Dialogue  July-September,  2012, Volume 14 No.1

The Parliament : After 60 years, on push cart, contract and in defiance

Ram Bahadur Rai

There is a legitimate cursiosity, that on 13
th May 2012, on the occasion of the 60th Anniversary of the Parliament, more questions emanated from the floor of Parliament than the answers and solutions. The questions that were raised portended a dark and thick cloud over our Parliamentary democracy. One does not know where the lightening will strike and how? But every one is apprehensive. However people do not seem to agree with the apprehensions and fears of the members of Parliament. In their speeches both the members of the ruling and opposition parties expressed their concern and desire to protect the supremacy of the Parliament. However, those who consider the sovereignty of Parliament as sacrosanct; e.g. intellectuals, journalists and the concerned citizenry, strongly feel that the sovereignty of Parliament has already been mortgaged and compromised. Then why this wail about its sovereignty? Who is responsible for it and what are the imperative steps which can restore the dignity of Parliament?

Our Parliament has completed sixty years. The Sixtieth anniversary of the Parliament and Parliamentary democracy in India is a matter of joy and happiness. One can also feel proud that amidst an unstable and at times chaotic Asian political ocean the Indian democracy remains a firm and stable island. But is it the result of the goodwork and efforts of our political leadership? The answer has to be in a straight forward negative. If democracy has succeeded in India, its credit goes to the fundamental nature and values of the Indian society; which is democratic.

Imagine a scenario that Jawaharlal Nehru, on his forty-ninth death anniversary takes a walk from the Shantivan to the Parliament House and comes to know that the Parliament which met only some days ago had celebrated its sixtieth anniversary. He would feel excited and eager and would have been transported to the year 1964, when he left this world and his beloved Parliament. He strived for fourteen long years in nurturing the Parliamentary democracy. However, visualising the present tragic state of affairs, he would feel heart-broken and sad.

Parliament constitutes the root from which the democracy is nourished and flourishes. Parliament includes the two houses, the President and the executive or the government. The Parliament House itself conjures up a mental image and its mention in the constitution imparts another meaning to it which is connected with "thinking" or "thought" and which forms the very foundation of the Parliament. It is in this thought process that the various images of Parliament manifest themselves in different hues. These images both positive and negative are made by its members. Some may argue that more appropriate word would be "aura" rather than ‘image’. However, the former expression is better purposely avoided. For us the meaning of Parliament generally constitutes of its members; their image and reputation; their behaviour and commitment towards the problems confronting the country; their life-style and how far it approximates with the values of public life. If we evaluate the above mentioned points in respect of the 15th Lok Sabha, can it be compared with first Lok Sabha? Its natural to have different view-points in this regard. One argument can be that the national leaders who constituted the first Lok Sabha cannot be brought back. Change is law of nature. While this is a truism; it is equally pertinent that even if the individuals may come and go; the values established by the first Parliament should be protected and preserved.

A. Suryaprakash, on expert in Parliamentary procedures, has opined that "the biggest achievement of Parliament now is the better and greater representation of different classes, communities and castes, professions and religious groups". And he is right. It is also true that people with better educational qualifications have entered the Parliament. On the other hand, however, the instances of steep decline in behaviour pattern of the members is rather worrying. It underlines the conclusion that these members have strayed from the mores of expected idealism. When there was no written code of conduct for members, following the examples of senior leaders, their behaviour was correct and good. Now the situation is that each House has its own code of conduct. Are these being observed at all. Concerned over the issue the Lok Sabha Speaker. Shivraj Patil had constituted a committee under the former Prime Minster Chandrashekhar to draw a code of conduct. It was duly drawn and more numbers were added to it in each Lok Sabha in direct proportion to the decline in conduct of the members. (A PIL fled in Supreme Court by the former Chief Election Commissioner J.M. Lyngdoh has alleged that 162 MP’s of 15th Lok Sabha were facing various criminal cases including 76 of serious nature.) The Parliament which expelled its member H.G. Mudgul on the issue of not a very serious mistake, was an Interim Parliament. It did not pardon him and ensured that he was expelled before he could resign. The regular Parliament was constituted in 1952.

It is better to know some other facts about the existing 15th Parliament. These are mostly negative. There was a time when even a numerically weak opposition effectively used the question hour to hold the govt. accountable and at times even pushed it to the backfoot. That opposition is now numerically stronger and has even capacity to oust the Manmohan Singh-led govt. However, in people’s perception even such a strong opposition has become a shadow of the ruling coalition. If it is not so then how is it that several Ministers faced with serious allegations continue in their posts? Shyam Nandan Mishra who was a member of Parliament, and even a Minister at the centre, had expressed his concern in this respect longback. He had underlined the fact that the responsibilities of ministership are being discharged half-heartedly, lacking of commitment. It is the duty of Prime Minister to intervene in this regard. The comments of Mishra along with the examples in respect of the investment scam, has to be seen in the context of the attitude of the concerned Minister and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in the matter. However the Prime Minster did not give due importance to the advice of a seasoned Congress leader. However, the downside is that the damaging fallout can any day lead to explosive situation. Ministers have now started using their ministeries in the interest of party politics.

