Why can't our Netas love to debate in parliament than on TV?

Friday, March 27, 2009

Recently, BJP's prime ministarial candidate L K Advani challenged Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to a live TV debate similar to the practice in US. In the era of news hungry media, Advani Vs Manmohan Singh television debate can surely raise voters' eyebrows. More over, television channels are sitting on the edge to host such debates. "Live and exclusive only on your channel", would surely bag more viewers. One of my colleague commenting on this issue humorously said, "Rajdeep Sardesai would be happy to fuel mud slinging between the two by asking obvious controversial questions. Arnab Goswamy would ensure that both leader will quarrel each other openly. And Barkha Dutt would make sure she will gain more publicity than the debate itself!"

India has been contemplating on prime ministerial television debate for quite some time. Though such debates in India might not decide the winnability of a leaders but will definitely put their abilities to test. It would be unfair to say that, "If United States is using such device (TV debate) since the era of Abraham Lincoln, why can't India have it?" The issue must be looked at from two different perspectives. Firstly, the democratic culture in India and US are different. Secondly, the pros and cons of such debates must be appreciated in Indian context.

Difference in democratic culture
In united states the executive (i.e. the president) is neither the member of Congress (i.e. US parliament) nor he is responsible to it. American constitution had denied the president an opportunity to debate in Congress on day to day matters owing to the principle of separation of powers between executive, judiciary and Congress. But he can only address the Congress if required. Thus, in America the president lacks a constitutional platform for regular debate with opposition leaders. Hence, president's public addresses on television or otherwise will have tremendous impact on dynamics of American politics.

However, in India, the position is quite opposite. The prime minister, the de-facto head of state, is not only the member of parliament but also responsible to it for his policies. More over, prime minister is invariably the leader of the house to which he was elected. Our prime minister, like in Britain, has the luxury of constitutional platform for debates on day to day matters with opposition leaders. More over, the debates are broadcasted live on television and the public will have access to archives of parliamentary debates. His appearance on television is largely aimed at reaching a 'section' of masses through the media.

The parliament provides Indian prime minster a bigger platform to defend his policies and also explain to the whole nation about entire gamut of his governance. Also, the opposition leader has sufficient opportunity to criticize the government on it's policies and programs. Thus, in India, parliamentary debates obviate the need for television debates. More over, the questions asked in parliament makes the whole executive excessively cautious and careful. Question hour in parliament is a greatest strength of parliamentary democracy and it's importance can be ignored by the leader only at his peril.

How far our prime minister and leader of opposition make use of the parliamentary platform for debates is another aspect. Fortunately, Our prime ministers in the past, from Pandit Nehru to Vajpayee, took great interest in parliamentary debates and Dr. Manmohan Singh is no different. More over, important discussions, criticism of government in the parliament receives wide publicity in the media, print as well as electronic.

TV debates in Indian context
Despite the constitutional platform for public debates, the role of television media in modern era cannot be underestimated. It has a significant potential to evaluate the leaders. But, in India, there are equally significant hurdles. First and foremost is the language barrier. Unlike in United states, Indians are linguistically diverse. We speak hundreds of languages and constitution itself recognizes 18 of them as official languages. In fact our national language, Hindi, is spoke only by 30% of the population. The debate in one particular language keeps away the people from such debates if they do not know that language. Even if the debates are appropriately translated, they might not draw the same emotions and feelings as in the original language. More over, the debates involving western educated, english speaking leaders will hardly reach 1% of the population through media. For example, Dr.Manmohan Singh's speach in Hindi, may not be understood by majority of Tamilians, Kannadigas and others. Many of us are aware of Shashi Tharoor's unquestionable debating skills (in english). But, how far that skill can fetch him the votes in Malayalam heartland?

Second problem is, unlike in US, the relatively low level of education in India. Inflation, recession, credit crisis, etc.. may be buzzwords in the news media. How many in our country actually understand the debates on economic situation? How many farmers would understand the effect of credit crisis in Indian market? Many statements (from Dr.Singh's team of economists) filled with economic indicators like inflation rate, CRR, SLR, Repo Rate, etc are still an unsolvable puzzles to many. More over, how many of us actually understand the cryptic legal texts? or at least know the general provisions of related legal acts? The debates full of such information can make no difference to the people.

