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Bringing down the House
We have not, in fact, been acting up to the tenets and principles on which parliamentary democracies are to be worked and should work. Parliamentary democracy is known to be and shall always be a talking shop, and if this is so, it is intended that even the meanest amongst us may have something positive and beneficial to contribute and it is therefore incumbent upon us to give him a chance to have a say. That is the purpose of Parliament and if there are sometimes some long speeches I do not think that should be something we should complain against. So, my contention is that we have not devoted as much time as we should have in allowing Members to contribute their best to the framing of this Constitution. "
Making this speech on September 17, 1949, PS Deshmukh, member of the Constituent Assembly (CA) from Central Provinces & Berar, was an agitated man. His amendments to the draft Constitution were being criticised. By then, the CA had spent twoand-half years debating and dissecting each word that was to become a part of the Constitution and an impatient media had started highlighting that this deliberation had dragged on for too long and was too expensive an exercise for an infant nation. But Deshmukh couldn't care less. In his speech that day, he told fellow framers not to pay any heed to what the capitalist media was writing and instead be more faithful to the Constitution that he felt could create practical difficulties once it was operationalised. Deshmukh's solution was more debate, better participation from members and extended sittings. He felt that the CA was failing in its duty to sow seeds of Parliamentary democracy by not letting every member speak.
On that very day, drafting committee chairperson BR Ambedkar, piqued with constant needling by a section of the CA, raised his arms and challenged the members to get another drafting committee if the overwhelming view was against a Constitution with parliamentary democracy as its soul. Parliamentary democracy, he said, is the only system where "government is all the time on the anvil, so to say, on its trial, responsible to the people, responsible to the judiciary. " Otherwise, Ambedkar said, the choice was to become a totalitarian state, a dictatorship.
The last 63 years of Indian parliamentary democracy have been a story of Deshmukh's angst and Ambedkar's hope, both competing against each other, and most often hope getting the better of angst. We have witnessed landmark debates well into the night, legislation of far-reaching social and political consequence, biting criticism, scathing sarcasm, healthy repartee, harmless humour and, when the occasion demanded it, burying of differences across ideologies.
But the eight years of UPA have been something of a game-changer in our parliamentary democracy. With two more years of the Manmohan Singh government left, it could very well be the decade of parliamentary paralysis, when disruptions and adjournments became a routine, when opposition BJP MPs spent more time in the well of the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha than in their seats while the treasury benches adopted silence and obfuscation as a new political tool to brazen out mega scams. Also, the power to disrupt is no longer related to a party's strength in either House of Parliament. There have been instances of parties with less than 10 members managing to get Question Hour adjourned on issues some of which are patently local and others purely national and international. Occasionally, issues have been settled through physical brawls: Renuka Chowdhury vs S S Ahluwalia in the 1980s, Amar Singh vs Ahluwalia a few years ago and Naresh Aggarwal vs Avtar Singh Karampuri a few days ago. From 2004 till now, political scientist Zoya Hasan of JNU says, the country has been witnessing a very adversarial form of politics. She would like to ascribe this trend to the "BJP's inability to come to terms with successive defeats in 2004 and 2009. "
Congress' Mani Shankar Aiyar, a nominated member of the Rajya Sabha, known for his erudition and occasional shouting prowess, is unhappy with the way the monsoon session got washed out. In the upper House for the past two years, Aiyar is "terrified" with the speedy decline of parliamentary democracy. Fellow Stephanian and CPM leader Sitaram Yechury, in his second term in the Rajya Sabha, fears that the "constitutional order is in danger. " BJP's Ravi Shankar Prasad, often on his feet in the Rajya Sabha, is dismissive of these fears. "Indian democracy is too stable and mature, " he offers in defense of his party's role in disruption.
