‘Stress and disorder are increasing in Parliament’

May 30, 2018 12:00 am | Updated 03:31 am IST

The Deputy Chairperson of the Rajya Sabha on why backchannel communication between the government and the Opposition is urgently needed

NEW DELHI, 18/04/2018: Congress Leader P.J. Kurien during an interview with The Hindu at his residence in New Delhi on April 18, 2018.  
Photo: R.V. Moorthy

NEW DELHI, 18/04/2018: Congress Leader P.J. Kurien during an interview with The Hindu at his residence in New Delhi on April 18, 2018. Photo: R.V. Moorthy

P.J. Kurien retires as Deputy Chairperson of the Rajya Sabha at the end of June. He looks back on his term and discusses the month-long washout of the Budget session of Parliament, the lack of dialogue between the government and the Opposition, the significance of the Rajya Sabha, and the urgent need for a change in rules in the way Parliament functions. Excerpts from an interview:

The date for filing nomination in Kerala for three Rajya Sabha seats is June 11. Will we see you back in the Upper House?

Whether I will be back in Rajya Sabha or not is up to the Congress. Whatever decision they take I will gladly accept it.

Both the government and the Opposition are equally poised for the election of Deputy Chairman. Do you believe that the government should concede the post to the Opposition?

Deputy Chairman is a neutral position. The Deputy Chairman has to provide equal opportunity to both sides. Even though there is political polarisation between the government and the Opposition, it is not necessary that there be a political fight. I was elected unanimously in 2012; there were political differences between the UPA (United Progressive Alliance) and the NDA (National Democratic Alliance) at that time too. The Vice-President’s election is different; he is Vice-President of the country. But the Deputy Chairman is only handling day-to-day working of the Rajya Sabha. I hope that the government and the Opposition can arrive at a consensus through talks.

In your farewell speech, you had said that in previous years the ultimate way of protesting was a walkout, and that the trend now is to walk into the well of the House. How damaging is this for democracy?

Yes, no doubt walking into the well and shouting slogans is detrimental to the functioning of democracy. Parliament is not for shouting or misbehaving; it is for debate, discussions and taking decisions. Now the ministers have it easy because in the din, no one asks them uncomfortable questions or holds them accountable. Unfortunately, in the last [Budget session], there was no debate, no discussion, and no decisions were taken. What happened was nothing but an undermining of democracy.

Who would you blame for it?

I don’t want to apportion blame. I would say we are all responsible. It is a collective failure of the government, the Opposition and all of us. The Opposition had certain demands and grievances which they claim were not attended to by the government. The government says that there were important pieces of legislation of national interest, which they were not able to transact because of disruption by the Opposition. The Chair’s appeal fell on deaf ears. This is the real position. Everyone should share the blame and come together to find a solution so that a washout does not repeat itself.

Do you agree that in this session in particular there was no channel of communication between the government and the Opposition?

A democratic government functions on the basis of dialogue between the government and the Opposition. The Opposition is an inevitable part of democracy. An attempt to eliminate or throttle the Opposition will hurt the country. There should be backchannel communication between the government and the Opposition. They should get to know each other and should agree to disagree. On some issues, the Opposition may disagree. Even then they would allow the government to function and Bills to be transacted. That was my experience as a parliamentarian in my earlier tenures. It was only possible because of backchannel communication between the two sides. I don’t know if there was such backchannel talk now. It is mainly the responsibility of the Parliamentary Affairs Minister and the senior leaders to be in touch with the Opposition. Not only that, the government should also try to accommodate, to the maximum extent possible, the Opposition’s views and demands. That too is not happening. When you talk to the Opposition, they say that this government is totally inconsiderate towards the Opposition. The government says that the Opposition is totally against us. This kind of divergent attitude from both sides is responsible for the stalemate.

Congress MP Jairam Ramesh has requested a special session to be convened. What is your view?

It is a good suggestion. People have started losing faith in the system. It is the responsibility of the parliamentarians and of Parliament to retrieve the faith of the people. So, one solution is to have an intermediate session, and in that session discuss the important issues that the Opposition wants to discuss and pass the Bills that the government wants to pass. But the question is, will it happen? What happened in this session? The Opposition wanted a discussion (on bank scams) under a particular rule which allows for voting. The government did not agree. The Chair was left helpless. The stalemate continued for two to three days. The main Opposition party (the Congress) scaled down its demand and said let there be a discussion even if there is no voting. At that point I thought everything will be smooth and a discussion will start. But unfortunately, by then protests from Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu parties started. There were at least 20 to 25 members in the well, so a discussion could not take place.

