The Indian Parliamentarian and Accountability

In many ways, the Parliament is the keystone, the chief flag-bearer of democracy in India.It’s the forum where legislation is enacted, where pressing civic issues are debated and where the government is held accountable. The Parliament, constituted of people’s representatives, directly or indirectly elected, represents the voice of the nation.However, even though the architects of the Indian constitution gave a lot of thought into designing several innovative checks and balances amongst the various government institutions, the Parliament and the Parliamentarians were surprisingly given a lot of leeway.The Parliament functions as one of those institutions that’s accountable neither to the executive nor to the judiciary. And as for the Parliamentarian, the only time they are held accountable is at the end of their 5-yr or 6-yr term when elections come knocking, and even then their performance within the parliament is almost never a voting issue.

The Parliament is in several rudimentary ways a business house, where the daily business is to debate issues and pass legislation after deliberating on the pros/cons.The effectiveness of any business house is ensured by demanding accountability from the corporation as a whole, which in turn is ensured by demanding accountability from every single employee.And this accountability is measured informally on a day-to-day basis, and formally during the annual/bi-annual appraisals.So why should the Parliament be any different? In fact, the accountability demanded from the parliamentarians should be even more stringent, since they are responsible to the whole nation, while a business corporation is accountable only to it’s shareholders.

One of the ways of fixing accountability is by ensuring transparency.On this count, our parliament scores quite well. The daily proceedings and records of the parliament are open to public scrutiny through live telecasts and information published on the parliament’s website. It is also possible to view the record of every individual parliamentarian on these same websites. Although it can be argued that most of the data is in raw form and not entirely suited for direct interpretation by the masses. Apart from transparency, independent monitoring is another way of ensuring transparency.While transparency lays the onus of preparing the report-card on vigilant citizens, monitoring ensures that report-cards are drawn in a professional manner and with authority.

While the Parliament as a institution does have a lot of transparency built in, it’s the individual parliamentarians who are hardly ever held accountable for their functioning and performance in the Parliament. It is in that context that I suggest the following bullet-points for fixing accountability on our parliamentarians.

  • Just like every publicly traded company has to be audited by independent firms on an annual basis, likewise, the parliament too should be monitored by an independent statutory body.
  • The findings of this independent monitoring body should be captured in an annual report and placed in the public knowledge. It should also be adequately broadcast through press conferences and media briefings.This report should be the final word of authority as far as the functioning of the individual parliamentarians are concerned.
  • The suggestions, recommendations and punitive measures contained in the report should be considered as binding on both the houses, and it should be the obligation of the House Speaker to implement the same, probably after due consideration from a Standing Committee.
  • In this age of open governance, it should be made mandatory for every parliamentarian to maintain their personal websites, where they constantly provide updates on the debates they participated in, their opinion on crucial legislations and the manner in which they disbursed of their MPLAD funds.They should be provided with all the support and assistance needed to accomplish the same.
  • Attendance is something which is enforced religiously in our academic and business houses. So why should exceptions be made for our parliamentarians? Monitoring the attendance of individual parliamentarians is not enough. Punitive action should be taken on erring members by means of levying hefty penalty fees.
  • Every election, our politicians do a lot of drum beating on their supposed achievements.Nothing is wrong with this, but no one verifies their statements. So it should be made mandatory for every sitting MP and MLA to submit their individual records on their performance in the parliament and status of their MPLAD-funded projects, along with the affidavit that they currently submit.All these personal statements should be ratified by the Election Commission and any discrepancy should attract punitive action.
  • The same records that are mentioned in the point above should be condensed into pamphlet advertisements and mandatorily distributed in their constituency along with the daily newspaper.

Some of the measures suggested above may be too radical to be implemented. But in these days of adjournments, unruly behaviour, parliament stalling, walkouts staged by opposition,passing of important bills without a reasonable debate,demanding of resignations on smallest of pretexts etc etc, only stringent measures can bring about decorum in the house. While it’s perfectly alright for the parliament to exercise oversight on the functioning of the executive, a breakdown in governance by the executive should not lead to a ripple effect of causing a breakdown in the functioning of the Parliament. Only by demanding accountability from our elected representatives can we ensure that our Parliament functions in the spirit that was conceived by the founders of our constitution. And only by demanding accountability, can we ensure that laws are made to protect the common man and not to protect the tainted politicians and crony capitalists.Only be demanding accountability, can we ensure that landmark reforms such as the Lokpal Bill, Land Acquisition Bill, Representation of the People Bill and the Communal Violence Bill, all see the light of day without being diluted beyond the point of being effective.

