Thursday, June 13, 2024
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Parliament: A Temple of Democracy or Akhara for Dangal?
Straight Talk

K B Jandial

Parliament’s yet another session was washed as a result of continuous ruckus, frequent adjournments and finally adjourned sine die with almost any work. This is the new normal of the ‘highest temple of Indian democracy.’ While the world is told that Indian democracy is under threat and needs ‘foreign intervention’, the most disturbing part of these developments is that the faith of the people in democratic institutions is shaken.

The ‘hon’ble’ members didn’t allow the Parliament to function because of matters which had nothing to do with public welfare. The issues used for the ruckus were JPC on Adani issue, apology from Rahul Gandhi for his uncharitable and demeaning observations in London on Indian democratic institutions and “foreign intervention”, 2-year sentence to Rahul in criminal defamation case and subsequent disqualification from Lok Sabha. All these matters had been in the public domain and bitterly debated at all public fora, evening national TV debates and on social media to the point of disillusionment. But, still the MPs from all sides ‘contributed their might’ to stall the proceedings daily, sparing no one from heckling- the Presiding officers, PM, Ministers, or any other members.

What did they gain out of it? What public good did it finally accrue? All these matters could be important, but don’t override the larger public good for which these democratic representative institutions. People wait for redressal of their problems which MPs seek through Questions, Zero Hours, Calling Attention Motions, Short Notice debates, budget debates etc. All these opportunities were thrown away for petty politics or political one-upmanship.

Entering in its last year, the 17th Lok Sabha is in for a record, for lowest number of sittings since 1952. So far, the 16th Lok Sabha had the lowest number of 331 sitting. The current Lok Sabha with 230 sittings so far, is unlikely to cross this figure. It has economic fallout as well. The cost of running Lok Sabha is Rs. 2.5 lakhs to Rs 3 lakhs per minute. So, non-functioning of the highest pedestal of democracy; murder or survival of which many parties keep crying horse, has cost the nation to the tune of Rs.150 crore of public money. Was it worth it?

The disruption and adjournments without any parliamentary work for which the MPs are elected, are the new political achievement. In the parliamentary history of India, the first instance of disruption took placewhen President Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan’s address to both the Houses on February 18,1963 was disrupted for not speaking in Hindi. But the next day, MPs cutting across party lines, condemned the President's heckling and regretted their unsavory behavior. There was a positive fallout of this unparliamentary conduct. The Lok Sabha issued a reprimand to the concerned MP. Later, political parties resolved to treat the President’s Address sacrosanct and agreed not to interrupt it.

The Rajya Sabha on 1 September 1997adpted a resolution which inter alia stated, “That the prestige of the Parliament be preserved and enhanced, also by conscious and dignified conformity to the entire regime of Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business of the Houses and directions of the Presiding Officers relating to orderly conduct of business, more especially bymaintaining the inviolability of the Question Hour, refraining from transgressing into the official areas of the House, or from any shouting of slogans,”

The next serious disruption was recorded in 1998 when the Women Reservation Bill was introduced and MPs tore it. This was repeated when the Bill was again introduced in Rajya Sabha in 2010.

Perhaps for the first time, eight members entered the ‘Well’ of Rajya Sabha during Question Hour on 3 March 2008, shouting slogans. The action was dropped after their Party leader expressed regrets. But, since December 5, 2013, Parliament proceedings had been marred continuous disruption due opposition MPs coming into the ‘well’ of the House with banners and slogans in gross violation of the rules of procedure and parliamentary etiquette. This became order of the day during UPA’s time with BJP’s leaders Sushma Swaraj in Lok Sabha and Arun Jaitley in Rajya Sabha redefining the ‘democratic protest’ in the House during 2009-2014.

Sushma Swaraj, then leader of opposition in the Lok Sabha, had announced that “not allowing Parliament to function is also a form of democracy, like any other form”.

In an article in August 2012, Arun Jaitley, then leader of opposition in Rajya Sabha, too argued in favour of disruptions. He wrote: “If parliamentary accountability is subverted and a debate is intended to be used merely to put a lid on parliamentary accountability, it is then a legitimate tactic for the Opposition to expose the government through parliamentary instruments available at its command.” According to Jaitley, disruption should not be described as preventing work from being done, because “what we are doing is very important work itself.”
Now, the Congress and the BJP have changed roles. It was the turn of Jaitley to criticise the ruckus. As Union Finance Minister, he hit out at the Congress and other opposition parties, describing them as being “obstructionist” when he was unable to push through the NDA’s key reforms like the insurance bill in Parliament. Similarly, the coal bill relating to the facilitation of auction of coal blocks also fell by the wayside because of disruption.

