In Parliament, it’s free for all

Sh. Joginder Singh ji
(Former Director – C.B.I.)

Recently Speaker Somnath Chatterjee, expressing his exasperation at the unruly behaviour of MPs during proceedings in Parliament, said, “You do not deserve one paisa of public money. I think Parliament should be adjourned sine die, and public money should not be spent on useless allowances for you.” What provoked the Speaker on this occasion was the utter chaos and confusion that had besieged the House. The BSP and the BJP MPs were criticising the Government for being anti-Dalit. The PMK and the MDMK were demanding amendments to the External Affairs Minister’s statement on the crisis in Sri Lankan, and New Delhi’s direct intervention to stop the war there, while the TDP wanted to discuss the Satyam issue.

After the House had been turned into a Tower of Babel, with MPs storming the well and shouting on top of their voices, the Speaker finally threw in the towel. He adjourned the House, but not before making his anguish clear by saying that he hoped that the electorate would give the rowdy MPs a fitting verdict in the coming elections.

But only a day after the Speaker had scolded the Members of Parliament, he withdrew his remarks by saying that he had made those comments out of frustration. He even said, “I want all of you who were standing here to come back if people support you. I am at ease because I am not contesting. I know you are aggrieved, but I have my good wishes for everyone.”

The sad truth is — as an MP once jokingly mentioned to me — that unruly behaviour is what gets the attention of both the media and Government, as it spices up what are otherwise drab parliamentary proceedings.

On August 24, 2006, in a lecture on ‘Judiciary and Legislature under the Constitution’, Mr Chatterjee had said, “All of us in Parliament need to be concerned about it (disorderly behaviour by representatives of the people) and endeavour to restore true democratic culture into the functioning of these (legislative) institutions. Intolerance and denial of rights of others are antithetical to democracy. Once people lose faith in the system, no force, no Army, can help save the system.”

On April 30, 2008 describing the Zero Hour in the Lok Sabha as the ‘torture hour’, Mr Chatterjee had accused Samajwadi Party members of turning the House into a wrestling ring. “You are not serving the people by shouting. Look at your behaviour. You are threatening. I am not going to accept this. You should know how to behave in the House. Kuchh padhte nahin, kuchh sunte nahin (you don’t read or listen),” he said.

Again while inaugurating the 73rd Conference of the Presiding Officers of Legislative Bodies, Mr Chatterjee suggested doing away with the Zero Hour in Parliament since, “It has turned out to be the most unruly period of House proceedings. The legislature has come in for public criticism because of the conduct of the members inside the House, leading to frequent disruptions and the result, inability of the House to transact business, wastage of time and public money. The Lok Sabha made history when it expelled 10 of its members in the cash-for-query scam in 2005. It was an attempt by the Lok Sabha to cleanse itself. We need to urgently address the issue of decline of personal integrity and probity in public life, and reinforce public faith in our democratic institutions.”

The Budget session of Parliament every year, more than other sessions, is great for creating a ruckus and being heard in the portals of power. Thus, it was no surprise that this year too we witnessed scenes of unruly behaviour sweeping across legislatures all over the country, beginning with Delhi and Uttar Pradesh, followed by Orissa and Andhra Pradesh. There is hardly a State Assembly where somebody has not expressed his or her point of view doing something unparliamentary to drive home his or her point. In one Assembly even the microphones were used as missiles against political opponents. This forced the authorities to invest in fixed or small mikes.

The excuse for such behaviour can be anything. The biggest advantage that politicians across party lines see in indulging in such raucous behaviour is that it does not require them to do their homework or argue their points logically in the House. It has been computed that it costs the public exchequer Rs 1.23 crore to run a day’s session of Parliament.

Winston Churchill once said that parliamentary debates are life-enhancing literature. Unfortunately this does not apply to our country. In 2007, the Rajya Sabha passed 32 per cent of the Bills (excluding the financial Bills) with little or no discussion. The percentage of Bills passed with almost no discussion in the Rajya Sabha increased from 26 per cent in 2005 to 32 per cent in 2007. During the same period, the number of Bills on which substantial debate (more than two hours) took place reduced from 29 per cent in 2005 to 24 per cent in 2007. Out of 485 non-Minister Lok Sabha MPs, 107 spoke on some legislative issue in 2007. Of these 89 MPs spoke three limes or less, 12 MPs spoke about four to seven times, and six MPs spoke eight times or more. Our Lok Sabha on December 23, 2008, passed a total of eight Bills without a debate in 17 minutes!

Vice-President Hamid Ansari, addressing the 14th All-India Whips’ Conference, said, “The single most important issue of concern today is the decreasing credibility of our legislatures as effective institutions capable of delivering public good and contributing to effective formulation of laws and public policies. The instrumentalities at the disposal of the legislatures has either been blunted or become dysfunctional.”

Ruling a nation is serious business. But it appears that for our politicians any pretext is good to stall parliamentary or Assembly proceedings. In such a scenario there can be no vigilance or oversight of Government work, and consequently, the accountability of our Governing institutions gets ruined.

Our elected leaders must be mindful of what they are doing and why. Technically the people of India are responsible for improving the political lot by electing responsible leaders. But in reality beyond a point there is nothing that one can do to persuade our leaders to be heedful of public interest. The only solution is that the political parties arrive at a consensus that they will not disrupt the workings of the House. Our representatives should remember that a good sermon is the best example. And they should remember not to mistake or confuse sloganeering with solutions.

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