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Why Secularism and not Democracy should be the First Goal in Middle East ?

The Arab Spring, which began with the intention of securing greater political freedoms and overthrowing autocratic regimes in the Middle East, is soon going to complete three years. Popular protests with sometimes violent overtones led to political reversals in Tunisia, Yemen, Egypt and Libya. Protests still continue in Syria, Algeria, Iraq, Bahrain and Lebanon and they show no signs of abating quickly.While it may have begun with good intentions, we would be living in denial if we still believe that the Arab Spring continues to be a force of justice and freedom.The motivations behind the Arab Spring have slowly but surely been hijacked and overshadowed by external factors aimed at stamping their dominance in an area of strategic importance to the rest of the world.

Democracy may be good in general, but is the Middle East ready to adopt democracy? This is the bigger question. Democracy may be easy to obtain as the Arab Spring has shown, but much more difficult to sustain.Middle East has always seen tensions and power struggles because of Shia Sunni factionalism. Countries that are Sunni controlled tend to ally with each other, and likewise for Shia dominated countries. In some countries, Shia minorities rule over Sunni majority populations and vice versa. This situation of minorities ruling over majorities has become possible as a result of outside support from either Shia dominated Iran or Sunni dominated Saudi Arabia, whichever the case may be.Hence, the Arab Spring has directly resulted in a rise of opportunism for changing these power balances.It has become a breeding ground for yet another civil war between Shia and Sunni Muslims and is no longer a just revolution.And funding for these revolutions comes easily from oil money.

In such a factional environment, it is possible for only two kinds of political orders to survive and rule. Either one has to be rich and autocratic or one has to be an Islamist. Saddam Hussein, Hosni Mubarak, Bashar al-Assad, Muammar Gaddafi etc were all rich and autocratic leaders who would crush any political opposition by force.On the positive side, they were also more secular. But since the Arab Spring is being fought for greater political freedom, the autocrats are sidestepped, and the Islamists are alleviated to power.This only further stokes religious tensions, and results in sectarian clashes.However, if the country has a homogeneous population and is either overwhelmingly Sunni or Shia, then these tensions are either absent or very low-key.

So should democracy be the goal for Arab Spring? My answer is NO. Any democratic implementations in the Middle East will only bring Islamists to power and deliver a killer blow to reformist and liberal movements.It would indeed mean taking several steps back and not forward.

What is needed more urgently is a Secular order.Middle East politics should learn to grow above Shia Sunni factionalism and be inclusive towards people of all castes and creeds.Let there be a Unity government in all these countries with appropriate representations from all factions.Let geopolitical alliances stop being governed by factional agendas, but by economic relations.And this change cannot come from the top. It requires an overwhelming change in social and religious mindset.Th bravehearts of Middle East who came out in the streets to protest, need to make sure that they do not let their movement for freedom be hijacked by vested interests.Let the Arab Spring be a social movement for Secularism first and Democracy only second.Because Democracy in Middle East cannot survive without Secularism.Turkey is proof of this!!

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Early Trends for General Elections

As we all know, General Elections in India are very much around the corner. As the political climate heats up, we will soon start to see political debates picking up steam on online media. So the other day, I just did a quick random check on Google Trends to see which political camp is trending online. Here are some results.

Namo_Rahul

Narendra Modi vs. Rahul Gandhi

From the BJP camp, Narendra Modi is pretty much crowned as their Prime Ministerial candidate. However, from the Congress side, there are still confusing signals, so I have randomly selected Rahul Gandhi as the next major opponent.As the graph shows, Namo far outruns Rahul Gandhi, as far as public interest goes.

Congress_BJP

Congress vs. BJP

The two major national parties, Congress and BJP are almost neck to neck, with the BJP having a narrow lead.

Rahul_Congress

Rahul Gandhi vs. Congress

Now, ever since Narendra Modi was crowned as the BJP Campaign Committee head, there has been a lot of buzz and debate about the emergence of the personality cult in Indian Politics. So I also decided to generate a trending graph of Rahul Gandhi vs his party, the Congress. As can be seen, both are trending at same pace.

Namo_BJP

Narendra Modi vs. BJP

Now this is the interesting graph, albeit not a surprising one. A trending comparison of Narendra Modi vs his party, shows that Narendra Modi is generating far more interest in the public imagination than the BJP.

Personally, I feel that the emergence of the personality cult in Indian Politics is not a new phenomenon. Political parties in India have traditionally fought elections in the name of their most charismatic leader. eg Congress has been fighting elections under the Gandhi family name since ages.Similarly, for the numerous other regional parties, their leader is often the most recognizable face of the party.And greater the charisma of their leader, the better are the winning chances for that party.Well, as the trends above clearly show, Narendra Modi is generating not only more interest than his closest contender, but also more interest than his own party.

