Multi-party democracy in miniature

Parliament is a good place to observe the country’s politics in a distilled form

November 22, 2019 12:05 am | Updated 01:26 am IST

Opposition members protest in the Lok Sabha on November 19, 2019. Photo: LSTV/PTI

Opposition members protest in the Lok Sabha on November 19, 2019. Photo: LSTV/PTI

Parliament is the temple of democracy, the abode of lawmaking, the scene of debate, the theatre of gladiatorial face-offs, the demonstration of the strength of numbers.

Whichever way you look at it, the House is a very good place to see a distillation of the country’s politics. This ensures that your winning margin as an MP (however historic) cannot secure you a front row seat, but also that an independent MP, otherwise a lonely maverick in Parliament, gets wooed on a crucial voting day with an assiduousness that you didn’t expect from snooty political bosses full of their own sense of consequence.

As a journalist covering Parliament, the conduct rules, the rules under which discussions are initiated, the scheduling of debates, et al, are things that I picked up quickly. But what I learnt more over the last decade and a half is that the legislature represents, in miniature, the functioning of India’s multi-party democracy. And also, the many, many stories that occur outside the House itself, along corridor offices within Parliament.

The first thing to notice is that, just like in the outside world, real estate and its location are an important indicator of status. Parties with big numbers get the coveted ground floor offices; others are banished to the upper recesses, giving pigeons company. A reversal of electoral fortunes can lead to much heartburn, as happened recently with the Telugu Desam Party, which was sent notices to vacate its spacious ground floor rooms for its State rival, the YSR Congress Party.

Friendships across party lines are not uncommon, and some can spill from the personal into the political. This happened with Minister of State Anurag Thakur and Jannayak Janta Party chief Dushyant Chautala, who are neighbours on Delhi’s Janpath; so, when Mr. Chautala was to be wooed to join the minority Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in Haryana, the channels of communication were wide open.

Shift in voting patterns

Sometimes, the first indications of a change in the political narrative are visible in the voting patterns in Parliament or its various sub-committees, like in the Chirag Paswan-led Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) supporting the Opposition rather than its ally, the BJP, on whether to discuss the WhatsApp snooping allegations. Mr. Paswan’s grouse? The neglect that National Democratic Alliance (NDA) allies are feeling under a dominating BJP, a political story that has implications for the coming Jharkhand polls. This also indicates another important point, that majorities are not permanent, nor are entrenched positions.

The previous session of Parliament, where the treasury managed to get a majority in the Rajya Sabha after five years of coming up against a strong Opposition, and got all its important Bills, including that pertaining to the dilution of Article 370, passed, was the clearest demonstration yet that politics is the art of the possible.

The ringing of the quorum bell, used to summon absent MPs when not enough are present in either of the Houses to resume debates, is perhaps the act that sends the loudest message to journalists covering the beat — that democracy is a work in progress, holding elections is just the beginning of the process and the business of interrogating governments is the bedrock of it all.

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