Thirdly, Indian politics has moved far from unipolar Congress dominated politics to multi polar politics. We speak of third and even fourth front! Growth of regional parties and subsequent growth of opportunism in politics brings down the quality of such debates. It may even create hatred feeling among the people due to open mud slinging. More over, media is even more opportunistic to fuel such mud slinging in TV debates for it's own commercial reasons.

Lastly, there may be other reasons, like various parties have their own spokes persons who regularly debates with their counter parts in other parties on television media. Also, our prime minister may be media shy, but his knowledge, experience and work itself speaks volumes, though Madam Gandhi's influence cannot be denied.

Despite all such barriers, importance of prime ministarial debates cannot be underestimated. They will play an important, if not decisive, role in educating people (at least educated urban section of the population). At this moment, prime ministarial debate, if it happens, will be nothing more than a serious entertainment. But, it will surely be a precursor to it's bigger role in the future.

Third front never had a strong back, history will repeat

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Third fronts in the past are known for being "ideologically loose and opportunistic". Many parties with diverse political ideologies joined hands without any common vision. They neither had charismatic leader like Atal Bihari Vajpayee to glue the parties together nor they had dynastic leadership like in Congress which can still appeal to the people and parties.

Third fronts in the past were also known for internal differences within the coalition. Morarji Desai had a rival in Charan Singh within Janata Party, VP Singh had rival in Chandrashekhar within National Front, Deve Gowda had to transfer the power to IK Gujral to appease Congress, only to loose it's support subsequently. Though Jyoti Babu (Basu) could have been a better prime minister than Deve Gowda, CPI's Polit Bureau made "historical blunder" by not letting him become PM. This time around, Deve Gowda, a familiar face at third front get togethers, played a key role in forming the latest version of third front. We have plenty of prime ministerial candidates to keep the differences on!

More over, third front lacks common vision and objectives. The only stated objective of third front so far is to form a non-Congress non-BJP government at the center. Third front feel that, NDA and UPA governments in past have created a hatred feeling in the minds of people due to their policies which (allegedly) failed to deliver. Is this nothing but a failed history in making?

Every time the third alternative was born in India, it was when there was hatred against ruling government. While at power, third alternative could neither nullify the hatred nor it could deliver what it had promised. Instead, it created more hatred in the minds of people against the government. Subsequently it was either Congress or BJP who gained due to the hatred created by third front. A quick look at the history tells us the story.
  1. In 1977, Janata Party government (headed by Morarji Desai) was installed after much hatred created by infamous autocratic (emergency) rule by madam (Indira) Gandhi. Result was, fall of Janata Party government owing to failed policies and internal differences. In 1980, Disgusted voters brought Madam Gandhi again at the helm. Beneficiary? Congress.
  2. In 1989 general elections, Congress was thoroughly defeated owing to infamous Bofors Scnadal. National Front (headed by V.P Singh) formed the government with outside support from BJP and Left, to keep Congress out of power. BJP took advantage of the outside support and continued to pursue its own agenda. Rath Yatra, Babri Masjid demolition, Reservation of backward classes, insurgencies in Punjab and Kashmir, forced VP Singh to resign. Hatred created by National Front government coupled with Rajiv Gandhi's assassination sympathy votes, Congress again emerged triumphant. This time both Congress and BJP gained significantly.
  3. In 1996, though BJP emerged as a single largest party, it failed to form government. To keep BJP out of power, United Front(headed by Deve Gowda and IK Gujranl) formed the government with outside support from Congress. Congress successfully flirted with United front to finally see its fall in 1998. Beneficiary? Subsequent general elections in 1998 and 1999 favored BJP and finally brought Atal Bihari Vajpayee led NDA at the helm.
  4. In 2008, eight political parties grouped to form a transient coalition called United National Progressive Alliance (UNPA). It was a short lived love affair and dissolved/split after 2008 presidential elections. Though Samajawadi Party supported UNPA for President Kalam's candidacy, it later joined UPA and supported it in Trust vote.
  5. On March 12, 2008 yet another Third Front was born "with Deve Gowda, a familiar face at such get-togethers, playing the host at Tumkur in Karnataka". A failed history in waiting? time is the only answer

