The politics of parliamentary paralysis

Disruptions are now very much a part of established parliamentary practice in India. While trying to wish them away is unrealistic, trying to minimise them is in the best interests of democracy and deliberation

August 21, 2015 01:40 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:41 pm IST

"Over the last 25 years or so, disruptions have got a legitimacy which they lacked earlier."

"Over the last 25 years or so, disruptions have got a legitimacy which they lacked earlier."

The >near washout of the monsoon session of Parliament brought back memories of the 2010 winter session. Only, the protagonists have now switched sides. In 2010, it was the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), sitting in the Opposition benches, which >was the main player in disrupting Parliament over the 2G scam. Now, it’s the Congress, with far fewer members in the Lok Sabha but significantly more in the Rajya Sabha, which has managed to stall Parliament. While the government and the Opposition traded charges and the public bemoaned the deadlock, we must not lose sight of one important fact: disruptions are now very much a part of established parliamentary practice in India. Trying to wish disruptions away is unrealistic; trying to minimise them is in the best interests of democracy and deliberation. Both the government and the Opposition have signally failed in the latter.

The first thing to note is that disruptions and disorderly scenes in Parliament are not of recent vintage. As far back as 1952, the Preventive Detention (Amendment) Bill — according to the journalist B.G. Verghese — brought about “an unprecedented hullabaloo”. Again, in the third Lok Sabha, in 1963, when the Official Languages Bill was introduced, there were strong protests by some Opposition members which a newspaper described as the first time that such “disorderly scenes” were witnessed in the House. Two members, including Swami Rameshwaranand of the Jan Sangh, had to be forcibly ejected by the watch and ward staff. That such behaviour was rare at the time was apparent from Nehru’s comment: “I do not know if that gentleman has the least conception of what Parliament is, what democracy is, and how one is supposed to behave or ought to behave.” That year, some members had tried to disrupt the President’s address to the two Houses, considered a sacrosanct feature of Parliament. This too was strongly disapproved of by Nehru, who said, “This Parliament is supposed not only to act correctly but lay down certain principles and conventions of decorous behaviour.”

‘Politics in the raw’ As I had highlighted in an article of mine published in 2012, from the fourth Lok Sabha — the first without Nehru present in the House — walkouts and disruptive behaviour became more common. Former Secretary-General of the Lok Sabha and author of a multi-volume book on Parliament, Subhash C. Kashyap, points out, “The fourth Lok Sabha period may be remembered for the fundamental changes in the idiom, the style and culture of parliamentary politics. Hereafter, it was politics in the raw with much of masks and gloves off.” Such disruptions became frequent since the 1970s, with a veteran journalist noting that “bedlam in both Houses has by now become a daily routine, rather than an exception to the rule.” Even someone as eminent as the Communist MP, Hiren Mukherjee, wrote in a report on the conduct of members during the President’s Address: “If… circumstances happen to be somewhat abnormal in the country, it might conceivably be the duty of Opposition parties in Parliament to focus attention on the people’s discontent even on such an exceptional occasion.”

House composition and debate It is true, however, that the time lost to disruptions has dramatically increased in the last two decades. In the 15th Lok Sabha (2009-14), when the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) was in government, as much as 40 per cent of the total time was lost to disruptions, making it the least productive Lok Sabha ever. Indeed, there has been a secular rise in the time lost due to disruptions in the last five Lok Sabhas.

There are several reasons for this. The first is the change in parliamentary culture. In the first decade of Parliament’s existence, there was a fair degree of homogeneity in the composition of the House, with many of the leading MPs having been schooled in the traditions of British parliamentary practice. This was as true for Nehru as it was for Opposition MPs such as Shyama Prasad Mookerjee and Hiren Mukherjee. Besides, the Congress’s formidable majority in the early years of Parliament meant that the Opposition never really had the numbers to seriously challenge the government. Hence, an Opposition legislator of the time ended a debate in Parliament with the words, “We have the arguments. You have the votes.”

