Parliamentary Democracy suffers from the Karna Syndrome

I agree with Shruti Rajagopalan’s argument that the 52nd amendment, more popularly known as the anti-defection law was a bad idea. The amendment turns legislatures into glorified electoral colleges. I do not agree though that this is the source of the problem. Jay Panda, a national vice president of the BJP has written multiple articles where he argues for reforms in parliamentary rules that will reduce the agenda-setting power of the Speaker (and by proxy, the government). For example, take this piece written in 2014, this one from 2015 or the one from 2016. The underlying theme in all of Panda’s articles is that our Parliament continues to be hobbled by the rules the British government set for the Central Legislative Assembly, and reforming those rules would go a long way to make our legislature more effective and help it hold the government accountable.

These reforms are worth trying, and I don’t want the perfect to be the enemy of the good, but I am sceptical that these go deep enough. The problem is inherent in parliamentary democracy, which suffers from the Karna Syndrome, the inability to perform its job when it is most needed.

The parliamentary system violates the principle of separation of powers between the legislature and the executive. Because the legislators elect the chief executive and the executive is essentially a standing committee of the legislature, it skews incentives all around.

  • A popular prime minister or chief minister has an incentive to choose pliant legislators who will never waver in their support for him.
  • Voters have only one vote. They are supposed to use this vote to choose their legislator, but they may like to express their choice for the prime minister. I have argued that it is rational for them to do the latter in a situation where everyone else is doing the same.
  • For ruling party legislators, career progression involves becoming a minister. Why would they jeopardise their chances by performing their oversight function too vigorously?

For this reason, I believe that mixing the law-making and oversight functions of the legislature with the electoral college function was a bad idea. It was inevitable that the latter would overshadow the former. When the executive is weak, it leads to unstable governments. When it is strong, it leads to rubber-stamp legislatures. Parliament is able to perform its oversight function when the executive is weak, but like Karna, is unable to do so when it is most needed.

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