Way ahead and possibilities
As in the past, we cannot rule out surprise results in 15th general election. Here are few possibilities with respect to third front.
  1. If third front come to power without outside support from BJP/Congress: In case this happens, there will be a familiar chaos as it was in the past. So far, there is no consensus on leadership, seat sharing, future programs, no common vision and of course, no common political ideology. The struggle for power within the coalition will continue to widen the rift between it's partners. The manifesto of CPI is confusing, it talks about strong market regulation as it was in pre 1991 era, prohibition of FDI in retail, renewed Non-Aligned movement, anti US policies, right to strike for govt employees, etc.. This may not be acceptable to other partners. Even if there is a compromise formula, the ideological barrier of Left parties will continue to create differences within Third Front. As in the past, we may see short lived government at the center and subsequent fresh elections (if any) will help either BJP or Congress for sure.
  2. If third front come to power with outside support from Congress/BJP: In this case, Congress/BJP (depending on who supports them) will have virtual control on the government's policies. Congress will continue to pursue it's aspirations of breaking the third front within as it did in the past. BJP will continue to pursue it's Hindutva agenda and will have renewed 'Operation Lotus ' at national level. Again, as the history suggests, third front will end up strengthening Congress/BJP.
  3. Third front with Mayawati at the helm:  Though her Dalit/Woman leadership background appeals to third front, it will be difficult for her to win over rest of the parties in third front. If she does, Madam (Indira) Gandhi's rule can again tell us the story. Indira Gandhi's conviction in electoral malpractice case in Allahabad high court resulted in widespread political unrest followed by emergency. Mayawati is already facing cases due to her (allegedly) misappropriate personal wealth. Her party has already seen corrupt law makers and some even have criminal background. More over, opportunistic nature of other parties may lead to (anticipated) chaos in running the government. Its difficult to say if her government completes five year term.
  4. If NDA/UPA forms government, current third front will be yet another transient conglomeration of political parties ending up strengthening two main stream parties.

Even though third front in the past has it's own failed story, it wasn't a failure altogether. It has it's own significance. Every time the third front was born, it alerted main stream parties to learn from their own mistakes. It strengthened the democratic education in the elections. 1977, 1999 elections were the best examples. People in India took lot of interest to keep the notorious leaders out of power. Parties in third front have their own dominance in states and the government at center cannot completely ignore them. Because, government knows, their collective (bargaining) power cannot be ruled out. whether or not third front forms the government, it's legacy will only strengthen the democratic culture in our country.

Read More:
  1. A chronicle of failed Third Fronts in past.
  2. The Third Front problem - Coomy Kapoor.
  3. What Front? - Sankarshan Thakur, Tehelka.
  4. Left's contempt for change is incongruous in a country shouting Chak De India!
  5. Third fronts in the past: National FrontUnited FrontUnited National Progressive Alliance.
  6. CPI(M) Manifesto for 15th general elections - 1/3rd of it tells the failed story of UPA/NDA.

Women's Reservation Bill - Not yet a dead letter "again"

Saturday, March 7, 2009

There is a significant section of citizen and lawmakers having "mental reservations against reservation of seats for women in the Parliament and state Assemblies." Some are of the opinion that, "Women's reservation bill itself is a bias towards women" and they would be happier "if women could stand up for their rights on the basis of merit, and not on the basis of reservations." There are others who see this bill as a history in making. If the bill is passed, it would complete the "U turn" (of women's status) beginning with equal status in the ancient times to the oppressed state of women in medieval India and finally marching towards equality of woman in the modern democracy. And there are some political opportunists who demand for "quota with the quota".

Those who oppose the bill must understand that the equality of opportunity must be seen in historical and constitutional context. There was a time when women expected nothing but oppression and discrimination in the society. Today, there is a need for "positive discrimination" for attaining gender equality. On the other hand, those who demand for urgent passage of the bill must understand the constitutional context of the bill. The proposed women's reservation bill requires a constitutional amendment and it must be ratified by 50% of state legislatures. More over, 14th Lok Sabha's parliamentary sessions are already over. This does not mean that, the proposed reservation bill has reached the dead end. There is still some hope and this is a good omen.

