India would not have had a Constitution had the Constituent Assembly behaved like this Parliament

In the last two years, Members of Parliament have assembled each day with the sole intention of disrupting or paralysing the Upper or Lower Houses. On live television, citizens have watched with disgust and nausea, the behaviour of our MPs. In 2012 and 2013, the Budget and monsoon sessions did very little legislative business and the final winter session this year is likely to go the same way.

Of the three pillars of a republican democracy, Parliament is perhaps the most important. Within its hallowed halls, laws are supposed to be made after thoughtful consideration and deep deliberation. Parliamentary democracy represents the pinnacle of a civilised society. The members are voted into power to rule and govern the country every five years. Controversial topics like FDI in Retail or the SC/ST quota bill are resolved not by shouting down others but by intellectual debate that fleshes out the core issues and separates the wheat from the chaff. One has to randomly read parts of the Constituent Assembly Debates to understand the extent of scholarship of Sir Alladi Krishnaswami Aiyar, Dr. Ambedkar, Pandit Nehru and so many others.

Perfect oxymoron

The Supreme Court has often refused to interfere with legislation out of deference to the “wisdom of the legislature.” Today, this expression is the perfect example of an oxymoron. Who can forget the memorable speeches of Burke, Gladstone, Churchill and F.E. Smith (later Lord Birkenhead) in the House of Commons? Our Parliament has produced equally powerful speakers — Atal Behari Vajpayee was perhaps the last of these greats. Indeed, the tragedy today is that nobody is allowed to speak even five sentences without an interruption. It is pathetic to see the Speaker repeatedly requesting the members to sit down, maintain calm and let the House function. It would have been impossible to draft our Constitution if the Constituent Assembly had conducted its proceedings like our present Parliament.

Rules 349, 350, 351, 352, 354, 357, 371, 373, 374, 374A and 375 in Chapter XXVII of the Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business in the Lok Sabha have set out in detail how members are to conduct themselves and the powers of the Speaker to suspend members. A useful summary of these rules can be found on the Lok Sabha website (http://164.100.47.132/LssNew/abstract/parliamentary_decorum__and_etiqu.htm), and the opening paragraph reads:

“In order to maintain the highest tradition of parliamentary system and proper functioning of parliamentary democracy, it is very essential for the Members of Parliament to observe a certain standard of conduct; both inside the House as well as outside it. Their behaviour should be such as to enhance the dignity of Parliament and its members in general.”

Para 5 of the summary enjoins a member not to interrupt another, to maintain silence, to resume his seat when the Speaker calls out “order”. A member is prohibited from coming to the pit of the House as a measure of protest. The rules even go further: no member should speak unless he is called upon by the Speaker to speak and, unbelievably: two members should not keep standing in the House at the same time!

Unused powers

The Speaker has adequate power to maintain the dignity of the House. Sadly, these powers have not been used for several years and the televised parliamentary proceedings exhibit neither dignity nor decorum. Under Rule 374, any member whose conduct is disorderly can be directed to withdraw immediately from the House and absent himself for the remainder of the day’s sitting. Under Rule 374A, in the event of a grave disorder occasioned by a member coming into the well of a House, persistently and wilfully obstructing a business by shouting slogans or otherwise, such a member shall, on being named by the Speaker, stand automatically suspended for five consecutive sittings or remainder of the session, whichever is less (This rule was inserted on 5.12.2001.). And, under Rule 375, in the case of a grave disorder arising in the House, the Speaker may adjourn the House or suspend any sitting member for a time to be named by him or her.

Vital function

These wide powers must be exercised by the Speaker. It is vitally important for the nation that Parliament functions as our Constitution envisaged it to. The paralysis of Parliament leads to a vacuum and the void will inevitably and unfortunately be filled up by the executive and the judiciary. It is tragic that our MPs do not realise that they are slowly making themselves irrelevant.

Sixty years ago, the great Justice Vivian Bose observed that when power is conferred upon a person, it is coupled with a duty to exercise it when the circumstances so demand. “It is a duty which cannot be shirked or shelved nor can it be evaded”, he said. (See Commissioner of Police v Gordhandas Bhanji AIR 1952 SC 16). Thus, when the Speaker has the power to suspend members when they come into the well or create disorder, he or she is duty bound to exercise that power in the larger interest of the nation. Our Parliament’s future is now endangered by the conduct of its own members. What is needed is bold and decisive action by the Speaker.

(The writer is a senior advocate of the Madras High Court.)

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