India may have needed a newer parliament building, but did it really need a bigger one?

There are signs the government wants to expand the number of MPs, but doing so risks dividing the country in dangerous ways

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi holds the Sengol, a Tamil sceptre, along with priests during the inauguration ceremony of the country's new parliament building in New Delhi on Sunday. AFP
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In the grand scheme of things, the contentious inauguration of India’s new parliament building last Sunday will end up being a humble footnote to history. What might transpire inside the building in a little more than three years’ time, or maybe beyond that, could be of far greater consequence to the republic – and therefore it warrants attention, scrutiny, and debate in the intervening period.

Much of the Indian media’s wall-to-wall coverage of the parliament’s opening in New Delhi was deservedly devoted to the building’s design and what it represents, the display of religion at the ceremony, and the furore over the cast of characters involved in and excluded from the pageantry.

Nearly 20 opposition parties boycotted the event after it came to light that President Droupadi Murmu had not been invited, let alone asked to inaugurate what’s popularly referred to as the “temple of democracy”. That honour instead went to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Another point of contention was the project’s cost. Was there such an urgent need to spend $2.8 billion to redevelop the entire administrative capital, which included building a new parliament? It is true that, for years, several government offices have required rewiring, renovation and expansion to better cope with the times – so that is beyond debate. But the new parliament’s greatly increased seating capacity has, for good reason, raised a few eyebrows. And here lies the rub of the issue.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaking during the inauguration ceremony of the new parliament building. Nearly 20 opposition parties boycotted the event after it came to light that President Droupadi Murmu had not been invited. AFP

Even though India’s lower legislative house has 543 MPs, the new chamber has space for 888 members. This, and Mr Modi’s remarks during the inauguration, are the clearest indicators yet that the BJP, whose government sanctioned the redevelopment project, will seek to push through a constitutional amendment to increase the number of MPs to more than 800. That figure would more accurately reflect how much India has grown since 1976, when the current number of MPs was calculated. Back then, the country’s population was about half of what it is today.

On paper this appears to be the right thing to do; the greater the representation in a democracy, the better it is for the people. India undoubtedly has a disproportionately high ratio between electorate size and the number of elected representatives. A 2019 report published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace reveals that in other large democracies such as Japan, Brazil and Indonesia, there are 500,000 people or fewer for every MP. In India, there are 2.5 million people for every MP. As the late president Pranab Mukherjee lamented at the time: “How can we expect the representatives to be in touch with the electors?”

The flipside to the argument is that increasing the number of seats would, in effect, result in an expansion in political power for the so-called “Hindi belt” – the more heavily populated Hindi-speaking regions in northern and central India – and a reduction in influence for those living in the less populous south and east of the country.

According to the Indian news website Scroll, the Hindi belt’s proportion of seats is likely to go up from 42 per cent to 48 per cent, while the southern states will see a reduction from 24 per cent to 20 per cent. This means the Hindi heartland’s influence in Indian politics will only grow stronger in an expanded parliament.

India undoubtedly has a disproportionately high ratio between electorate size and the number of elected representatives

While India’s ethnic, cultural and linguistic diversity is a widely known and celebrated fact around the world, what is less appreciated is how stark those differences are between south and north. They are starker still between the north-east and the rest of the country. And keeping in mind this delicately managed diversity, as well as the need to strike a power balance between various regions, legislators in 1976, in all their wisdom, amended the Constitution to freeze the expansion of the lower house until after the 2001 census.

As the Carnegie report said: "One impetus for the freeze was [the government's] desire to promote family planning policies by ensuring that states that managed to lower their fertility rates [and, hence, limit their population growth] would not be punished."

In 2002, shortly after the census, the freeze was extended for another quarter century, which means the amendment will be up for discussion again after 2026. If Mr Modi’s BJP wins a third consecutive term with a similarly strong mandate in next year’s general election, as is likely according to some polling numbers, it will probably feel emboldened to push for an expansion.

However, this would be akin to punishing the southern states for curbing their population growth more effectively than the Hindi heartland has, not to mention the centrifugal forces such a move could unleash, potentially causing instability – especially at a time when governments running the southern states are battling the union government on a range of issues from budgets to culture wars. The BJP’s presence in southern India is, at best, marginal, the reason for which is clear: the party’s “Hindi, Hindu, Hindutva” ideology finds little purchase there. And any attempt – whether intended or otherwise – to diminish the region’s political influence will only serve to foster resentment among the masses.

Increasing representation is, in theory, a noble idea. But having fewer representatives is not the greatest challenge confronting India’s top legislature today.

As I wrote in a previous column, a 38-year-old anti-defection law has rendered all MPs subservient to their party whips and high commands, giving them little room to vote according to the wishes of their constituents or their own good conscience. With an all-powerful executive in place, parliament sittings have become shorter, with the last eight sessions adjourned ahead of schedule, and fewer bills have been referred to parliamentary committees. And in its fourth year, the lower house still doesn’t have a deputy speaker.

India is a notoriously difficult country to govern from New Delhi. Unless the southern states are offered financial or governance-related incentives to buy into the idea of increasing parliamentary capacity, it might be prudent to, once again, kick the can down the road.

Published: May 30, 2023, 2:05 PM
Updated: June 02, 2023, 6:20 AM