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Out of my mind: Colonial hangover

Once the members are elected, the quality of performance of the elected legislators leaves a lot to be desired.

Written by Meghnad Desai | Published:August 3, 2014 12:53 am

In the House of Lords, the benches on which the Peers sat in the old days were separated by a distance which had to be more than two swords’ length. This was to prevent members breaking out into a duel and hurting each other. There have been no duels for a while. Even in the House of Commons, disruption of business is unheard of.

In the new Parliament in India, in both Houses, the normal practice of unruly behaviour — rushing to the well, and confrontations near enough to fisticuffs — has resumed, leading to adjournments. Outside Parliament, retired MPs are refusing to vacate their allotted houses. Recently information came out that the governor of Gujarat spent 500 days away from her job, including 277 hours in air travel. She cannot be the only governor wasting public money.

India is proud of its democracy but it has to be said that its highest quality is the efficiency of the electoral process. Once the members are elected, the quality of performance of the elected legislators leaves a lot to be desired. Those who get to be in the ruling party/coalition behave worse. Their perks and privileges cost a lot.

It is time for the civil society to ask some tough questions. Why is it that India adopts British practices in their bad bits but not the best ones? Is it not time to compute the costs to the taxpayer of the behaviour of the politically privileged legislators and members of the Executive?

In Britain, MPs do not get free housing nor do they have many of the travel and medical perks which MPs and their families in India enjoy. No MPLADS either. What does an MP cost in terms of salary, expenses, market value of the likely rent on Lutyens properties? Is the sum around a thousand times the per capita income of India or more? Has anyone kept an audit of the horrendous costs of such fractious mischief that MPs indulge in?

India has a feudal attitude to its ruling class. The idea of a governor general/viceroy at the apex was to reproduce the British monarchy in the colonies. There were governors in each Presidency to reproduce the monarchical illusion. Independent India slavishly adopted this practice as part of its Constitution. So the entire panoply of feudal relations is still here.

The constitutional position of the President reflects that of the Crown in the UK. It is customary for the monarch to read the speech from the throne at the start of each Parliament. But I have already proposed in the UK that this is an anomalous practice. Why should the Queen read out the speech written by the PM? Why cannot she summon the PM to read his speech? Whatever the British do, why should India copy that practice? Let the Rashtrapati preside over the opening of Parliament, but let the Prime Minister tell the world what his government is going to do.

Unlike the UK, but like the US, India has a vice-president as well who presides over the Rajya Sabha. But what is the need for governors at all? Besides swearing  the new government in and opening the Assembly once a year and reading out the speech written by the Chief Minister, what is it that governors do which deserves such lavish treatment? Do we know what the entire set of governors costs the country and whether their conduct justifies the expense? Is it not time that these colonial hangovers were removed?

While we are thinking of reform, why not have a critical look at Parliament and its size? For an electorate of over 800 million voters soon reaching a billion, are 545 MPs enough? Should we not have at least one MP per million voters? The long running saga of women’s reservation can be swiftly brought to an end by adding 300 women’s seats. For the expanded Parliament, let us do away with occupancy of Lutyens bungalows. Let MPs live in rented flats. The sale of Lutyens bungalows will pay for the new building for Parliament. Let there be no well in it for MPs to rush into.

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