The adherence to British parliamentary norms gradually broke down from the 1970s, which was also the time the Congress lost its dominance. The composition of the House became even more heterogeneous — in terms of both caste and class — completely transforming the tenor and idiom of debates. This process was hastened in the late-1980s, which saw the establishment of coalition politics as well as new political forces, particularly the sharp rise in the number of representatives from the Other Backward Classes, unleashed by the Mandal Commission report. The changed composition and diversity of Parliament had a significant impact on parliamentary culture, which was far more permissive to disruptions and protests inside the House.

Beamed live A second, and more recent, reason that helped fuel disruptive behaviour and theatrics was the live telecast of proceedings inside the House. Though the Railway Budget and Union Budget were telecast live for the first time in 1992, it was from 2006 that the entire proceedings of the Lok Sabha were telecast live by Doordarshan. While the phenomenon of disruptions predate live telecast of proceedings, live images and the explosion of television channels changed the rules of the game. As Devesh Kapur and Pratap Bhanu Mehta point out in an analysis of Parliament: “In part, the overt tumult witnessed in parliament is a rational response by MPs to the incentives created by the media, which gives greater coverage to MPs who engage in this behaviour than those who busy themselves in parliamentary debates… many MPs believe that publicity, even bad publicity, especially if it makes it to the evening news is better than no publicity.”

Over the last 25 years or so, disruptions have got a legitimacy which they lacked earlier. This has meant that both national parties, the Congress and the BJP, along with the regional outfits have been guilty of disruptions at different times. Indeed, Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, who has been vocal in his criticism of the disruptions by the Opposition, himself had in this newspaper defended such behaviour in his capacity as Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha: “Parliamentary obstructionism should be avoided. It is a weapon to be used in the rarest of the rare cases… 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.”

These words have come back to haunt the BJP. Though Mr. Jaitley and others in the government have justified their own disruptive behaviour when in Opposition, in the cause of serious issues like corruption scandals, they have dismissed the Congress’s tactics as petty and personal. But once disruptions >are interpreted as legitimate “parliamentary instruments” , it becomes very awkward to brand someone else’s protests as illegal.

Monsoon session The Speaker has the power, under Rule 374(A) of the general Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business, to eject and suspend members who disrupt proceedings. And the Lok Sabha Speaker, Sumitra Mahajan, >did suspend 25 Congress MPs on August 3 for five sessions. But such disciplinary action, as in the past when MPs have been suspended, often proves counterproductive. In the current instance, it only served to unite the entire Opposition which was prior to that ready to part ways with the Congress on its disruptive agenda.

The Congress leadership saw the controversies around >External Affairs and Overseas Indian Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and the BJP Chief Ministers of >Rajasthan and >Madhya Pradesh as an easy and a highly publicised way to enthuse a moribund party. They figured that protests on the floor of the House were likely to get far more media coverage than hitting the streets. Unlike the earlier parliamentary sessions, where the Congress cooperated on certain items of legislation, in the monsoon session it made the mistake of prolonging its disruptive tactics for far too long. In the process, the >Congress stalled the Goods and Services Tax (GST) Bill , with which it has no fundamental quarrel, drawing a sharp response from industry. The Treasury benches, particularly senior BJP leaders, did not help matters by indulging in personal attacks against the Congress leadership instead of trying to reach out and craft a workable consensus. The entire episode reflected poorly on the floor management skills of the BJP and its Parliamentary Affairs Minister. It also registered the inability of the BJP to recognise that there is an Opposition, however anaemic, which needs to be brought on board; otherwise even a small Opposition, as has happened on earlier occasions, can hold up Parliament.

Finally, a word about Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Despite >his dramatic entrance to Parliament on May 20, 2014, when he touched his forehead on the steps of Parliament House, he has been a reluctant parliamentarian at best. His interventions have been few and rarely spontaneous or unscripted; for the entire monsoon session he was silent inside the House. Mr. Modi’s lack of engagement with Parliament is in contrast to Mr. Atal Bihari Vajpayee who enjoyed the cut and thrust of debate. The absence of leadership, of the sort that a Nehru or Mr. Vajpayee provided, offered fodder to the Opposition and contributed to the parliamentary gridlock.

(Ronojoy Sen is a senior research fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies and South Asian Studies Programme, National University of Singapore.)

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