 

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Indian Secularism : A Taste of Fusion

Recipe : Indian Secularism

Ingredients :

  • Plain Rice : Indian Elections
  • Oil : Political Campaigns
  • Tadka of spices : The Singh Parivar (Digvijay Singh, Rajnath Singh,Mulayam Singh)
  • Red Chilli Powder : Narendra Modi
  • Lemon Juice : Advaniji
  • Salt : Congress
  • Sugar : Nitish Kumar
  • Coriander Leaves : Lalu Prasad
  • Mushrooms (optional) : Manmohan Singh

Procedure :

  • Heat some oil in a traditional Indian kadhai over a traditional koele ka chulha. Selecting a variety of oils is recommended as this country prides itself in it’s diversity.Be aware that you may face some difficulty in getting hold of coal though.I am sure I don’t need to explain the reason behind that.
  • Once the oil is sufficiently hot and dainty plumes of smoke can be seen rising, add some tadka eg mustard seeds, zeera, crushed peppercorns etc. The role of the tadka is to get the initial flavour going. Here, by flavour I of course mean secularism.
  • Once the tadka has done it’s job, it’s time to add the cooked white rice.You know, the rice has to be the star of the dish, in fact it’s the only basis of the dish.All the fuss and tamasha happens around it.
  • Stir the rice so that it is thoroughly coated with oil and takes on the initial flavouring from our tadka.I hope you see the analogy here.Elections have to be well greased by campaigns, if they are to make any difference.
  • Now is the time to add the main flavour agents.Well I am thinking…Spicy food is always popular, salt is a necessary ingredient…as for sugar and lemon juice, they can always be used to create a well balanced dish.So there you have the magic formula.Hurrah!!And yes, the salt is not meant to be rubbed into somebody’s wound, as the Congress is inclined to do these days to it’s rival.
  • You might as well throw in some sauted mushrooms now.Well, they are so bland, they not going to make a difference anyway. They are only supposed to give a meaty texture.
  • And no Indian dish can be complete without the evergreen Coriander Leaves. They can lift any dish from the depths of mediocrity.Add  it as a final garnish.

Serve :

  • Serve this authentic dish of Indian Secularism with Tamarind Chutney from Tamil Nadu, Rosogolla from West Bengal and Aam ka Achaar from Punjab.
  • It would be wise to give the first serving to Uttar Pradesh.They say that the nation votes as UP votes. This gives the cook an opportunity to correct calculation mistakes early on.
  • When serving the dish to the Media, make sure the flavours and the plating are upto the mark.Because they are the opinion makers.You wouldn’t want to be on their wrong side now, would you?

Source of the Recipe : Past 65 years of experience

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After Diggy, it’s now Mamata..

 

Mamata Banerjee seems to have taken center stage for standup comedy yet again.It’s people like her and Digvijay Singh that put chaar chand on Indian politics. And now that she is heading some banana government in her home state, she seems to be completely irrepresible. This promises to be a long and entertaining performance :) .

 

The latest Mamataism doing rounds,

  • I love the media. But don´t enter hospital premises. Even I take permission of the hospital superintendent before entering the premises. I don´t need permission but still I do since it´s a basic courtesy and also may be some infection can spread because of me
  • Do not watch the two television channels that are spreading falsehood against us. Instead listen to songs and watch entertainment channels like Star Jalsa, Tara and Channel 10
  • I do not care if fingers are pointed against me. I do not care for anybody. I only care for Ma, Mati, Manush of West Bengal
  • Intelligent people should use their intelligence for doing good.Instead they are using it to conspire against me
  • How will we run the state if they (Centre) take away all the money? They are trying to cripple the state. A lot has been said about us receiving huge amounts of money from the Centre. This is not true. We have not received a single penny
  • I don’t care for anybody but the common man. There is no point in scaring me. I am not a person to get scared. I will not stick to my chair. If I can’t work I shall quit
  • In the next five years I will do so much work that it will make the CPM jealous. We have done ten years’ work in ten months

My question is….Do we need Bollywood when we have Mamata Banerjee?And yes didi, we dont need to listen to songs and watch entertainment channels. Because you are a complete entertainment package yourself :)

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Battling Political Corruption : Mission Possible ?

Calvin : Do you believe in the devil?You know, a supreme evil being dedicated to the temptation,corruption and destruction of man?
Hobbes : I’m not sure that man needs the help.