The question hour had been designed to ensure that the government remained answerable to the people. It has been rendered meaningless as most of the questions tend to be pre-planned or motivated. Now the questions are being formulated by others and not the members. During the speakership of Somnath Chatterjee a sting operation brought out the phenomenon of paid questions. The matter was probed, proved and eleven members of Parliament were expelled. Similarly during the first UPA govt. led by Dr. Manmohan Singh, the Lok Sabha witnessed the nadir of its decline. The ruling alliance facing a no-confidence motion was allegedly trying to buy MP’s. Similar incidents had happened in the past also. But during the no-confidence motion in July 2008 the BJP MP’s exposed the attempts to buy them, by displaying the bundles of notes on the floor of Parliament. But the irony is that those who were trying to buy continue in power and those who were targeted are in jail.

The main concern is whether the exhortation on the main entrance of the Parliament is visible in the conduct of our MP’s. The exhortation reads "Let us walk together. Let us talk cordially and our mind reflect on issues peacefully. As our learned predecessors accepted the national rewards coming to their share in mutual understanding and equality as a divine offering, similarly, we should also accept, our share in unanimity and happiness". Is it being practiced? It must be admitted that their conduct is contrary. They have become adherents of power and pelf. It would be perhaps appropriate to distribute the wealth of these members among people as a measure of equity. Members are the instruments of our democracy. However, the sad appraisal is that while democracy has grown stronger in the country, its instruments have rusted.

The first part of the Constitution describes its objective to create a society of equals, where there will be no discrimination among its citizens. The Parliament and similar other institutions have been constituted to achieve these objectives and goals. Are these institutions playing their designated role? In reality it’s the Parliament which represents the sovereignty of people, Progressively the Parliament has subordinated itself to the executive and this can be tested by an example. When the Parliamentary system was being given a shape, then it was felt that it was essential to protect the autonomy of the Parliament, and, therefore, its secretariat was constituted in a manner that it remained independent of the executive. Maheshwar Nath Kaul and S.L. Shakhdhar, with the help of the first speaker G.V. Mavalankar ensured this. However, in recent times this concept has suffered two set-backs. Firstly, the rejects of bureaucracy are heading the parliamentary secretariats. Secondly, those who are being appointed as Secretary General of both the houses have vested interest in their post-retirement tenures than upholding the autonomy of Parliament. One wonders at the mystery of non-implementation of the article of Constitution which provides for an enactment to constitute the Parliamentary secretariat. Its an irony that the Parliament which legislates for the whole country in sixty years of its existence could not enact a law for itself.

Similarly these sixty years of Parliament are also connected with the internal and external health of the Parliamentary democracy. The initial worry was about the one party dominance of Congress Party. Now the anxiety has shifted to the proliferation of innumerable political parties. The Election Commission has discovered that parties are now being formed to convert the black money in white. To prevent this and to disqualify such parties the Commission has demanded enhancement of its powers. The Parliamentary democracy functions on the basis of party system. The excellence of Parliamentary democracy depends on an organized and well defined party system. It is also function of the Parliament to ensure that the party system functions as per norms, and what steps are needed if it does not? The Parliament has never paid serious attention to this vital issue, except for the occasional concerns and shedding of crocodile tears on decline of standards.

These facts can now be enumerated and are in open domain and are a serious warning for our political system. Without quoting numbers it can be safely asserted that the stastics of debates, discussions and interventions in Parliament is declining progressively. Not far back, in 1963, Dr. Ram Manohar Lohia, compelled Prime Minster Nehru, to withdraw his assertion. The discussion was regarding the Planning Commission whose claim was that the daily income of a poor person in the country was fifteen annas, e.g. less than a rupee. Dr. Lohia challenged these figures and proved that daily income of about 27 crore in the country was three annas, around one fifth of the Planning Commission claim. The govt. revised its estimate to eight annas, and till today the debate is referred to as three anna vs. eight anna. "Its noteworthy that Nehru quietly accepted and the Congress members did not try to shout down Dr. Lohia to ingratiate themselves to Nehru when he alleged that while Nehru spent Rs. 25/- per-day on his dog, the common man earned only 25 paise. Is it possible today? If these kind of debates take place the govt. will have to remain on its toes. It’s a vital issue that today when such debates are needed more the opposition is silent.

