Review: House of the People by Ronojoy Sen

BySamrat Choudhury
Sep 22, 2023 06:25 PM IST

Politics in India is often compared to cricket, with fans following and arguing over their favorite teams. Winning elections is prioritized over the functioning of parliament. Ronojoy Sen's book on India's Lok Sabha examines the institution at the heart of Indian democracy, tracing its origins and highlighting its decline in recent years. The book sheds light on the underrepresentation of women, Muslims, and marginalized communities in parliament, as well as the prevalence of criminal records among MPs. Sen concludes that India's parliament is in need of strengthening.

Politics in today’s India has become a lot like cricket – a sport elevated to “religion” whose avid viewers follow closely and argue endlessly over their favourite stars and teams. Partisanship is par for the course; fans back their teams with unquestioning loyalty. The excitement and drama are all about victory and defeat, for the stars, fans, and the teams they play for or cheer. Electoral tallies are reported and followed like T20 scores. Winning every election from panchayat to parliament is all that matters. Whether the institution to which the winners are elected, the parliament of India, is doing the job that it is meant for, is something that barely enters discussions. This book by Ronojoy Sen, a study focused on India’s Lok Sabha, is therefore a welcome one that takes a deep look into the institution at the heart of Indian democracy.

Members of Parliament voting on clauses of the Women's Reservation Bill in the Lok Sabha in New Delhi on September 20, 2023. (ANI/Sansad TV)
Members of Parliament voting on clauses of the Women's Reservation Bill in the Lok Sabha in New Delhi on September 20, 2023. (ANI/Sansad TV)

Sen begins his book on the “mother of democracy” with a chapter titled The Road to Parliamentary Democracy. It is a road that he traces back to “a series of constitutional experiments that began in 1861” when the Indian Councils Act was passed by the British Parliament. The terminus of this stretch of road was the Government of India Act of 1935, also passed by Britain’s Parliament, under whose provisions the Constituent Assembly of India was elected. Although that Constituent Assembly was elected by a limited electorate amounting to between 20 and 28 percent of the Indian population, it eventually became “more representative than it might have been” thanks to the Congress’ approach to nominations, he writes.

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320pp, Rs1295; Cambridge University Press
320pp, Rs1295; Cambridge University Press

Among those nominated by the Congress were BR Ambedkar of the Scheduled Caste Federation and Hindu Mahasabha president Shyama Prasad Mookerjee. Although the Hindu Mahasabha had won only 2.7 percent of the Hindu vote in Bengal in 1946 and lost the three seats it had won in 1937, Mookerjee was elected unopposed owing to the urgings of the Congress central leadership, over the protests of the party’s Bengal unit. It was a courtesy that the Congress under Nehru also later extended to the Socialist “Acharya” JB Kriplani, who moved the first-ever no-confidence motion against the government in 1963.

By 1971, that kind of generosity towards political rivals was already history. The strong electoral mandate for Indira Gandhi that year proved to be disastrous for India’s democratic institutions including parliament, writes Sen. He quotes the Communist stalwart Hiren Mukherjee and the BJP’s Atal Bihari Vajpayee on this. Vajpayee had observed that “Pandit Nehru stayed away from the House only when it is absolutely unavoidable. She (Indira) attends Parliament only when she must”. The slide down that slippery slope ended in the Emergency.

Interesting stories and anecdotes featuring a stellar cast of parliamentarians pop up throughout this institutional biography. The narrative is solidly supplemented by statistics and graphs. Sen notes, for example, that while the number of women MPs has increased from 22 out of 489 in 1952 to 78 out of 543 in the seventeenth Lok Sabha elected in 2019, in percentage terms this is still much lower than the global average – and even our neighbours Pakistan and Bangladesh do better on this count. Only two regional parties, the Trinamool Congress and the Biju Janata Dal, have instituted gender quotas for their candidate selection, he notes. The TMC earmarks 40 percent of tickets for women candidates, while the BJD gives 33 percent.

His numbers show that upper castes continue to be over-represented compared to their share in the population, although there is a relative decline over time in the prominence of Brahmin leaders. The percentage of OBCs in parliament has risen steadily, while that of SCs has remained in proportion to their population due to the system of reserved constituencies. However, the representation of Muslims in parliament has been consistently lower than their share of the population and is declining further. After the 2014 polls, it fell to 3.5 percent of seats in the Lok Sabha at a time when they were 14.2 percent of the population. Another noteworthy number is that of MPs with criminal records. “The proportion of MPs in the seventeenth Lok Sabha (the present one) with criminal charges was 43 percent, with 29 percent with serious charges”, writes Sen. He cites a study by Milan Vaishnav that found that “a candidate with a criminal case was, on average, almost three times as likely to win election as a candidate who faced no cases”.

Author Ronojoy Sen (Courtesy the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore)
Author Ronojoy Sen (Courtesy the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore)

Each of the chapters in this book, which combines extensive research with a lightness of delivery, begins with a couple of quotes. The chapter on “Corruption, Criminality and Immunity” towards the end of the book starts with a memorable one from the movie Paan Singh Tomar. It says “Beehad mein toh baaghi hotey hain, dacait milte hain Parliament mein”.

The text bristles with references but the narrative style, the touches such as quotable quotes, and illustrations through a fine selection of archival photos and cartoons, make this a book that is both academic and readable for a lay reader – a rare feat. It happens also to be quite interesting and educational for anyone interested in Indian politics, recent history, or both. The stories and numbers about parliament and parliamentarians over time reveal the changing face of Indian democracy. They show, for instance, the loss of a certain mutual respect and camaraderie that existed across political divides. Such an attitude could only have come from a recognition of political rivals as fellow Indians, not anti-nationals. They show, also, a diminished and diminishing parliament. “Since 2014, parliament is among a host of institutions that have been undermined,” writes Sen. Fewer bills are being referred to parliamentary committees, and important bills are being introduced and passed often in minutes, without deliberation or a division of votes, or as money bills that do not require the consent of the Rajya Sabha, he points out.

The conclusion he arrives at is both sobering and obvious. India’s parliament, Sen concludes in this richly detailed and deeply researched biography of the institution, needs bolstering.

Samrat is an author and journalist. His latest book is Northeast India: A Political History

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