Background: Curated by the Oxford India Society, Oxford India Policy Series aims at serving as a platform for politicians and academics to share and discuss policy proposals addressing both broad ranging systemic issues and actionable niche policy areas. Established in 2003, the Oxford Indian Society (OIS) was formed to engage Oxford students in Indian socio-political issues and celebrate the diverse culture of India. OIS activities range from holding talks and seminars with leading public policy practitioners from India to organizing social events which celebrate Indian festivals and art.
A few weeks ago, OIS ran a series titled Decriminalisation of Indian Politics, wherein the first article was by Jay Panda [Proposals for Decriminalising politics in India]. It was this article, which included links to three Private Member Bills on Electoral Reforms [click here, here and here to access] that caught my attention – before long, I found myself contributing the wrap-up piece for that special series [see here].
Subsequently, I coordinated with his Policy Research team and what resulted was a mail interview with Jay Panda, wherein he sheds some more light on the three Bills and makes a strong case for legislative action – “the hope of reaching a tipping point to empower systemic change is not a pipe dream” after all!
Shining Path: Over the past 4 decades, there have been a slew of reports on Electoral Reforms by various committees. However, the political class closes ranks and ignores the recommendations every single time. In your view, how can this cycle be broken so that the Legislature starts getting its act together on this front? Do you think the media can play a larger role in terms of generating debates and creating mass awareness?
Jay Panda: This is true and it has been possible so far because Indian politics is still in transition from largely being based on individual charisma and group identity to issue-based debates. Consequently, there has been almost no political debate on systemic changes, either in Parliament or among the electorate at large.
However, this is changing. In recent years, we have seen a number of cases where issues like governance have come to the forefront and politicians perceived to have delivered have been able to break the anti-incumbency bogey and get re-elected several times. Simultaneously, certain specific aspects of governance such as corruption have led to a larger debate on systemic changes. I am hopeful that this process will keep building up until we reach a tipping point when systemic reforms will become inevitable.
And yes, the media can indeed play a very important role. So far, it too is guilty of pandering to sensational claims and counterclaims rather than facilitating an objective and nuanced debate. But, here too change is visible and several publications have indeed started examining these issues.
Shining Path: “Laws can’t be made on the streets, Parliament is where they are made and will continue being made” is a refrain we have often heard since 2011. However, when it came to the Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill 2013, it was obvious that laws were made under street pressure – on the other hand, no amount of street pressure could nudge the Lokpal Bill past the goal-line? Why this dichotomy?
Jay Panda: While laws do indeed need to be made in Parliament, it is equally true that Parliament cannot be impervious to pressure from the streets (i.e. the electorate). In these specific instances, I think, the dichotomy is that many politicians perceived the anti-corruption agitations to be limited to an emerging urban middle class that is still not a decisive force in electoral politics, whereas the anti-crime resentment was perceived to have broader support including from rural India.
Having said that, we must also acknowledge that the anti-corruption agitation came within a hair’s breadth of pushing through legislative changes, indicating that it may be possible to make this happen in the near future. However, there are lessons which need to be applied for this to happen. Two of them would be to first broaden the pressure group to include significant rural participants and secondly, to not alienate even the reform-minded legislators [by lumping them together with those against reform and branding the entire political class as corrupt].
The force of a righteous agitation needs to be tempered by realpolitik which is the essence of democracy and which implies being open to minor concessions while insisting on achieving the bigger legislative goal.
Shining Path: Coming to the three Bills that you have drafted, what is the process for discussing, debating and passing Private Member Bills in Parliament? What has been the history of Private Member Bills since Independence? Are there process related bottlenecks that Parliament needs to address so that well-intentioned MPs can take a more active part in legislating?
Jay Panda: The single biggest hurdle is the convention that has developed since 1970 that Private Members’ Bills are not passed into law. Although the new convention provides for government to adopt any Private Members’ Bill and pass it as a government Bill as and when it picks up overwhelming support, the reality is that this is less effective and the Indian Parliament suffers from not providing a level playing field to individual or groups of MPs who can bring about reforms by pushing through Private Bills. The process involves a lottery by which Private Members’ Bills are listed and discussed in the time allotted to them, which is usually on Friday afternoons. This is another handicap since many members are already back in their constituencies for the weekend.
However, this could actually be an advantage to use the opportunity of fewer members present to build support and pass Bills but that requires the convention to be returned to its original form (there is no legal bar on it).
Shining Path: Could you shed some light on the important structural aspects that you wish to address through the three Bills? If they were to be passed in Parliament – and I am not smirking – how will it change the face of Indian Politics?
Jay Panda: Although passage of my Bills is not likely in the current environment, I hope publications like yours can help build support so that in the near to medium term it might be possible. Of the Bills I have introduced, the single biggest impact would be achieved if we could expedite criminal cases pending against elected legislators - not just at Parliament level but also in the State Assemblies and even below, at the District and Panchayat levels.
Besides the massive backlog in our judicial system, our rules also provide special and peculiar privileges to elected representatives who face criminal charges. The most shocking of them is that even after conviction, elected representatives are allowed to continue in office even as the appeals process drags on. But of course, the bigger problem is that cases don’t get to trial in a timely fashion in the first place. My Bill providing for fast track courts to expedite criminal cases against elected representatives within three months, augmented by another Bill which would free up the appointment of prosecutors from political interference, would deal a body blow to the scourge of criminalisation of politics.
