Back-bencher and democracy!


Friendly Fire
Khalid Saleem

With the current hullabaloo in the body politic of this blessed land, the whole country appears to be in a state of limbo. One of the subjects oft mentioned about the ongoing parliament has been the question of quorum – or the lack of it! There has been many a comment on the sparse presence of the law-makers during session after session. One wonders if the attendance situation in the Assembly to come will be any different.
Be that as it may, this problem is not confined to this country alone. Other Parliaments, among them the British House of Commons and the American Congress, also have quorum issues. In fact, in these Assemblies the only time there is reasonably high attendance is when there is a vote or a division.
What is of direct relevance, however, is the singular fact that, more often than not, only the poor back-bencher is singled out to shoulder the blame. The ministers and other quasi-leaders, as always, manage to wriggle out of the affair, leaving only the poor back-bencher to face the music. Quasi-VIPs in the assemblies are seen to be constantly having a rollicking good time. When they are not out of the country accompanying some VVIP on trips to far off exotic lands at taxpayers’ expense, they are having an equally enjoyable time at home, presiding over public functions and attending gala banquets. It is invariably the back-bencher that gets it in the neck.
The hapless backbencher has never had a good press. He has often been equated with every saleable species. The regrettable tendency of some of this kind to swivel around a rather slick base has drawn comparison to that most shifty of all utensils – the lota. A more apt and less insulting comparison would have been to the sunflower, the blossom that constantly swirls around to be ever facing the rising sun, but that is neither here nor there!
We proudly call our system a parliamentary democracy – and a Westminster type at that. What we do not do is pause to ponder what makes the Westminster type of democracy tick. It does, above all, due to the special role of the back-bencher, the person whom the electorate chooses from amongst his or her peers not only to represent them in parliament but also to safeguard their interests. The backbencher, thus, provides the secure foundation, without which the edifice of democracy would sink like a sand-castle at high tide. The back-bencher should be given his due!
The backbencher can and does act as the eyes and ears of the government. It is he who has his hand on the pulse of the populace who, by right, are the real rulers of the land. In the British House of Commons, the backbenchers represent a most potent force. It is the backbenchers that influence and, at times, change party policies. It is they who decide if and when a leader has outlived his/her utility to the party and its electorate. On weighty issues of national importance it is above all the backbenchers that have the courage of conviction to break party ranks, if and when circumstances so demand.
Now, a discerning look at what we have reduced our backbenchers to. We conveniently ignore the fact that the backbencher is, or at least should be, the very backbone of the parliamentary system of democracy. It is the backbencher who represents the link between the electorate and the government. When a citizen feels aggrieved, it is the local Member of Parliament – the back-bencher – he is supposed to go to for redress.
Our democratic practice does not live up to the true democratic traditions. At the flimsiest of pretexts, the Chief Executive – accompanied by a horde of minions – commandeers a fleet of bulletproof limousines or helicopters, as the case may be, and arrives to take personal charge of the situation. He begins by issuing precipitate orders (“arrest the culprits within 72 hours”) that, he knows fully well, cannot and will not be carried out. This sort of charade should never be enacted in a working democracy. It is the local parliament member – the lowly ‘backbencher’ again – whose constituency it is, who should be in evidence when the situation demands. The aggrieved party craves for the assistance of the local authorities (backed up by the democratic authority of the local MP), rather than the televised spectacle of a national leader (and his motley retinue), who may be worried more about his image on the tube rather than the welfare of the affected persons.
There is imperative need in this country to re-establish the credibility of the back-bencher. Democracy flows from the base to the top rather than the other way around. The nature of relationship between the back-bencher and members of the cabinet would need to be re-defined. The Prime Minister and his cabinet colleagues must endeavor to operate through the MPs rather than by-pass them. Each tier in a working democracy needs to function within its own parameters. The back-bencher deserves to be restored to the pivotal position that is his/her due. The back-bencher, on his/her part, has to prove worthy of the confidence reposed by the electors. Then, and only then, will we be in a postion to boast of having a workable and viable parliamentary democracy.
— The writer is a former ambassador and former assistant secretary general of OIC.
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