The last sixty years of Parliament can be assessed in six parts. However, there are some elements of continuity as also significant differences in these segments. Regular election to Parliament represents continuity. The difference is defined by the decline in the authority of Parliament. From 1952 to 1969 the opposition was numerically weak, but was morally strong. It had courage and had in its ranks highly competent and qualified people and was hence able to make the govt. bend. When the division took place in Congress, the opposition became stronger. The next phase is constituted by the efforts of Mrs. Gandhi to establish the single party rule and in the process she even strangulated democracy. Afterwards, during the Janata Party regime a system was emerging where a two party parliamentary system seemed viable. However, the Janata party itself got derailed and the following political distortion manifested itself in two forms. Firstly, the country forgave Mrs. Gandhi and brought her back to power in 1980; and secondly, a perception emerged that only congress can run the govt. This strengthened and gave credence to the family and dynastic politics. It is the Parliamentary democracy which is paying the price for the emergence of this phenomenon.

This spawned such traditions in the Parliament that the members started indulging in unparliamentary behaviour and actions to gain attention and publicity. It gave birth to the tradition of "shouting brigades" and resort to intimidation and violence towards opponents, disruptions of proceedings of the House by ‘gherao’ of the speaker and Chairman became routine affairs. The Parliament meant for debate and discussion soon became an arena for physical and verbal combats. The earlier impression that these disruptions and consequent adjournment were taking place without the consent of party leaders, has also now been disproved. Lal Krishna Advani’s statement that gains are also made by disruption of the proceedings of Parliament only underscored the consent and concurrence of the leadership in them. This unique chapter in the annals of Parliamentary politics had not been known to Harold Laski, Nehru and Atal Behari Vajpayee. It’s the discovery of Lal Krishna Advani.

For a decade and half now the country is in the phase of coalition politics. Its strange but true that neither the congress nor the BJP have accepted it genuinely. They are waiting for a time when they can get rid of it. Thus the coalition politics has become a necessary evil for the unwilling national parties. It has similarly also become a burden for Parliamentary democracy. It is thus not surprising that the recent celebrations of the sixty years of Parliament underlined this subdued mood. It reflected neither self-introspection nor edification of the occasion on the part of Parliament. Even an analysis and review of Parliamentary democracy was missing. The Parliament only observed a necessary ritual. However what is essential cannot be addressed by mere ritualism. The issue requires serious debate and introspection. First of all it must be seen as to what happened to the pledge taken by the Parliament on the occasion of the 50th Anniversary of Independence and various issues raised within the Parliament and outside it. Were these acted upon. Sixty years is a long journey and its imperative to discuss and formulate anew the necessary steps needed to reinvigorate the Parliament. It will be possible only if a special session is held over the issue to evaluate validity and otherwise of its past decisions.

The evidence of decline of Parliament can be also found in its own records. For example the secretariat of the first Lok Sabha was small but effective. Its expenses were in few lakhs. In 1983, the budget of Lok Sabha Sectt. was Rs. 9 crores and currently it has gone up to Rs. 435 crores. The Rajya Sabha Sectt. costs Rs. 284 crores today. Yet there has been perceptible decline in its efficiency and effectiveness. Questions are being raised about the Speaker. It is not pertinent as to what the Members are saying about themselves but as to what the society through media is articulating about them. Dr. Ved Pratap Vaidik feels that the state of Parliamentary democracy can be normalised by reforming the party and electoral systems. Rajendra Puri feels that unanimity among members over the cartoon controversy in NCERT course books not only underscores their ignorance and incompetence, but a determination to lower their own dignity.

C.K. Jain, former Secretary General Lok Sabha is worried that the degradation of Parliament is being accomplished by its own functionaries. Rules are made, but they are not practiced and are ignored. About eleven years ago during the speakership of Balyogi it was decided that a member who in defiance of the Speaker shouts or disrupts the house, will be automatically deemed to have been suspended. Not a single member has been suspended till today, while incidents of disruptions have mounted. In the circumstances who is responsible for increasing instances of member’s misbehavior and violation of rules?

Amidst this depressing scenario it is a matter of great satisfaction that the acceptability and popularity of the democratic system in the country at large has strengthened. This strength is capable of meeting any challenge to it. One can hope that this popular sentiment for democracy will become strong enough to trump the vested interests, in same way, as it has proved wrong some western scholars who averred that the future of Parliamentary democracy in India was in danger. At the same time the political leadership is responsible for the present deficiencies and doubts. Some of them have advocated direct election of Prime Minster without understanding the difference between a Parliamentary democracy and the Presidential or the Prime Ministerial systems.

Yet there is a danger of a new kind. The parliamentary democracy is not the only alternative, and it is difficult to predict what kind of dispensation the pro-democracy sentiments could fashion in case there is delay in searching new alternatives. We have a written constitution; but the traditions set from the time of the first Prime Minster Nehru, the Parliament has been rendered a rubber stamp. If the Parliament can uphold the letter and spirit of constitution then, perhaps we may not need to have a separate institution of Lokpal. This dilemma ‘underlines the fact that even after nearly fifty years we are still discussing the institution of Lokpal. Can we still change course to correct the palpably doubtful tradition in good time? To an extent the future of Parliamentary democracy will be decided by finding a correct answer to this dilemma.

                                                                                                                                                                                                               —Translated by J.N. Roy

Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

                                               Astha Bharati