Aiyar has seen days of bonhomie, bitterness and back-handed compliments in Parliament, so remains unconvinced with the 'democracy is mature' argument. He loves recalling an incident from Nehru's Prime Ministership. Within days of the Chinese aggression in October, 1962, a delegation of Jan Sangh MPs led by 36-year-old Atal Bihari Vajpayee met Nehru and demanded that Parliament be convened. Vajpayee told Nehru that since the Rajya Sabha is a permanent House, its meeting should be called immediately. Nehru agreed, and sat through the proceedings while Vajpayee viciously attacked him. Aiyar remembers that in 1999, when Sonia Gandhi, then leader of Opposition, demanded a special session of the Rajya Sabha, Vajpayee turned down the request. "Non-Congress parties have devalued Parliament, " he says. Far more indulgent towards Vajpayee than towards the BJP, Aiyar asks why the BJP does not remember and emulate what their tallest leader mocking the Congress in 2002 had said: "Zamana badal gaya hai, hum sadan ke bahar jate the, Congresswale sadan ke andar aa jate hain" (Times have changed. We used to go outside the house, Congress members come inside (the well)). Remind Prasad and he admits that the India of 2012 is not India of the 1960s and Manmohan Singh is no Nehru. Fair enough, but what about Vajpayee's words of 2002? "Disruption as a tool should be resorted to sparingly, " is all Prasad is willing to admit. But in the same breath he repeats his party line that debate without accountability is meaningless. "Debate is insisted upon and accountability is given a go-by. " He cites instances of debates that lead to no action, be it the CWG scam or 2G.
But Hasan is worried about the BJP's disruptions and would like to deconstruct it. "BJP never stages a walkout. They disrupt and get the House adjourned. " What is even more worrisome, she says, is Rajya Sabha leader of opposition Arun Jaitley's justification for disruptions. "He has elevated disruption from a tactic into a doctrine. " A votary of strong institutions and a firm believer in the supremacy of Parliament, Hasan regrets the way the institution is being bypassed in the name of raising the issue of corruption. The Congress has a lot of explaining to do about the nexus between businessmen and politicians, she says. The line between the two is getting blurred as businessmen have become politicians and politicians are businessmen. "Crony capitalism has intensified since economic liberalisation, ' she says. But she would still want Parliament to function.
Aiyar and Hasan think the trend is dangerous and does not augur well for democracy. One-third of the country is under Maoists and the Anna Hazare movement is throwing up a challenge. "Instead of rising to the occasion, the BJP is destroying the institutions of democracy by its farcical behaviour. They believe in Golwalkar's vision, " he says. Hasan thinks non-functioning of Parliament is dangerous as the middle class is already so alienated from politicians and parliament.
Yechury blames both the Congress and BJP, saying both do not want discussion and are together in disruption. He wants 100 days of compulsory sitting of Parliament, and declaration of its schedule in advance so that other institutions like the Election Commission are aware of it. "At times, the Budget has not been discussed because of the election schedule, " he says. Aiyar puts the blame entirely on non-Congress governments for devaluing Parliament, blaming the "wretched Janata government and farce of Charan Singh government. " As for the BJP, he says the party is full of "constitutional illiterates" who tell us to respect the CAG but would belittle Parliament. Calling them descendents of Mussollini, he says they would destroy Parliament just the way the Italian dictator did after his march from Milan to Rome. "This is the spiritual inheritance BJP has got, " he says. He is equally critical of the role of the Speaker and Chairperson. Any member who does not listen needs to be removed. "Instead of them, the leader of the opposition is running the House. "
For Yechury, the malaise runs deeper. Echoing historian Perry Anderson's recent articles in the London Review of Books, he says the transition to parliamentary democracy is not complete in India. The same oligarchs jumped from feudalism to parliamentary democracy. Little wonder, Anderson points out, that the total assets of 543 Lok Sabha MPs is $2 billion, and one-third of Congress MPs have "inherited their seats by family connection" (twice the figure for the BJP), the Lok Sabha "debates the nation's affairs for just a third of the time it used to spend on them" while oligarchic parties have become "family firms competing for market shares of the electorate and so access to public office. " When the foundation is under so much stress, din and disruptions are perhaps a mere manifestation of that rot.
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