Do you think there is an urgent need for reforms in the rules of functioning so that the protests do not bring Parliament to a halt?

I am of the view that the rules should be amended. For example, if some members come into the well, at present to evict them all, a motion has to be passed in the House. It can’t be the unilateral decision of the Chair. But unfortunately, that motion will not be carried. Even to put the motion to vote there needs to be order in the House. If the rule can be amended — that without the motion, the Chairman can suspend them for a few days or the remaining session — then the House can function.

You were a Lok Sabha MP for six consecutive terms. What is your view on the 13 failed attempts by the Opposition to move a no-confidence motion in the House?

I have a view on it but is it proper for me to comment on the action of the Honourable Speaker, Sumitra Mahajan? I don’t want to comment on the proceedings of the Lok Sabha or what the Honourable Speaker has done. But I can only say that if a no-confidence motion notice is given and if 50 members support that, then the rules and normal practice is that the motion is admitted. But what happened in the Lok Sabha and why the Honourable Speaker did that, I don’t know and I can’t comment. It is the judgment of the Honourable Speaker. In her wisdom she took a position which I don’t want to criticise.

Various government ministers have been of the opinion that an indirectly elected House, which the Rajya Sabha is, should not block Bills cleared by the Lok Sabha, which is popularly elected. What is your view?

I do not agree that the Rajya Sabha is inferior to the Lok Sabha. If you read the Constitution, the Rajya Sabha, the Council of States, is mentioned first. The Constitution does not say that India is a ‘Peoples’ Republic’. It says India is a Union of States. So the federal structure of the Constitution is very clear. And the Rajya Sabha is the Council of States. Therefore, the Rajya Sabha has equal importance, if not more, than the Lok Sabha. The Rajya Sabha was envisaged to be a check and balance. Elected people of the Lok Sabha influenced by interests of their own constituencies may do something that could be detrimental to the nation. Who can see the national interest better? The one who is detached.

The Opposition claims that the government has been bypassing the Rajya Sabha using the Money Bill route for important pieces of legislation and thereby undermining its authority. Do you agree with the allegation?

The allegation today is that some Bills that, as per the definition, are not Money Bills are treated as Money Bills. The Constitution is very clear. After defining a Money Bill, it says that if there is a dispute on whether a bill is a money Bill or not, then the Honourable Speaker has the final word. I can’t question that. I don’t want to enter into this controversy.

In July last year, while you were in Chair, Bahujan Samaj Party leader Mayawati resigned claiming that she was not given enough time to speak. Could you have handled the situation better?

I am very sorry that Mayawati ji resigned. I couldn’t sleep that night. She is a senior leader who has proved her mettle in her own right. I have a lot of respect for her. I can tell you that whenever she got up in the House to speak, I always gave her time, and in fact on many occasions even additional time. On that day, there was a communication gap. She took an extreme step. She must have acted out of compulsion of the situation or constituency.

In the era of social media and the live telecast of parliamentary proceedings, what is the relevance of expunging unparliamentary language and proceedings?

Expunction has no meaning now. The moment it is said, it is telecast and the whole world sees it. It is only for the printed record. We need to find a way to solve the problem. May be there should be a delayed transmission instead of simultaneous telecast. Sometimes, members may utter unparliamentary words or abuse because they too are human; it is only natural to err. I believe such words should not be telecast. I don’t have a proper suggestion now. Those who are interested in the subject should sit down and deliberate on it.

As Deputy Chairman, which part of the tenure did you find more challenging: the UPA’s or the NDA’s?

There were difficult days and situations both times. But now, it has become a little more challenging. The last session was a total washout. Such washouts haven’t happened in the past. Earlier, there will be pandemonium for two to three days but it will function for the remaining days. I feel, year by year the situation is worsening. The stress and strain and this kind of disorder are increasing in Parliament.

Expunction has no meaning now. Those who are interested in the subject should sit down and deliberate on it.

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