The future of parliamentary democracy

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The future of parliamentary democracy

When any individual eclipses his party in a parliamentary election, it is uncharted terrain for the system


Why in news?

  • Analyses of the factors that contributed to the handsome victory of the BJP in the 2019 elections will continue to compete for attention and popular as well as scholarly acceptance.

Coincidence of demand and supply

  • Weeks after the nation gave a decisive mandate to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), political analysts are yet to come up with plausible reasons for what happened.
  • No one had forecast this kind of majority, though there are many who now claim they saw it coming.
  • If proponents of Narendra Modi have been reading in the BJP’s electoral success the role of governance, foreign policy, anti-terror aggression and, as a footnote, the many welfare programmes implemented by the Modi government, the anti-BJP forces continue to sulk in the argument that this victory hinged on an almost fraudulent exercise of money power and the consequent use of image projection.
  • What both sides refuse to publicly acknowledge is the extraordinary coincidence of the demand side of political culture and the supply side of the BJP’s politics almost matching each other neatly — and feeding on each other.
  • The continued dominance of the Modi-led BJP, and the rise of a new majoritarian grammar of politics, needs to be understood in the context of two distinct but not-so-curiously linked characteristics of the “political culture of new India”

The magnitude of victory

  • NDA eclipsed its performance of 2014: First and foremost, in 2019 the NDA eclipsed its performance of 2014.
    • It secured 352 seats, while the Congress-led alliance came next with 91 seats. The BJP tally of seats was 303 while the Congress secured 52.
    • In 224 of the 303 seats it won, the BJP vote share exceeded 50%, compared to 136 in 2014.
    • The BJP retained over 81% of the seats it had won previously.
  • Voting percentages: With regard to voting percentages, the BJP vote share this time was around 37.4%, while that of the Congress was 19.5%.
    • Analysing the results on the basis of seats won and voting percentages conveys an impression that the BJP had enlarged its reach not only in Gujarat, but also in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh (which only a few months earlier had dealt the BJP a resounding defeat in the Assembly elections).
    • What is more true, perhaps, is that the BJP’s vote share among the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes appears to have gone up.
    • Also interesting is an analysis that first-time voters and younger sections among the electorate revealed a clear preference for the BJP.

Without issues

  • What, perhaps, is nearer the truth is that ‘issues’ as such had little resonance in the just concluded elections.
  • Opposition: The Opposition concentrated its attack on the weakening economy, but it is conventional wisdom that the true state of the economy or the lack of jobs is often irrelevant to voters when other matters of greater significance intrude.
  • Government: The Prime Minister, knowingly or unknowingly, never entered into a debate on the economic aspects, thus denying the Opposition a platform.
    • The Opposition also had little occasion to bring up the Mandir issue, since the BJP never projected it as a major election card this time.
    • Mandal politics has long since lost its edge, as the benefits to be derived from it have since become part and parcel of the political philosophy of every party in the country.
    • The Opposition, hence, had little ammunition to deploy against the ruling dispensation.
    • Welfare schemes: For its part, the BJP (as also some analysts) has argued that it was people-friendly policies such as the cooking gas subsidy, the Atal Pension Yojana, and the Ujjwala scheme that had created a wave in their favour.

Slippery slope for Parliamentary democracy

  • Constitution: Parliamentary democracy is the cornerstone of the edifice sanctified by the Constitution.
    • If any part of the edifice, and especially its cornerstone, is affected or diminished, it could spell damage to what we have come to believe since 1950.
    • The question is not rhetorical, but requires a well-considered answer.
  • Individual above party: When any individual, the Prime Minister included, eclipses his party that is notionally responsible for victory in a parliamentary election, then we are entering uncharted waters, where current rules do not apply.
    • Across the world, there is a wave today in favour of tall and powerful leaders — from Donald Trump to Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping — but they do not head parliamentary democracies.
    • In a parliamentary democracy, the Prime Minister is clearly the first among equals, but is not larger or bigger than the party.

Presidential-style vote

  • In 2014, Mr. Modi had crested the wave of disillusionment against the then ruling dispensation, which had been in office for a decade.
  • This was not, however, the case in 2019, where incumbency and the inability to deal with a variety of issues had led to a degree of disillusionment with the BJP.
  • Yet, Mr. Modi proved invincible, and the party benefited from it.
  • Few among the electorate possibly voted for the BJP; they voted for Mr. Modi and what Mr. Modi stood for.
  • The reality is that the electorate voted as if it were a presidential election to elect Mr. Modi.

Way ahead

  • If the current trend is maintained, it could well mean the end of parliamentary democracy.
  • Now that the elections are over, it might be worthwhile to look dispassionately at the growing trend of favouring ‘maximum leaders’ to the detriment of the parties they lead, and to the policies and practices the latter espouse.
  • This does carry risks for the future of parliamentary democracy.

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