Forty percent of 15th Lok Sabha was lost in disruptions, mainly due to the 2G scam. And the session was described as the least productive when Congress led UPA was in power and BJP in opposition. After 2014, the situation was reversed with BJP led NDA becoming the ruling coalition and the decimated Congress as opposition party, but the trend of disruption continued, albeit, assumed even higher proportions today.

One of the most disgusting behaviours was witnessed when Congress MP Pratap Singh Bajwa climbed on the table of the officers in Rajya Sabha to protest three Farm Laws. Tearing papers of the House and throwing these towards the Presiding Officers to blocking their view and keep shouting till adjournment was a daily scene of the second half of the budget session. None of them had regret, including Bajwa, over their behaviour, and quickly quoted Sushma Swaraj & Arun Jaitley to justify their rowdy conduct. But intriguingly, they keep calling it the “murder of democracy” within and outside India.

Congress which is spearheading these disruptions, is, in fact, oblivion to the “pain” Pt Jawaharlal Nehru suffered at the heckling of President Radhakrishnan. He had said that such disgusting incidents needed “to be met effectively or else the functioning of Parliament and State Assemblies would become difficult.” It is not that in the past the Parliament did not witness harsh remarks, even from the great parliamentarians but there was a difference. Parliamentarians like Atal Behari Vajpayee, L K Advani, Somnath Chatterjee or even Indira Gandhi would next day make suitable amends and express regrets for the language they had used in the House. In that period of parliamentary history, there would be umpteen instances to show members’ faith in discipline, decorum, and dignity of the Parliament which represent the will of the people and constitute the fora of democracy. Its principal tasks relate to legislation and scrutiny of the executive.

The Congress leaders who do not get tired of talking of its glorious history, are advised to read and emulate what Pt. Nehru had said on such irresponsible conduct of parliamentarians. At that time, the imprudent MPs had regretted their conduct but today, they take pride in this shameful behavior and justify it. With backing of leadership, they scoff at the idea of apology - then why not, they are the followers of an iconic family whose shining star boasted, “Main Savarkar nehi, main Gandhi huon, Gandhi kisi Se maafi nahi maangta.” Has not he put his great grand nana and Dadi to shame, and sent a loud message to congress cadre. Abusive language within and outside the Parliament & Assemblies has come to stay as an effective political tool to create narratives.
Another factor responsible for this conduct of the leaders in the temples of democracies is that in the sixties, the MPs had come to the House with toiling past some contributions in the freedom struggle and today, most of them have criminal background and hooliganism is their forte.

Dr. B.R. Ambedkar was concerned with the issue of discipline and decorum in the Parliament. When The Constitution was being adopted, Ambedkar had said, "If we wish to maintain democracy... the first thing in my judgment is to hold fast to constitutional methods of achieving our social and economic objectives".

Referring to “unconstitutional methods” to achieve the objectives, he called these as “the grammar of anarchy and the sooner they are abandoned, the better for us". He had cautioned that “going beyond scope of rules, procedures and constitutional methods would make us vulnerable to a harsh judgment by history as the authors of the Grammar of Anarchy". The prophetic words of Dr Ambedkar are proving proverbially correct today.

The Chairman of the Rajya Sabha Jagdeep Dhankhar used very strong words on this daily ruckus. In his address on the conclusion of the session, he said,
“Weaponising of politics by stalling functioning of Parliament is pregnant with serious consequences for our polity. This is to the utter dislike of the people at large. In public mind, we as a class are subject of disdain and ridicule.” But neither his words nor of Ambedkar’s have any desirable impact on their individual or collective conduct in the House. They are slaves to the directions of their party concerned.
The Presiding Officers should also conduct themself in an impartial manner which should appear to be so, and allow some space to the opposition respecting the voice of dissent. What is the harm in allowing Adjournment Motion, an extraordinary move to interrupt the normal business in Lok Sabha to draw the attention to a definite matter of urgent public importance. With a brute majority, Modi Govt had nothing to worry about. Instead, it would take away the punch out of the opposition and hopefully the House could run better.

The rules empower the Presiding Officers to ‘discipline’ the erring Members instead of being the mute spectators to the conversion of the ‘Temple of Democracy’ into ‘Akhara of Dangal.’ Time has come to use the whip and discipline them in the interest of democracy and the people.

Some suggest that the size of the ‘well’ should be reduced to bare minimum. But they forget that we have ‘Hon’ble’ members like Bajwa who would stand on the table of the staff. The time has come to amend business rules, if needed, to take stringent action like suspension for full session and in case of persistent inappropriate behaviour, disqualification. Soft options are not in the larger interest of Indian democracy.

(The author is retired IAS[email protected])

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