Sunday, December 11, 2011

Stalling Parliament negates democracy

By Swapan Dasgupta

Michael Heseltine was a renowned British politician who, many say, should have been the leader of the Conservative Party after Margaret Thatcher was unceremoniously dumped. There are many reasons why Heseltine never made it to the top job — he was seen as too liberal, too flamboyant and too individualistic — but one thing that was always held against him was his moment of excitable indiscretion in 1976.
Provoked by a group of socialist louts singing the ‘Red Flag’ in the House of Commons, Heseltine picked up the ceremonial mace and twirled it menacingly. No harm was done and Heseltine was duly reprimanded by the Speaker (he may even have been suspended for a few days). However, this incident, for which he was instantly dubbed ‘Tarzan’ by the media, continued to haunt Heseltine for the rest of his days in active politics. His momentary lapse into indecorous behaviour became a permanent blot on his character.
It would have been so refreshing if the Indian political class and the electorate applied the same exacting standards of parliamentary conduct on our MPs. Far from it. Once upon a time, the disruption of Parliament by the likes of Raj Narain (who was often bodily lifted out of the Rajya Sabha by marshals) was a novelty and viewed as an individual deviation. During the first 10 days of the winter session, both Houses of Parliament did not function. For reasons as varied as price rise, Telangana and FDI in retail, groups of MPs that included both the Opposition and members of the ruling coalition felt that disruption was the best way to register protest. Even after normal functioning resumed last week, Question Hour was disrupted by BJP MPs for flimsy reasons: The demands for the resignation of Home Minister P Chidambaram and External Affairs Minister SM Krishna.
Of late, there has been a sense of public revulsion against the frequent disruption of Parliament but this does not appear to have made too much of an impact. Instead of using Zero Hour effectively, there are some members of the Opposition who have got it into their heads that disruption is always preferable to arguments. Since it takes barely 15 MPs to throw a House into confusion, this extra-parliamentary approach is used with increasing frequency inside Parliament, with the same devastation. In the final years of Rajiv Gandhi’s five-year stint in Government, Parliament witnessed the creation of a “shouting brigade” of Congress MPs who used lung power against a tiny Opposition. In hindsight, Rajiv set an unfortunate precedent. Today, the same shouting brigade has entered the bloodstream of the Opposition and has contributed immeasurably in lowering Parliament to the level of a fish market.
What is important to note is that the debasement of Parliament hasn’t happened because a few MPs have no respect for institutions. It has occurred because those with a full awareness of their actions have encouraged the disruptionists. In other words, it is not ignorance or cultural inadequacy that has led to the assault on parliamentary functioning, but deep cynicism. Rajiv Gandhi knew the consequences of unleashing his shouting brigade; and LK Advani was aware that the reason for disrupting the first substantive session of the UPA Government in 2004 wasn’t any substantive grievance but astrological advice — some Babaji had apparently forecast that the UPA would be tottering before Diwali 2004.
Today, it is the same story of wilful culpability. Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley, the two Leaders of Opposition in Parliament, have distinguished themselves in parliamentary debates. They have the ability to take on arguments with arguments, eloquence, sarcasm and wit. Yet, they have been mute spectators to their less accomplished colleagues running riot. Unless we see evidence of Swaraj and Jaitley actively opposing this mindless culture of disruption, it will be presumed they are co-conspirators in this game.
Of course, the blame should not be directed solely at the Opposition. The Government, whose parliamentary majority rests on maverick and demanding allies, is always anxious to prevent any discussion that involves voting. As the BJD member Jai Panda has written on various occasions, negating all voting resolutions is tantamount to short-changing the electorate. Parliament, apart from being a talking shop, is primarily all about the numbers game. If a formal division is limited to law-making, it leaves out of its purview the entire process of governance. Had the Government agreed to a voting resolution on FDI in retail, there would have been no logic to the disruption of Parliament. Instead, we had the bizarre situation of the Government taking a major initiative, its coalition partners and the Opposition opposing it bitterly and it finally doing a U-turn, without the matter reaching Parliament at all.
The Government cannot pretend that lowering the public esteem of Parliament has been a one-sided contribution of a cussed Opposition. The Opposition has much to answer for but let us not forget that the atmosphere in which Parliament has lost its sheen has been the contribution of the Government. How will parliamentary institutions be strengthened if the Prime Minister, the UPA chairperson and the heir-designate are uncomfortable participating in the proceedings of Parliament? The symbols of electoral democracy, it would seem, have been reduced to tickets for generous housing in Lutyens’ Delhi. We have created a privileged class that has a sense of entitlement but little accountability.

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