purpose. Colourful characters from all the parties, from Hiren Mukherjee to Piloo Mody, Atalji to Madhu Limaye, enlivened my existence. But what do I have now? A contagion of pettiness? The echo chamber of words that made the nation is simply a gladiatorial pit. Or it just stands there in stunned silence. Occasionally, this silence is punctuated by the sounds of headless chicken scurrying around, without a sense of purpose or even of their own interest. (Forgive me, I am dying so am allowed to be cranky.) The great Ambedkar identified democracy not with popular sovereignty but with unrestrained debate. He could not have imagined debate being meaningless noise.

Sure, once in a while, just to torture me more, there will be a debate or even a vote. But these infusions of life are getting even rarer. And they are mostly a simulacrum of life, designed to fool you that I am still alive. You will all be reassured that I am still alive. But what does debate really mean when matters are already settled elsewhere? The poor MP is not a voice. He is simply a cog in a party machine who has to, once in a while, show up to act his part in a pantomime. All our rules and informal conventions have empowered small cliques within parties that can choke off everything. Some parties are strange: they passionately stand for something but their passion dissipates outside Parliament. Other parties are stranger still: as soon a debate starts they want to debate something else altogether. MPs cannot say what they think, they cannot mean what they say, and now, increasingly, they cannot say anything at all.

Not only do I have to suffer this torture, they also drug me comatose. In that state, they then interpret an occasional twitch as a sign of consent. So my imprimatur is put on things I would be ashamed of if I had signs of life. Bills abridging your fundamental freedoms of expression, large sums of money spent, new laws that will determine your future are mostly passed without serious discussion. It is true that, once in a while, even as my heart slows to the point of extinction, an occasional organ will continue to tick. A committee here, a question there. But truth be told, I get the feeling that all this is also just so that I am not certified completely dead. In reality, not one of the mechanisms that are supposed to make me an instrument of accountability works. Our framers thought that principled competition would lead one party to hold another to account. The truth is, competition has broken down. All parties are in a kind of collusion, their noise and fury, their hoary invocations to represent the people are really a way of throwing sand into your eyes, so that the real cover up continues. The committee system should be the locus of fighting corruption politically. It is nothing of the sort. It is a vast contrivance to avoid fighting corruption. In my mother parliament, Westminster, it took just weeks to seriously question the prime minister and hold Rupert Murdoch's empire to account. Meanwhile, the executive continues to bypass parliament when it can; parliamentary approval is, at best, a post facto gesture.

I am no longer a living entity. I am simply an inert instrument, to be used when convenient. If someone dares point out that I am not functioning as I should, my members will all get teary-eyed. They will declaim with great majesty that Parliament represents the nation, that every caste and creed, faith and ideology finds its expression through this majestic body, which then coheres this cacophony into the will of the nation.

I am begging you not to buy this facade. Just to keep it up, they may even have one debate tomorrow, maybe on FDI. But it will be more a display of triumphant opportunism than a homage to argumentative integrity. You will all be so relieved that at least something has happened. But don't mistake an occasional movement for signs of life. No artificial pumping up can do away with the feeling I have on the inside: the infection is too deeply spread; the culture of revenge and disruption will be repeated again and again; the attention to detail will fall by the wayside; financial accountability, whether on issues like the deficit or the character of spending, will largely be absent; legislation will be passed without discussion; committees will have more bonhomie than effectiveness; all the large opportunities will pass us by.

I wonder if I can be revived. Many doctors tell me that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with me. All that we need to do is stop the slow poison I am being fed daily. But such is my tragedy that the MPs are both my executioners and my potential saviours. Which will they decide to be? I cannot tell. All I know is I am dying. I am beginning to think of my epitaph. But I give up. Even that will require parliamentary approval. Fat chance of getting that.

The writer, president of the Centre for Policy Research, is contributing editor, 'The Indian Express'

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