While there are a large number of ways where we can improve the system, my focus has been to hit at the root causes which have helped sustain this problem, and this is one of them.
Shining Path: Have you personally discussed this issue with Dr.Manmohan Singh, Smt. Sonia Gandhi, Mr. Arun Jaitley or Smt. Sushma Swaraj? With any other political leaders?
Jay Panda: Regarding discussions with other senior leaders, I have indeed written about this to the Prime Minister and although I have not yet discussed the Bills with any of the other names you have mentioned, my focus has been to build awareness about these Bills, both for the public as well as several of my colleagues in Parliament. I hope that at a certain point it will be timely to sit with senior leaders including the ones you have mentioned to try and hammer out a consensus.
Shining Path: Is it possible that your efforts can be dovetailed into those of well-meaning activists who knock on the doors of the judiciary, sweet PIL in hand, another one in the back-pocket and hope in their bosoms? Should the Judiciary step in, as it has done in the past? Judicial overreach can’t be such a bad thing after all when the Legislature and the Executive prefers to sleep at the wheel even as our democracy veers off the road occasionally, is it?
Jay Panda: The short answer is, yes. And indeed, this is already happening both ways i.e. several activists have gotten in touch with me to offer support for some of my Private Members’ Bills and similarly I have also taken an interest in the efforts already underway by many such organisations. Regarding the role of the judiciary, my feelings are mixed. First of all, I am saddened that many such reforms which are clearly in the purview of Parliament have, in fact, been abdicated by legislators. Thus, while some may question what they call judicial activism, we have to accept the reality that nature and the democratic system both abhor vacuums and thus, it is natural for the other pillars of the constitution to step in when the legislature abdicates its responsibility.
While my preference is that we make these legislative changes in Parliament itself, and for which I have been working towards building consensus and raising awareness, I am however not averse to the idea of courts stepping in and expediting the process. Perhaps more such instances will force us in Parliament to read the writing on the wall and respond to pressing needs of systemic changes through legislation.
Shining Path: On a lighter note, do you feel safe in Parliament? I believe, nearly 76 MPs in the Lok Sabha and 14 in the Rajya Sabha have serious criminal charges? [To complete the picture on the Electoral College, add another 550 odd MLAs in that esteemed list]
Jay Panda: Safe, yes but also embarrassed. Apart from the disruptions you see in Parliament, no body behaves even remotely in a thuggish or threatening manner. In fact, once the cameras are off, every single member is the epitome of courtesy and camaraderie. The irony is inescapable but also unavoidable are the facts.
Shining Path: On a more serious note, given the fact that the people [some of them] who possess the power to undertake corrective measures are the ones who stand to lose the most were such reforms to occur, how many MPs would genuinely support something as radical as the three bills that you have introduced/drafted? Would this number reach double-digits?
Jay Panda: Obviously, people with a vested interest who stand to lose from such reforms will and have been opposing them. But, we should take heart from examples around the world in other democracies which have faced similar challenges and similar obstacles, but have ultimately had to change because of public pressure. That is the nature of democracies which gradually empowers the voice of the oppressed. In India too, we can see this build up happening with more and more sections of the electorate beginning to engage with such issues.
My favourite analogy is with the United States, which in the second half of the 19th century had an identical situation of endemic corruption involving politicians and robber barons, and although that lasted for three decades called the Gilded Age, it was gradually overturned by the reforms in the early 20th century which was called the Progressive Era. The wider dialogue in India about the systemic changes is on the cusp of our version of a Progressive Era. I can visualise that in the coming years, with greater transparency enforced by more literacy and more access to information through media such as the internet reaching into rural India, the hope of reaching a tipping point to empower systemic change is not a pipe dream.
Regarding fellow parliamentarians, there are indeed a small but growing number who support such reforms, but as discussed in an earlier question, a lot of the authority within political parties is concentrated at the top of the hierarchy by the use of whips (this is another aspect which needs to be reformed, limited only to money bills and no-confidence motions).
Shining Path: Could you please share with us the current status of the three Bills that you have drafted? When will they be taken up for discussion – if any – in Parliament?
Jay Panda: Since Parliament has not been functioning, my Bills have not yet been taken up for discussion and I suspect there will be limited scope during the rest of the tenure of the 15th Lok Sabha. However, these Bills can be re-introduced and the efforts kept alive. In the meantime, it is just as important to build awareness of these issues among the general public and create the kind of pressure from the streets that has seen some legislation go through.
Shining Path: Sisyphean as the task that you have undertaken appears, I sincerely hope your efforts bear fruit. Thank you for your time. Any final thoughts on this topic?
Jay Panda: Finally, while stakeholders like the judiciary can indeed play an important role for any specific item of change, it is important to engage voters on the broader issue of systemic reform, and this is where the media can play an extremely significant role.
"Baijayant 'Jay' Panda is the Member of Parliament (Lok Sabha) from Kendrapara, Odisha. He can be contacted at: @Panda_Jay (Twitter); @Baijayant.Jay.Panda (Facebook)"
Twittering tittle-tattle: @ShinigPath1