On the eve of 2011, Nitish Kumar, the Chief Minister of Bihar,announced that he was mandating asset declaration for public servants including ministers in the government.Since then, the personal assets of all the ministers has been uploaded on the Bihar government website. While political adversaries have termed this as an eyewash, neighbouring states which are mired in corruption, have started advocating the same formula to their government for battling corruption.

Acquiring assets that are disproportionate to one’s known income, is the most apparent outcome of any case of corruption.Which is why, mandatory decalartion of one’s assets by public servants is definitely a step in the right direction.Public scrutiny of their wealth and assets, will surely keep our babuwallas on their toes, and ammassing wealth will probably become a more difficult art.Asset declaration is already a compulsory step for politicians when they run for elections; however doing this on an annual basis will be more effective as at the end of 5 years, the damage done would probably be too huge to undo.

But the cynic in me tells me to take this development with a pinch of salt. Firstly ,having minister’s declared assets available as public information, lays the onus on vigilant citizens to uncover any discrepancies.Are we not lacking a statutory independent monitoring agency dedicated to keeping an eye on assets of public servants?Secondly, asset declaration although made mandatory has not been made a constitutional law ; so nothing prevents the next government from doing away with it and likewise nothing prevents the current government from breaking their own rules if political opportunism demands so.Thirdly, the announcement is silent on punitive actions for the guilty.For if we were to look at history, then for all we know, either the tainted politicians will escape jail term or would be out on bail and once the public memory fades would be reinstalled in the cabinet.Isn’t legislation that bans corrupt politicians from being inducted in the government , the need of the hour?

The announcement is a baby-step at best and hence should be welcomed with gaurded optimism.There have been too many corrupt politicians, too many scams and too many coverups in the history of independent india ;public confidence in the government’s sincerity to take strong anti-corruption measures has reached rock-bottom.Instead of clamouring for one another’s heads as is the political fallout of any corruption scandal, it’s high time that political parties of all hue and faith come together and enact strong legislation to combat this monster.The Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988 can do with much needed reforms. The LokAyuktas and the CVC can be given more muscle eg. suo moto powers to look into cases of corruption and power to ensure that their recommendations to the Government are acted upon.At the end of the day, it’s anti-corruption legislation that will help to nip the problem at it’s bud and not simply lip service or political blame game.It’s high time that we changed the debate from “Who all are guilty?” to “Why don’t we reform our ancestral anti-corruption laws to take stock of today’s realities?” This indeed would be the ultimate acid-test for judging the sincerity of our politicians.Because the people of this country have tolerated the political soundbites following any scam for far too long.

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India’s foreign policy : Is it in trusted hands?

A secret US diplomatic cable titled “Iran manipulating Indian elite opinion-makers” exposed by Wikileaks reveals that K.V Rajan, then Chairman of the National Security Advisory Board(NSAB) had requested an urgent meeting with the US embassy Charge d’ Affaires to apprise him of an all expenses trip that Iran was organising for Indian “politicians,scholars and commentators” to which he too had been invited. Rajan suspected that this trip was part of an Iranian Government effort to encourage anti-American, pro-Muslim scholars and think tankers in India to influence PM Singh’s supporters to take a more pro-Iranian and anti-US view.Fearing that his own presence in the delegation would hand Iran a PR coup, he cancelled his visit at the last moment. The cable says that to counter Iran’s efforts, Rajan proposed that he visit US in his NSAB capacity and hold talks with officials, think tanks and intelligence community to discuss ways to better understand US assessments of Iran which he expected would later feed into NSAB discussion on Iran policy options.

The NSAB consists of persons of eminence and expertise outside the GOI who provide inputs to the National Security Council (NSC), which is the apex agency looking into the political,economic, energy and strategic security concerns of India.The National Security Advisor (NSA) is a member of the NSC who is also the primary advisor to the Prime Minister, the Indian Cabinet and the NSC on internal and international security issues.

Since then Rajan has rubbished the US cable.Considering that the cable is correct,it clearly indicates an attempt by Rajan to manipulate opinion making in NSAB by deliberately trying to create grounds for allowing US assessments of Iran to creep into India’s Iran policy making.His request for security discussions on Iran with US officials were prompted not by genuine security concerns but in order to negate any influence Iran’s soft power might have on Indian opinion makers.

Personally , I would really doubt that this is a one-off incident and if one looked deeper, probably many precedents would be revealed. Also, it’s likely that foreign policy crafting in any country would be vulnerable to such lobbying acts.This begs the questions, Are our policy makers acting solely in the nation’s best interests or Are they proxies trying to influence Indian policy making with the interests of another nation? Can we really pin our hopes on them to do an unbiased job? Can we trust them?

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