“Parliament is not being allowed to function; happenings in Parliament anguished our President, who has tremendous political experience.” These remarks were made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a public rally in Gujarat’s Banaskantha district a few days back, referring to the Congress-led Opposition’s role in the House with regard to the demonetisation of 1000-rupee and 500-rupee notes, causing tremendous hardship to people across the country.
Unending shouting by Opposition MPs has led to both Houses of Parliament unable to function properly. This is almost like what the late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s “shouting brigade” would do in the 1980s when the Bofors gun-related scandal came up for discussion in Parliament. The so-called brigade comprising Congress MPs would not allow anyone to speak against Rajiv Gandhi or Sonia Gandhi.
Painting a rosy picture of the demonetization drive before the Gujarat public as a son of the soil, the Prime Minister tried to convey to the rural people on December 10, “The government has always said we are ready to debate. I am not being allowed to speak in the Lok Sabha, so I am speaking in the Jan Sabha.”
He spoke again on December 11 on the crucial issue but only from outside Parliament. Addressing his party’s “Parivartan Yatra” through his mobile phone from Lucknow, as the IAF helicopter carrying him could not land in Bahraich because of poor visibility, Mr Modi said, “Parliament has not been allowed to function for 20 days. We are ready for a debate (on demonetisation), but we are not being allowed to present our views by those very people who have been discarded by electors.”
He chose another occasion – the Economic Times Asian Business Leaders Conclave-2016 in Kuala Lumpur – to express his views on December 14, this time outside the country, “Presently, cleansing the system of black money and corruption is very high on my agenda.”
Mr Modi has every right to complain to the people that he was not being allowed to express his viewpoint in Parliament by the Opposition parties on the demonetisation issue and hence his efforts to reach out to those who have given him the mandate to run the government. The Opposition is surely not justified in stalling Parliament’s proceedings on any pretext. After all, debate and discussion are one of the basic functions of both Houses of Parliament – the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha – besides doing the legislative business through its 100 committees. The Houses will lose their meaning if they are unable to accomplish their constitutionally defined tasks.
Parliament gets Rs 600 crore every year from the Union Budget for running its three sessions – the budget, monsoon and winter sessions – which, on an average, goes on for around 100 days. This clearly means that the nation loses at least Rs 6 crore if Parliament fails to function even for a day.
But are only the Opposition parties to blame for the current (winter) session going to be over without doing any serious business? Their explanation is that it is the Prime Minister whose style of functioning has affected Parliament’s functioning severely. He has preferred to keep himself away from both Houses of Parliament perhaps with a view to avoiding making a statement on the most talked-about demonetisation issue in these Houses. He has been making his observations from outside Parliament which reflects poorly on his readiness to face the people’s representatives in the people’s Houses.
In fact, few leaders, particularly prime ministers, have chosen to express their viewpoints on any major issue from outside Parliament when Parliament is in session. Disruptions of Parliament’s proceedings cannot be accepted as an excuse as there is nothing new in the use of such tactics by the Opposition to take on the government. The Congress and other opposition parties have behaved in the winter session of Parliament the way the BJP and the other parties in the NDA did when the Congress-led UPA was running the government before the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. But BJP leaders would then argue that stalling Parliament’s proceedings was a way of making one’s views known to the public and was, therefore, not objectionable.
In 2010, the BJP’s senior leader but now lying low, Mr LK Advani, then spearheading his party’s demand for a joint parliamentary committee’s (JPC) enquiry into the 2G scam, observed, “Sometimes, business not proceeding also yields results.”
Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, then Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, went a step ahead and expressed the view that “parliamentary obstructionism is a legitimate tactic”.
To highlight his stand, Mr Jaitley wrote a newspaper article in August 2012 arguing thus, “If parliamentary accountability is subverted and a debate is intended to be used merely to put a lid on parliamentary accountability, it is then a legitimate tactic for the Opposition to expose the government through parliamentary instruments available at its command.” Disruption, he asserted, should not be described as preventing work from being done. His stand then was, “What we are doing is very important work itself” even if it was disrupting the functioning of Parliament.
External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, who was then Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, took the stand that “not allowing Parliament to function is also a form of democracy, like any other form”.
The Congress, on the contrary, would say like the BJP today that it was ready for a debate on any issue on the floor of the House, but Parliament’s proceedings must be allowed to go on uninterrupted. This proves that indulging in tactics aimed at disruption of Parliament has become a way of carrying on the business of democracy in India.
Obviously, this is not a healthy development, yet it will have to be accepted as a painful reality.
The Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, which came out with an exhaustive study of “Disruptions in Indian Parliament” in July 2016, observed that parliamentary proceedings had largely come to be seen as unproductive in view of uncontrollable disruptions by various members of Parliament. “While the expression of dissent within the confines of parliamentary etiquette is a legitimate form of protest, the manner in which it currently manifests itself in Parliament is far from acceptable. The natural consequence of such behaviour is two-fold – first, taxpayers’ money gets wasted over a non-functioning Parliament; second, the legislative paralysis stultifies the overall governance in the country.”
Kaushiki Sanyal of the Bharti Institute of Public Policy, Indian School of Business, in an exhaustive study raised the question, “What can be a possible solution?” Her meaningful suggestion was, “The government may be forced to engage with the Opposition more if there is a rule for Parliament to sit for a minimum number of days in a year. Also, if a certain number of days are reserved during a session when the Opposition members can set the agenda of the session. This practice is followed in the United Kingdom where 20 days in a session are reserved for the Opposition to set the agenda.”
Is the political class listening?
(The writer is a former Deputy Editor of The Tribune, Chandigarh.)(Published on 19th December 2016, Volume XXVIII, Issue 51)#