By B. Raman
The erosion of decorum and gravitas in parliamentary proceedings is a phenomenon often seen in Parliaments of democracies with a multi-party parliamentary system, with no party strong enough to enforce its political will on the conduct of the parliamentary proceedings.
One saw it in the pre-de Gaulle French Parliament and one continues to see it often in the parliaments of democracies such as Italy, Japan, South Korea and some South American countries.
De Gaulle did manage to improve the functioning of the French Parliament by having a new Constitution introduced. Despite this, the experience on the whole has been that the erosion cannot be prevented or reversed through rules and regulations alone or through flippant measures such as denying salary to Members of Parliament disrupting parliamentary proceedings. The only way of dealing with this erosion is through the practice of a robust system of parliamentary ethics, the initiative for which has to come from the ruling party.
This phenomenon is generally not seen in democracies with a two-party system or with a restricted number of political parties where parliamentary strengths are evenly matched. Two examples are the UK and India before 1970. The predominant presence of the Congress in the Indian Parliament and the parliamentary etiquette of the post-Independence leaders such as Jawaharlal Nehru ensured the prevalence of decorum and gravitas even in the most contentious of situations. The self-confidence arising from predominance in numbers ensured a certain dignity and self-restraint in the conduct of the MsP of the ruling party, which was reciprocated by the members of the opposition.
The erosion in the decorum and gravitas consequent on the emergence of a multiplicity of political parties initially started in the State legislatures in the 1960s and has subsequently spread to the Parliament, causing frequent spells of paralysis in the functioning of the Parliament, to which the ruling and opposition parties have contributed in varying measures.
6. The initiative for reversing the erosion through better parliamentary etiquette and conduct has to come from the ruling party, but unfortunately there has been a leadership vacuum in the Congress due to the lack of political stature in the party as well as the Government. Neither Mrs. Sonia Gandhi, the leader of the party, nor Dr. Manmohan Singh, the leader of the Government lacking parity of status with the party leader, has been able to give an ethical lead inside the two Houses.
The lack of self-confidence of the two leaders arising from their lack of stature has added to their feelings of political insecurity leading to an undesirable abrasive style of politics poisoning the conduct and proceedings inside the two Houses.
The political ineptitude of the two leaders was seen in the manner in which they tried to push through the decision on the question of FDI in the retail sector. The parliamentary proceedings have been paralysed by the determination of the ruling party to push through the decision by hook or by crook and the equal determination of the opposition to frustrate the machinations of the ruling party.
While the merits of allowing FDI in the retail sector have been adequately discussed, there has not been enough focus on how the Government, which had slept over the issue for many months, has tried to push through the decision in such a peremptory manner in unedifying haste.
Some retired senior officials with whom I had discussed this in Delhi last week attributed the haste displayed by the Congress to its urgent need for funds for the UP elections next year. They alleged that some corporate houses, which would be the main beneficiaries of the FDI decision, were expected to be the main contributors to the coffers of the Congress for the UP elections.
According to them, the determination of other political parties to prevent the Congress from financially benefiting from the decision before the UP elections accounted for their obduracy in preventing the normal functioning of the two Houses.
Even if the Congress had legitimate economic and policy reasons for pushing through the decision, it could have averted the prevailing paralysis either by postponing the decision till the session was over or by seeking to build an all-party consensus on the issue or by accepting the demand of the opposition for an adjournment motion with voting, subject to the proviso that either there will be voice voting or any adverse voting will be deemed to be only a disapproval of the policy initiative and not a lack of confidence in the Government.
Instead of discussing the various legitimate options with the opposition, the Government adopted a stone-walling tactics which has led a further erosion of decorum and gravitas. This situation could not have been averted through any number of rules and regulations to govern the functioning of the Parliament.
This could have been averted only by a self-confident and enlightened political leadership in the Congress taking the initiative for searching for a way out in consultation with all political parties in a manner that would have preserved decorum and gravitas in the two Houses.
By failing to do so, the Congress has contributed to a further erosion of the dignity and stature of the Parliament. While the opposition parties cannot escape their share of the blame for the prevailing state of affairs, one has to admit that the initial provocation came from the Congress.
If media reports that the Government has decided to suspend the FDI decision are correct, the present crisis may end, but another crisis will occur in future unless and until there is an ethical introspection by all parties and the Congress leadership takes the initiative for restoring the decorum and gravitas and the ethical dimensions of the parliamentary proceedings. It is in this direction that the public should exercise pressure on the political class.