Earlier, 3 unsuccessful attempts were made by introducing women's Reservation Bill "in Lok Sabha".
  1. Women's Reservation Bill [Constitution (81st Amendment) Bill, 1996] was first introduced in the parliament on 12th September, 1996 by H.D. Deve Gowda's government. The bill did not get pass the hurdles of parliament. Mr. Gowda's government reduced to minority and subsequently 11th lok sabha was dissolved and hence the bill lapsed.
  2. In 1998, Mr. Atal Bihari Vajpayee's government made another attempt by introducing the Women's Bill [Constitution (84th Amendment) Bill, 1998]. Ironically, this time too, the bill was lapsed because 12th loka sabha had to be dissolved prematurely; Vajpayee's government reduced to minority!
  3. Yet another attempt was made on December 23, 1999 with the introduction of the Bill in the Lower House. But this bill also could not be pursued due to lack of political consensus[source].
4th attempt, a tactical move
Again, on May 6th, 2008, UPA government headed by Dr. Manmohan Singh introduced the fresh bill "in Rajaya Sabha". This was the tactical move by UPA, that even if 14the Lok Sabha is dissolved before the passage of bill, it will not be a dead letter. Because, according to Article 107(4) of the constitution, the bill pending in Council of States (i.e. Rajya Sabha) which has not been passed by the House of the People (i.e. Lok Sabha) shall not lapse on a dissolution of the House of the People. Thus, Women's Reservation bill pending in Rajya Sabha will not lapse even if UPA government's term end after the general elections. The new Lok Sabha constituted after elections can still pass the same bill if it is passed by Rajya Sabha.

More over, the Parliamentary conventions in India demand that, the constitutional amendment bill must be thouroughly scrutinized by Parliamentary Standing Committees, so that, any discrepancies in the bill can be resolved and cooperation of the state legislatures can be sought. Thus the committe headed by MP Shri E M Sudarshana Natchiappan was constituted to study the proposed bill and make recommendations. The committe got three extensions to submit it's reports, the latest one was granted on March 5th, 2009.  It has to report before the constitution of the 15th Lok Sabha after the general elections. Once the report is out, the new government can take a decision on the bill and it will have 5 years to pass the bill. 

Clear possibilities
Whoever come to power after general elections, I think, there won't be any significant hurdles to the passage of the bill. Three cases possible.
  1. If UPA come to power again: UPA would be happy to resolve the conflicts/concerns regarding bill and it would make all the efforts to see that bill is passed, after all it was introduced by UPA government.
  2. If NDA come to power: BJP is alread raising the voice to support 33% reservation for women, in fact BJP were the first to demand reservation for women at Baroda convention in the late 1980s. More over it's allies (not all though) are also speaking for the reservation. The opposition then, the Congress led UPA, would not oppose the bill too. 
  3. If the Third Front come to power: The architect of the proposed third front, Mannina Maga (Son of the soil), Mr. HD Deve Gowda would be happy to facilitate the passage of bill, after all it was he who floated the idea of women reservation bill in parliament way back in 1996. Good news is that most of the third front allies are inclined towards the bill.
So, no matter who rules the country after general election, the women reservation bill will not become a dead letter unless there is widespread political and public apathy. That won't happen because political parties will make this an election issue and citizen/pro-women activists will be more than active to keep the discussion alive.

Quota within quota issue & the solution
Despite such positive hopes, there is one road block to the bill, "Quota within quota" issue i.e. reservation within reservation for Dalit women. Few parties want quota within the quota for Dalit women proportionate to their population. BJP is of the view that, "asking for quotas within quotas, as some are doing, will kill the bill since it may amount to rewriting the Constitution." It is most likely that, the issue can be solved under the light of Article 243-D(3) added by 73rd constitutional amendment. It states that, "Not less than one-third (including the number of seats reserved for women belonging to the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes) of the total number of seats to be filled by direct election in every Panchayat shall be reserved for women and such seats may be allotted by rotation to different constituencies in a Panchayat." Thus, solution to this problem (quota within quota) is already there in the constitution itself. It is just a matter of when Article 243-D(3) draws the attention of those who are demanding quota within quota!

