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Change is on cards

By Chandra Bhan Prasad 

Our democratic set-up is heading for a complete revamp.

To decode Anna Hazare's Jan Lokpal Bill vs Government's Lokpal Bill cry and to translate that is a phenomenon in itself. To understand this, one will have to travel the path that Britain underwent in creating their Parliament and democracy.

Approximately in 1200, British barons (feudal Lords) owned agricultural land in Northern France — strange as it may appear. In return for these landholdings, the lords gave the King of England money and manpower so that he could protect their territories in France.

However, when King John of England came to power things changed. Besides being termed as the most controversial king, he also failed to protect the land that the lords owned in France. This angered the barons. Incompetent as he was, King John lost the goodwill of the Pope as well who excommunicated him and suspended all Church services in Britain. God fearing Britons were angry with John.

This meant that now the king needed more money and men for his Army. The feudal lords did not only give the king money and manpower, they were also responsible for collecting taxes from the people. The barons stood up and questioned the king — 'consult us before raising taxes they said'.

In the 13th century there were several classes of people (monarchs apart) barons/bishops, landlords/businessmen and the serfs who were called unfree people. The lords demanded a law where free people would be treated under a common law.

Desperate, King John had to compromise. He conceded the Magna Carta — an important legal documents in the history of democracy to the lords and bishops. The supremacy of the kingdom was compromised. Issued in 1215, the Magna Carta gave birth to the Parliament.

With this, the barons/bishops had to be consulted each time the king wanted to make a law. They would assemble in the House of Lords. England had two power centers — the King and the House of Lords. In 1327, the House of Lords removed King Edward I's son from the throne. King Edward III came to the throne. This was the first triumph for the democracy. The monarch had lost absolute power.

Realising the growing clout of the House of Lords, King Edward III came up with an idea of expanding his own social base. The king knew that the barons/bishops did not represent the masses. They were more like zamindars — the second level rulers. The king called representatives from counties and towns to represent the common man. As the new representatives were elected by the citizens, the House of Commons was born.

By 1332, the commoners shared the same House as the lords themselves. By 1341, commoners assembled separately — institutionalising the House of Commons. England had three centers of power — the king, House of Lords and House of Commons. It was another matter that the two Houses would often be at loggerheads with each other.

To start with, the House of Commons was called for submitting petitions on behalf of the citizens. But as time passed, they wanted more — they wanted to be a part of the law making process. The House of Lords opposed the move. Ironical, because the lords who had fought the monarch were now restricting expansion of democracy and rights of the common man. A long verbal battle ensued. Finally, in 1407, the House of Commons got right to vote. And in 1414, the House of Commons forced King Henry V to concede that the king and the House of Lords could not change the wordings of a Bill drafted by the House of Commons. This was democracy's second triumph.

But the king and the lords were perturbed that many low class people became MPs and were becoming a part of the House of Commons. To deal with the situation, a wealth clause was added in voters' eligibility in 1429. With this clause, only those could vote who had a wealth of at least 40 shillings (worth around £2 today). As a result, only five to ten per cent Britons had the right to vote. (The wealth clause was abolished in 1918).

For women, it would take another 14 years before they were allowed to vote.

In other words, the history of British Parliament and democracy from 1215 to 1932, after the wealth clause was added in 1429, took 489 years to give the right to the underclass to become part of the parliamentary democracy.

Coming back to India, with disproportionate hold over wealth and social institutions, the upper caste has got marginalised from politics and the Parliament. Many people across the country have stopped going to the polling booths. Meanwhile, the politicians' conduct inside the Parliament has only angered the common man and added to his frustration. But there was outlet for that anger.

Anna Hazare has given the upper caste a platform from where he can vent his ire on the politicians and the corrupt system. It is because of this reason that Anna's movement turned into an uprising. People from all walks of life — High School drop outs to professors, to housewives to newspaper editors, news channel reporters and anchors were bound together by a common factor even if it was for two weeks.

Why is there so much hysteria against politics, parliamentarians and the Parliament itself in our country? Does this means that the upper class in India is looking for and wanting to change the way the country is being governed today? Are they heading towards the path that Britain's elite once did? Will we see a change, for the better, in the coming years? Is our democracy heading for a complete revamp?

Only time will tell.

[Courtesy: The Pioneer, September 3, 2011]

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