From roaring lion to timid mouse

It is a brave Congressperson who will stand up and speak for freedom of expression. When that rare person happens to be a Lok Sabha MP as well as the party's spokesperson, his action deserves taking notice.

Manish Tewari recently moved a Private Member's Bill in the Lok Sabha seeking amendment in the Tenth Schedule (anti-defection law) of the Constitution. Reason: The law, while intending to stop the evil of defection, worked in practice against individual freedom and creative thinking. As he argued in an article, party whips compelled MPs to toe the line, resulting in a member “invariably voting for a bill if you are on the treasury benches and against a bill if you are in the opposition..”

Mr. Tewari's version of the law will free legislators from the whip-imposed fear of losing their membership in all cases except where the life of the government is seen to be threatened by a no-confidence motion, a money Bill or some crucial financial matters. It is a daring proposal. Yet fortunately for Mr. Tewari, it has some powerful backers, including the erudite Hamid Ansari. In a November 2009 public address, the Vice-President made a strong case for restricting the use of the whip in order to allow greater “room for political and policy expression in Parliament.” The cue was picked up a month later at a workshop organised by PRS Legislative Research where participants argued that the anti-defection law prevented MPs from critically examining government proposals.

There is an underlying irony in this. Indian Parliament in many ways mirrors Indian public life: Infuriatingly chaotic at one level and rigidly rule-bound at another. Parliament, as it exists today, is too tolerant of indiscipline and too intolerant of genuine dissent. A typical MP will be a roaring lion during zero and question hours and a timid mouse when bound by a whip.

Disruption has become so much a habit with our MPs that the only point of interest today is the form they will adopt on the floor of the House. The 2009 winter session witnessed an innovation that left Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar metaphorically and literally speechless. The Opposition Bharatiya Janata Party abandoned walkouts and such for a low chant that apparently did not quite qualify as “disruption”, yet fairly drowned out Home Minister P. Chidambaram's reply to the debate on the Liberhan Commission report.

In itself a noisy, lively Parliament is not a bad thing; it could possibly be justified as the inevitable outcome of a democracy that is today more inclusive and more representative than any time previously. However, when indiscipline extends to all aspects of Parliament, it is time to worry. The 2009 winter session saw the sacrosanct question hour collapse because of the absence of as many as 28 questioners. Nearly half of all Bills piloted went through without even a semblance of discussion.

After every session, there is the unavoidable stock-taking: of hours lost to mayhem, of Bills passed in haste, of business left unfinished; of business interrupted because of a lack of quorum and so forth. At Speaker Kumar's initiative, the Rules Committee of the Lok Sabha has now made it mandatory for Ministers to give oral replies to questions even should the questioners be physically absent. The reform was perhaps necessary, and yet look at the leeway it allows truant legislators: MPs who have questions to ask can now legitimately bunk question hour. Question hour is held sacred not for mechanistically supplying answers to questions but because it affords an opportunity to members to cross examine the government and hold it to account.

In the United Kingdom, for instance, the Prime Minister takes questions every Wednesday. This practice was introduced in 1961 and has since become a responsibility no head of government can escape. The MPs relish grilling the Prime Minister, though with characteristic English restraint, and for the media and the general public it is an event they eagerly look forward to.

Just where Indian parliamentary priorities stand can be seen from the following. The first budget session of the 13th Lok Sabha spent 30 hours and 45 minutes on the general budget, 23 hours on questions and 63 hours on disruptions. The first budget session of the 14th Lok Sabha spent 19 hours 21 minutes on the general budget, 5 hours 49 minutes on questions and 47 hours on disruptions. By comparison the first budget session of the 15th Lok Sabha would seem impressive: 50 hours on the budget, 20 hours on questions and 23 hours and 45 minutes on interruptions. Yet by winter, the House had returned so vigorously to form that a distressed Ms Kumar had to call a closure earlier than scheduled.

A recent analysis by PRS Legislative Research encapsulates the decline of Parliament. As against 151 sittings in 1956, the Lok Sabha met 46 days and 64 days respectively in 2008 and 2009. Time spent on discussing the budget has reduced from 123 hours in the 1950s to an average of 34 hours in the past decade. (Standing Committees constituted to lower the budget burden are plagued by poor attendance). Last year witnessed a total of 1,100 starred questions (questions orally answered by Ministers). Of these only 266 (24 per cent) were called, and of the 266 questions called, the inquiring MP was not present for 57. Of a total of 30 non-financial Bills passed in 2009, eight were passed in less than five minutes.

Indian disrespect to Parliament cuts across parties and extends all the way up — from greenhorn legislators to parliamentary veterans to House leaders who, while making a show of being alarmed at the deteriorating quality of Parliamentary participation, will do little to enforce discipline. Parliamentarian par excellence Atal Bihari Vajpayee has time and again bemoaned Parliament's fall from grace. He commemorated India's 50th year of Independence by calling Parliament a “fish market.” He wished he could withdraw his membership from it. Yet the party he led to two consecutive victories behaved abominably in defeat. Today the only thing the 2004 July-August Budget session is remembered for is the BJP's unceasing bad manners.

During the budget session of the 15th Lok Sabha, Chairperson of the Congress Parliamentary Party Sonia Gandhi pulled up partypersons for taking Parliament lightly, and reminded them that the institution symbolised the will of the people. Her own record is hardly exemplary. In the 14th Lok Sabha: 36 per cent overall attendance, participation in only three debates and zero utilisation of question hour. In the 15th Lok Sabha so far: 61 per cent overall attendance, zero participation in debates, and zero utilisation of question hour.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is an attentive and conscientious parliamentarian — but only when he is in India which is increasingly not the case. The Prime Minister made three foreign trips over 13 days during the 21-day 2009 winter session. Prime Ministerial travels are a necessary part of diplomacy; and indeed India's current international profile owes much to Dr. Singh's energetic overseas engagements. However, the Prime Minister unwittingly sets an example when he takes leave of absence from Parliament. In 2007, Speaker Somanth Chatterjee issued a diktat against MPs travelling abroad during session. He also wrote to Prime Minister Singh asking that no Minister travel abroad without the chair's express permission. The United Progressive Alliance government ignored the entreaties only to be confronted by the spectre of ministerial absence during a vital moment in the first Budget session of its second term: A Bill emanating from the Commerce Ministry had to go back because Ministers Anand Sharma and Jyotiraditya Scindia were both travelling.

It does not require much to change all this. A signal from the top is often enough. During the recent Lok Sabha debate on the Right to Education Bill, a sudden buzz had it that Ms Gandhi would take the floor in a gesture of support to the historic legislation. Congress MPs dutifully scurried to the House only to learn that they had overeagerly responded to a rumour. Within minutes the House emptied out! No show by the leader and no show by the herd.

Successive Speakers have sought to take control only to give up in the end. The lasting image of Speaker Chatterjee is of a man in deep distress, his throat raspy from shouting, his drooped shoulders a testimony to a disorder beyond repair. A “no work, no pay” solution proposed by Mr. Chatterjee predictably found no takers, except for those on the Left. Presiding Officers have pushed for reform at numerous redressal conferences and meetings — again to no avail.

Should Manish Tewari succeed, Indian Parliamentarians will be spared the repeated torture of changing from roaring lion, when not in a voting capacity, to timid mouse, when called upon to vote. Ideally, they ought to be neither. They need to be less shrill and more disciplined outside of their voting duties, and they need to be more vocal when taking a position on policy. This is the way it is in other democracies. This is the way it should be here.

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Printable version | Jan 19, 2022 9:36:23 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/From-roaring-lion-to-timid-mouse/article16817230.ece

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