Of democracy and the back-bencher! | By Khalid Saleem


Of democracy and the back-bencher!

WITH the sheen of the last general election wearing off, the country appears to be in an utter state of limbo.

One of the subjects oft mentioned about the present assembly is the question of quorum – or the lack of it!

There was many a comment on the sparse presence of the law makers in session after session.

One notes to one’s horror that the new pattern is here to stay! What with the COVID-19 pandemic and related woes, things have understandably got worse, with nary a sign of improvement in the near future!

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 faced quorum issues, even prior to the Corona Virus pandemic.

In fact, in these Assemblies the only time there is reasonably high attendance is when there is a vote or a division on a burning issue!

What is of relevance in this land is just the fact that, more often than not, only the poor backbenchers eventually shoulder the blame.

The ministers and other quasi-leaders, as always, manage to wriggle out of the affair, leaving only the backbenchers to face the music.

Quasi-VIPs in the assemblies continue to have 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 hapless backbencher who gets it in the neck. It would be legitimate to ask why?

Looking over the shoulder, one cannot help noticing that the backbencher has never had a good press.

He has, in deed, 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 comparison would perhaps have been to the sunflower, the blossom that constantly swirls around to be ever facing the rising sun.

That would have been more appropriate and less insulting. 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 backbencher, the person whom the electorate elects 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 sandcastle at high tide.

The backbencher, in addition, can 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 politics.

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, let us take a discerning look at what we have reduced our backbenchers to. In our parliament, the backbencher is never afforded either the stature or respect that he or she deserves.

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 he is supposed to go to for redress.

When a calamity befalls (whether man-made or God-sent) it is the bounden duty of the MP to come to the aid of the constituency.

It is a sorry state of affairs that our democratic system does not live up to the tradition. 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.

In this uncertain situation, he begins 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 democracy. It is the local MP – the lowly backbencher – whose constituency it is who should be in evidence when something goes wrong.

What the aggrieved party is in need of is the assistance of the local authorities (backed up by the democratic authority of the concerned Member of Parliament) rather than the televised spectacle of a national leader (and his motley retinue), who is worried more about his own image on the tube rather than the welfare of the affected persons.

There is imperative need to re-establish the credibility of the backbencher. Democracy flows from the base to the top rather than the other way around.

The relationship between the backbencher and members of the cabinet would need to be re-defined.

The Prime Minister and his cabinet colleagues must endeavour to operate through the MPs rather than by-pass them.

Each tier in a working democracy needs to function within its own parameters. The backbencher deserves to be restored to the pivotal position that is his/her due.

The backbencher, on his/her part, has to prove worthy of the confidence reposed by the electors.

Then, and only then, will we be able 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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