Restoring dignity to parliamentary proceedings

Nehru made a point of attending Parliament, when his government was attacked

While accepting from the Rashtrapati the outstanding parliamentarian award for 2006, I publicly pledged never again to participate in the disruption of parliamentary proceedings. Through approximately my first decade in the Lok Sabha (1991-2001, with some interruptions) I had served in a house where debate was the norm and disruption the exception. In the period of Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s premiership (1999-2004), when the Congress was in opposition, dignity, decorum and discussion began giving way to frequent disruption of proceedings. Our then chief whip, Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi, was the guiding light for such unparliamentary behaviour but he was backed to the hilt by opposition MPs. Entering the well of the house, carrying placards into Parliament to catch TV’s eye, and demonstrating at the foot of Mahatma Gandhi’s statue gradually displaced sober debate as the preferred mode of protesting government’s policies, thought and action. This brought no public opprobrium on the Congress as we succeeded in winning the 2004 general elections and becoming the ruling party for all of a decade (2004-2014).

The lesson the BJP, in opposition during that decade, seems to have learned is that demonstration, and not discussion, is the way back to power. During the decade of UPA rule, the BJP outclassed the previous Congress record of expressing dissent through demonstration. Both Somnath Chatterjee, presiding over the lower house, and Hamid Ansari, presiding over the upper house, begged, scolded, and reprimanded parliamentarians for boorish behaviour designed to close down proceedings.

Illustration: Bhaskaran Illustration: Bhaskaran

With both halves of the house eschewing debate in favour of disruption, India, that is Bharat, has rapidly descended to the nadir now reached. Is there a way out? I commend the suggestion proposed by Chakshu Roy of PRS Legislative Research in a newspaper: instead of the day’s agenda being set by the government for the entire week, bar the two-and-a-half hours set aside on Friday afternoons for private members‘ business, specific days of the sitting be reserved for opposition business. I would add that the house then sit for at least 180 days in the year to give both sides adequate space and opportunity to voice their concerns. That might, just might, render Parliament less dysfunctional.

Notwithstanding such a systemic response to the current establishment view of treating “disruptions as a disciplinary problem” that has led to the suspension of virtually all opposition MPs, it seems to me that the fundamental problem remains of few MPs being given adequate time to express their views whereas demonstrations give all concerned MPs the opportunity to participate in the proceedings on an equal footing. Also, while a good speech requires careful preparation, disruption requires no preparation at all! How does one tackle that psychological issue? Only by restoring dignity to parliamentary proceedings.

In the earliest Lok Sabhas and Rajya Sabhas, coinciding with Jawaharlal Nehru’s premiership, parliamentary proceedings went smoothly, with the press carefully reporting summaries of the main arguments made, so that notorious disrupters like Mani Ram Bagri were decried. This was essentially because Nehru made a point of frequently attending Parliament, particularly when he and his government were under attack.

Indeed, on my first visit to Parliament in 1960, I watched bewitched as Comrade Dange lit into Nehru for dismissing the communist government in Kerala. The house and the prime minister heard him out without any interruption. The current prime minister devalues Parliament by almost never being in the house and then leaning on presiding officers to be particularly harsh on the opposition and restrained on his own MPs. That is the current crux of the problem.

Aiyar is a former Union minister and social commentator.