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Parliament held hostage

September 01, 2012

“IN our time, the audience of a member of parliament is the nation. The three or four hundred persons who may be present while a speech is delivered may be pleased or disgusted by the voice and action of an orator, but in the reports which are read the next day by hundreds of thousands, the difference between the noblest and meanest of figures, between the richest and shrillest tones, between the most graceful and the most uncouth gesture vanishes.”

Since Macaulay wrote these words in 1834, the size and the interest of the audience have grown beyond the wildest dreams of anyone of his times. So have the importance and impact of the reports which are read the next day by the hundreds of thousands. Parliamentary proceedings are now telecast live and reach millions of homes, with commentaries in all major regional languages.

To prevent debate forcibly in parliament is to deny the entire nation the benefit of listening to rival viewpoints without which it is impossible to form any informed opinion. It is much more than an attack on parliament. It is an assault on democracy.

This is what Indian parliament has been subjected to since it was reconvened, by its main opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). It has refused to let parliament function unless its major demand was met; namely the resignation of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Nothing can ever justify such conduct.

India has large deposits of coal; much of it untapped. In order to increase power production, the government decided in 2004 to award 142 coal blocks to government and private power companies.

The comptroller and auditor-general’s (Vinod Rai) report found that the process lacked transparency and the lack of competitive bidding resulted in loss to the nation and gain to the companies. Rai has been criticised earlier for exceeding his jurisdiction. His public pronouncements do not conceal ambition. Reports of CAGs are not for bedtime reading. They are complex in substance and turgid in style. In fairness to him and to his target, the government, the report must be debated thoroughly for the people to appreciate the pros and cons.

On Aug 27, after days of obstruction, the prime minister tried to read in both houses of parliament a detailed 32-point statement in reply to the report. Prevented by the pandemonium created by the opposition he tabled the statement saying that he took full responsibility for the decisions since he held the portfolio between 2005 and 2009.

The BJP immediately held a press conference to rebut him. Two cabinet ministers promptly held their press conference to refute the charges and cited similar allocations made by the BJP regime between May 1998 and May 2004, when it lost the elections. Fundamentally, the BJP, and especially its prime ministerial aspirant L.K. Advani, have still not reconciled themselves to that unexpected defeat. Demand for cancellation of the allocations became secondary. The main demand was for the prime minister’s resignation. The country is due to go to the polls only in 2014.

The BJP wrote off an entire winter session of parliament in 2010 to enforce its demand for a joint parliamentary committee on the scam in the allotment of spectrum in the 2G band. A joint parliamentary committee was set up. The minister concerned, A. Raja of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, a member of the coalition, resigned, was prosecuted and spent time in prison. The BJP had tasted blood.

The bare essential facts are mentioned to explain the background to the impasse. The immediate political crisis will get over. It is the fundamentals of parliamentary democracy that matter; especially attitudes to its institutions. Way back on Dec 19, 1995 the BJP leader Atal Behari Vajpayee said: “We don’t want a debate for debate’s sake.” Parliament was held to ransom over the telecom scandal in the scandalous regime of P.V. Narasimha Rao. The minister concerned was later welcomed into the BJP with open arms.

The language used now is identical. The BJP’s spokesperson argued, on Aug 25, “debates and discussions for the records or for their pedagogic value cannot be devoid of course correction. … This time we expect action first”. The educative value of parliamentary debates is belittled. Parliament is to be used to secure ‘action’ as desired by the opposition, quite regardless of the rights of MPs belonging to other parties in opposition, apart from the MPs of the ruling party. The two left parties, the Communist Party of India and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) resent tactics used by the BJP though their opposition to the government is total.

The voters who elected the parties on the basis of their electoral pledges, are denied their right to hear the debates. Parliament, the Grand Inquest of the Nation, is effectively silenced. There is nothing to prevent a political party from taking the issues to the people in public meetings and processions. They render public service when, together with infor-med criticism in parliament, they publish documented pamphlets to educate public opinion.

What is impermissible is abuse of the parliamentary forum forcibly to secure ‘action’ as dictated by a political party. This is amounts to subversion of parliament and negation of the democratic process.

The distinguished authority on constitutional law Sir Ivor Jennings strongly criticised such behaviour in his classic Parliament. He wrote: “The function of parliament is not to govern but to criticise. Its criticism, too, is directed not so much towards a fundamental modification of the government’s policy as towards the education of public opinion … the government governs and the opposition criticises. Failure to understand this simple principle is one of the causes of the failure of so many of the progeny of mother of parliaments and of the supersession of parliamentary government by dictatorships.”

Refusal to accept the electorate’s verdict is the main cause of collapse of democratic institutions. Assault on parliament is a symptom of that ailment.

The writer is an author and lawyer based in Mumbai.