Thus, it is too ealry to think that Women's reservation bill is a dead letter due to the dissolution of 14th Lok Sabha in the near future. If the next government takes interest in ensuring the safe passage of the bill, it will be one of most remarkable milestone in the history of democracy. After all, "The real test of democracy is the creation of equality of opportunity for the hitherto deprived sections of society .... Democracy in kitchen and bedroom goes hand in hand with democracy in Parliament and Panchayat. It has to become a way of life; it has to be adopted in literary vocabulary and in political discourse alike [Aysha Sumbul]." 

Wishing you all a wonderful Women's Day! 

Read More:
  1. Women's Reservation Bill - The end of U turn? - Posted on 6th May, 2008.
  2. Gender-less democracies - The Hindu, 07th March 2009.
  3. Women’s Reservation Bill - A critique by Aysha Sumbul.
  4. BJP's views on Women Reservation Bill.
  5. Women in India on wikipedia.
  6. Echoes Of Women’s Reservation Bill Outside Parliament.
  7. Creamy Layer issue on wikipedia.

Electronic puff - A healthier alternative to smoking?

Sunday, March 1, 2009

I had gone to NIT Calicut in 2004-05, during my final year engineering, to attend a cultural fest (Ragam) there. Calicut was just an over night journey away from my college. I had a rare privilege of being in a group of experienced as well as novice smokers. They used to offer me a fag, but I religiously refused all the time. "Grow up man!", was their routine response to my refusal. Few of them used to say, "Dude, just try once and see yourself how it feels like...." I knew, that was the first step towards becoming a professional smoker. Nevertheless, after a prolonged contemplation, I finally decided to "Grow up!", as they said. There was definitely no dearth of people who could help me "grow up". One little puff was enough to take my breath away for a while. I coughed and coughed for five to ten minutes and finally came to the conclusion that, I will not "grow up (smoke)" for the rest of my life!

Later, I did learn quite a bit about smoking and it's consequences. Almost 3-4 years after 'NIT Calicut episode', I read something interesting about smoking and cigarette, to be precise, e-cigarette or say, e-smoking. E-cigarette is an alternative to traditional cigarette. "It is a battery-powered device that provides inhaled doses of nicotine by delivering a vaporized propylene glycol/nicotine solution. When a user inhales through the device, air flow is detected by a sensor, which activates a heating element that vaporizes a nicotine solution stored in the mouthpiece. It is this vapor that is inhaled by the user. An LED on the opposite end of the device is also activated during inhalation, which serves as an indicator of use, and also to simulate the glow of actual burning tobacco [wiki]." Take a look.

Companies who produce e-cigarette claim that,
  • Is is a healthiest alternative smoking products you will ever get!
  • There is no fire, no tar, no carbon monoxide, no ash, no stub.
  • It lets you enjoy and satisfy those tactile taste sensations without any risk on smoking and on tobacco.
  • Actually, you can smoke healthily without environmental pollution.
  • It can help you to quit nicotine without giving up the smoking habits.
But, World Health Organization (WHO) does not consider it to be a legitimate therapy for smokers trying to quit. "The electronic cigarette is not a proven nicotine replacement therapy," said Dr Ala Alwan, Assistant Director-General of WHO's Noncommunicable Diseases and Mental Health Cluster. "WHO has no scientific evidence to confirm the product's safety and efficacy. Its marketers should immediately remove from their web sites and other informational materials any suggestion that WHO considers it to be a safe and effective smoking cessation aid [Read More]."

Due to the relative newness of the technology and the possible relationship to tobacco laws, electronic cigarette legislation and public health investigations are currently pending in many countries [wiki]. Though e-cigarette is gaining ground around the world, there is an urgent need to conduct clinical studies and toxicity analysis in order to prove the claims made by e-cigarette companies. Only after such studies and experimentations, e-cigarette can be brought under proper legal framework, if proved positive.

Whether e-cigarette becomes "healthier alternative" or not, quiting the smoking will definitely obviate the need for e-cigarette!

Read More:
  1. E-Cigarette on Wikipedia.
  2. Now for that electronic puff - The Hindu report.
  3. WHO statement on e-cigarette, issued in September 2008.
  4. More info on e-cigarette company sites: click here or here or check out Ruyan (which means "like smoking") site.
  5. E-smoking in India - a report.

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This work by Manjunath Singe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 India License. The views and opinions expressed in this work are strictly those of the author and do not represent his employer's views in anyway.