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.