The one-man show

The Prime Minister is mostly absent in Parliament. When present, he is scornful of the system.

May 22, 2015 02:04 am | Updated May 23, 2015 02:16 am IST

On his first day, first show at Parliament House on May 20, 2014, Prime Minister-in-waiting Narendra Modi was a picture of humility. He was seemingly overwhelmed by the moment and by the enormity of it all, even choking on his words, standing in the imposing 87-year-old structure awaiting the formal coronation by his party.

He knelt on the stairs of Parliament House to touch his forehead to the ground in a show of respect to the “temple of democracy” and later acknowledged the work done by previous governments for India’s development. There was little sign of his default option — the stump speech.

That carefully calibrated appearance at the Bharatiya Janata Party Parliamentary Party meeting in the Central Hall of Parliament House had a short use-by date. Seventeen days later, on June 6, while introducing his Ministers to the Lok Sabha, Prime Minister Modi encountered his first brush with some heckling from the fragmented Opposition when it became evident that Minister of State for Power Piyush Goyal was not present.

Visibly irritated at being interrupted as he raced through the introductions — almost turning a parliamentary convention into a roll-call — he cast an impatient glance at the Opposition and said in his gruff style in Hindi, “OK, will introduce him later”. There was none of the tentativeness of a rookie, not just at the premier’s job but also as a Member of Parliament.

He is, after all, the first of 15 Prime Ministers, including interim premier Gulzari Lal Nanda, to get the top job without any parliamentary experience. By a curious coincidence, he also entered the Gujarat Assembly for the first time as Chief Minister without any legislative background.

Charges piling up According to Shaktisinh Gohil, former Leader of the Opposition in the Gujarat Assembly, Mr. Modi is trying to replicate the much-talked-about Gujarat model in Parliament. “He once got 12 laws passed in 17 minutes in 2009 after getting the Opposition suspended from the House. Under him, the Assembly would be convened once every six months just to meet the constitutional requirement.”

The Congress insists that Mr. Modi “never addressed the legislature — not even during the motion of thanks to the Governor's address — nor responded to questions pertaining to ministries under his watch.” Further, a third of the starred questions asked by the Opposition would never even reach the Assembly, where it had become a norm to suspend Opposition members every Session. And the Gujarat Assembly never met for more than 23 days in a year through his years as Chief Minister.

The Opposition began to cry foul when it became evident that the Prime Minister had made more addresses in parliaments abroad than at home in his first five months in office.

With a bicameral legislature, multiparty Opposition and national media scrutiny, no replication of the “Gujarat model of parliamentary democracy” has been attempted in Parliament till now but charges of “disregard for parliamentary procedures” are piling up. Standing committees are being given a go-by in the name of the ‘speed’ mantra of the Modi government, new bills are sprung upon the House through supplementary business circulated at the eleventh hour, efforts were made to amend certain laws by “smuggling” them into the Finance Bill to bypass the Rajya Sabha — where the government is in a minority — and, now, the two Houses are being pitted against each other to reduce the significance of the Council of States because it is “indirectly” elected. “Mr. Modi entered Parliament with the theatrical gesture of calling it a temple but that is only if it is monotheistic. There can’t be more than one god and this is reflected in Finance Minister Arun Jaitley — who does a ventriloquist’s job — questioning the indirectly elected Rajya Sabha’s right to scrutinise Bills cleared by the Lok Sabha,” says Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, author of Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times.

 Mr. Modi himself rarely puts in an appearance — unless absolutely unavoidable — and even missed the crucial vote on the Constitution Amendment to introduce the Goods and Services Tax regime. He made amends the following day when the Constitution Amendment for the land swap agreement with Bangladesh was put to vote and, in a rare show of bipartisanship, even thanked the Opposition for its passage.

Few interventions

Let alone the Opposition, he seldom engages with his own party legislators — or ministers — when he does attend the Lok Sabha. Few BJP members dare to approach him, even though he is the Leader of the House. His interventions have been few and far between, and he does not brook counter-questions. After ceaselessly calling his predecessor ‘Maun (silent) Mohan Singh’, Mr. Modi’s silence in Parliament speaks volumes. Even the mandatory statement presented in both Houses after an overseas visit is left to External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj.

The Opposition held its fire for the first couple of sessions but began to cry foul from the Winter Session of 2014 when it became evident that the Prime Minister had made more addresses in parliaments abroad than at home in his first five months in office. Till then, the only time he had addressed both Houses was in the mandatory reply to the Motion of Thanks to the President’s Address.      

He was conciliatory then but when it was time to repeat the annual exercise this year, Mr. Modi went back to his default option — scornfully announcing in the Lok Sabha that he would keep the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Act alive as a “monument to the failure” of successive Congress governments and accusing the Communists of following an “imported idea” in the Rajya Sabha. In the process, he invited upon himself and his government the first embarrassment in the Upper House, with a united Opposition forcing an amendment in the Motion of Thanks, something that has happened only three times since Independence.

Sitaram Yechury (CPI-M), who pressed for the amendment, said he would have withdrawn it had Mr. Modi heard him out. “But it seems they [treasury benches] want a fight. So let there be a fight.” For close watchers of Mr. Modi’s political journey like Mr. Gohil and Mr. Mukhopadhyay, his evident lack of interest in Parliament — except as theatre for the occasional grandstanding — is no surprise. “It reflects his inability to work with systems and structures. He is most comfortable with a unitary system — one people, one faith, one institution, one House (read unicameral legislature) — where there is only one-way traffic; a monologue, not dialogue. And, certainly, no questions.”


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