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Opinion: The New Parliament Building And The Democratic Future Of India

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The public debate on the new parliament building has so far remained highly polarized and almost one-sided. The architectural and artistic relevance of this new structure, its cost, its placing in the urban landscape of New Delhi, the future of colonial buildings and even legal technicalities associated with the new building's inauguration have been systematically explored and debated. The non-BJP parties, liberal intellectuals and a section of artists and town planners have been critical of this initiative, while the Modi led-BJP government has defended the project by highlighting its economic sustainability.

The long term impact of the new parliament building on Indian politics, especially in relation to the idea of people's representation, however, has not been given any serious attention. The possible outcome of the 2024 election, it seems, has become the sole point of reference either to celebrate the new building as an achievement or to reject it completely as an overpriced adventure.

The new parliament is not merely a building; it is going to be a site where the future trajectories of Indian democratic tradition will be nurtured and shaped. To understand these implications, we have to pay attention to two important sets of issues: (a) The nature of our constitutional democracy and the significance of parliament in it. (b) The actualities of postcolonial politics of parliamentary representation. 

Constitutional democracy and numbers of MPs

Two features of our Constitution are relevant here.

First, the idea of people's representation is one of the most essential features of the Indian Constitution. India is a democratic republic because the people are identified as the real sovereign. However, this notion of people is not at all rhetorical. The Constitution offers us an interesting formula to make the idea of people's representation institutionally viable.

Article 81 of the Constitution says that Lok Sabha shall have a set number of MPs chosen by direct election from territorial constituencies in states and Union Territories. The total number of MPs, however, is not fixed. The allocation of seats to each state or UT has to be determined in proportion to its population. It simply means that the changing demographic profile of the country has to be taken as the ultimate criterion to determine the exact number of MPs in Lok Sabha. Precisely in this sense, the argument to have an expanded built space for the ever-increasing numbers of MPs is valid from the point of view of people's representation.

Second, the Constitution proposes a principle-based yet flexible framework to establish a dynamic and accommodating polity. This framework is grounded on the premise that administrative and political institutions must be designed in a way that they can respond to the ever-changing context-specific political demands.

For that reason, parliament, being the most representative and legally accountable legislative body, is empowered to restructure, expand, amend or even replace the established institutions, following the democratic spirit of the Constitution. The doctrine of the 'basic structure of the Constitution', has been a guiding force to determine the scope of the amending powers of parliament. The initiative to have a new parliament building, in the technical sense, corresponds to this constitutional feature. After all, the Imperial Legislative Council building was also converted into the parliament House following the same principle in the 1950s. The new building, hence, might be seen as an extension of it.

The political story of numbers

These constitutional principles were subsequently elaborated by the Representation of People Act 1950. The newly constituted Election Commission of India (ECI) found that the 1941 census was quite old for the purpose of delimitation of electoral units. To deal with this problem, the Census Commissioner was asked to prepare population estimates. On the basis of these estimates, 489 Lok Sabha seats were marked. 

The numbers of MPs continued to change over the years. The reorganization of the states in 1956 after the enactment of the 7th Amendment was a crucial moment. It affected the configuration of parliament in a significant way. The number of MPs increased in both Houses. For instance, the second Lok Sabha had a provision for 500 MPs, while the Sixth Lok Sabha had 544 seats.

This flexibility was finally compromised in 1976 during the time of the Emergency. The Indira Gandhi government enacted the 42nd Amendment Act to fix the number of Lok Sabha seats. It amended Article 81 of the Constitution and established that the first Census taken after the year 2000 must be recognized as the basis for the allocation of seats in Lok Sabha (The Constitution (Forty-second Amendment) Act, 1976| National Portal of India). The present strength of Lok Sabha, 543 MPs, is based on this consideration.

Subsequent governments, interestingly, did not show any inclination to revisit the freezing of Lok Sabha seats, especially from the point of view of people's representation. The Constitution (Eighty-fourth Amendment) Act, 2001| National Portal of India extended the deadline simply by amending the Article 81 again. As a result, the cut-off date eventually becomes 2026.

Does the new Parliament building correspond to people's democratic aspirations?

Yes and no.

Technically speaking, the new building certainly accommodates more MPs. According to the official website, the new Lok Sabha Hall has a capacity of up to 888 seats, while there is a larger Rajya Sabha Hall with a capacity of up to 384 seats. The Lok Sabha Hall, we are informed, may also accommodate up to 1,272 seats for joint sessions. It simply means that the new building is built with the assumption that the number of MPs will certainly increase in future.

However, the possibility of increased numbers of MPs is not at all seen through the prism of people's representation. The official website offers us a number of technical and economic justifications for this project, especially in its FAQ section. Yet, there is nothing on the Constitutional mandate or on people's inspiration.

If this initiative fails to pose any challenge to the status-quoist attitude of the political class on the question of people's representation, the new parliament building will be remembered merely as an act of political symbolism.

(Hilal Ahmed is Associate Professor, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.

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