Parliament Street: A Road That Leads Nowhere? – Analysis


By Ashok Malik

In Parliament earlier this week, BJP veteran L.K. Advani lost his temper and expressed his anguish at the repeated disruption of the winter session. At one level, it was a cry from the heart of a long-term and distinguished parliamentarian who remembered a more civilised discourse in Sansad Bhawan. However, there was a certain irony to the lament.

In some senses, the current crisis of Parliament began in 2004, when the BJP old guard, Advani among them, responded to the defeat in the Lok Sabha election churlishly. There was a sense that Manmohan Singh was not a ‘proper’ Prime Minister and was leading an interloper regime. The BJP leadership at the time also seemed to believe the (first) UPA government would fall quickly.

This led to attempts at filibustering, calls to ‘boycott’ individual ministers and frequent walkouts. All of it only allowed the UPA government to continue unhindered with no qualitative opposition around. The consequences of this short-sighted BJP strategy — not limited to the Houses of Parliament — were seen in the result of the 2009 election.

Cooperation between the government and the opposition, now led by another generation in the BJP, was better and more meaningful during the second UPA rule. As the line went, the opposition had its say and the treasury had its way. Yet, as the Manmohan Singh government was engulfed in scandals and controversies, the mood hardened. When the Anna Hazare movement brought crowds to the streets, the opposition in Parliament seemed obliged to mirror, match and complete with the throng. The government was equally obstinate, and this ended up in a race to the bottom.

Session after session was ruined with little work being done. Arun Jaitley, as leader of the opposition in the Rajya Sabha, presented a defence of disruption at a legitimate parliamentary tactic — an assessment that has come back to haunt him as Minister for Finance.

Since small-mindedness is a cross-party attribute in Indian politics, the Congress in opposition has been as cussed. Especially in the Rajya Sabha, where the government is in a minority, the Congress and congenitally volatile parties such as the Trinamool Congress and the Samajwadi Party have combined to make normal functioning impossible. It could be argued, of course, that even without the history of 2004-14, given the political threat that Narendra Modi poses to established political players in New Delhi and to the Nehru-Gandhi family in particular, the Congress would anyway have played spoiler in the House. From May 2014 itself, to have expected any reasonable cooperation from it, was foolhardy.

What is the solution, if there is any at all? Frankly, Parliament does not function (or non-function) and does not disrupt itself in isolation. It reflects a contemporary trend in democracy, not limited to India, where there is no peacetime and all politics is permanent war. In a traditional setting, the heat and dust of an election would lead to the quiet deal-making of parliamentary procedure and the calm of governance for at least two years before the next election cycle kicked in. These days, that luxury is just not available.

We live in an age of politics as event management and drama. Politicians have a fishbowl existence and are under constant scrutiny of media and social media, under pressure to perform, almost as actors, pushed to respond in a particular manner, whether by a journalist thrusting a microphone or an outraged supporter on Twitter demanding an immediate addressing of some new slight, imagined or otherwise.

This is a 24/7 phenomenon in politics today, and Parliament has become just another medium, just another platform for it. Lok Sabha or television studio or WhatsApp: There is no difference any longer. Politicians will perform for their audience.

It is often suggested that the live telecast of parliamentary proceedings, far from informing public debate on policy decision making, has pushed MPs to act or speak in a manner that sends the appropriate message to a mass audience outside, and always keeps the viewer in his or her drawing room in mind. Just as television has negated the gap between a ‘hall meeting’ and a ‘public meeting’ — between a politician addressing 100 lawyers or professors in a room and addressing a crowd of 200,000 in a rambunctious political rally, live telecast has ensured there is no distinction between what a politician says inside the house or outside.

This could have worked to make politicians more honest. Unfortunately it has caused them to be less measured.

Television and live telecast cannot be wished away in a democracy. Indeed, neither are they the only ones to blame. Politicians who disrupt the House and then rush out to the army of cameras, are not forced to vandalise parliamentary decorum and protocol — they are doing it willingly. Having said that, such precedents should have us treading carefully in the direction of televising committee meetings of Parliament.

Committee meetings have become what Parliament itself was meant to be — the location to soberly discuss legislation and policy changes, negotiate positions and arrive at a compromise in the best traditions of democracy. Since Parliament either doesn’t function or since MPs are too busy with grandstanding, this task has devolved on committees. Not that the proceedings of committees are sacrosanct either. While confidentiality is supposed to be maintained by participating MPs, committee members often brief friendly journalists after the meetings, plant news stories, and so on.

If television cameras are allowed into committee meetings, this process will become formalised and participating MPs will say only that which is ‘politically correct’. In the committee room itself, they will begin addressing the equivalent of public meetings. The real business of negotiating legislation will recede further and further into some inner chamber, where select senior leaders of major parties will meet and hammer out details. This will leave committee members to provide a rubber stamp and for Parliament itself to provide a rubber stamp on a rubber stamp.

Meanwhile, on Sansad Marg, the circus can continue.

This article originally appeared in The Pioneer.

Observer Research Foundation

ORF was established on 5 September 1990 as a private, not for profit, ’think tank’ to influence public policy formulation. The Foundation brought together, for the first time, leading Indian economists and policymakers to present An Agenda for Economic Reforms in India. The idea was to help develop a consensus in favour of economic reforms.

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