Debate, but do not disrupt legislatures

Disturbing working of Parliament and Assemblies without any reason must be condemned by all.

The recent winter session of Parliament saw many interruptions. It is not the first time that Parliament proceedings have been disrupted. The most disturbing aspect has been the unwillingness of the parties concerned to have discussion on any of the issues.

The disruptions seemed to be pre-planned and the object was not to allow certain crucial bills from being passed, which have been pending, as well as to deflect the attention from cases involving some important persons. This is at least what a common citizen like me can understand from this.

Parliament is meant to discuss, debate and legislate on vital national issues. Its members have special privileges as collectively they represent the people of the country and are supposed to be working for its welfare and development. No one can question them for their acts inside the Parliament. It is the House alone, which can take action against its own erring members.

Parliament is the only forum which at one place represents the whole of India. Looking at the current members of the Lok Sabha, we find that the average increase in the assets of re-elected MPs between the two elections (period of five years) was almost three-fold (according to the Association for Democratic Reforms).

According to Anil Bhairwal, national coordinator of ADR, “the easiest way to make quick money in India is by getting elected. Once that happens, the high seat appears to provide easy access to decision makers, thus helping business grow. It is a case of direct conflict of interest.”

And let us also have a look at the number of MPs facing criminal cases in the current Lok Sabha. According to ADR, which analysed the election affidavits filed before the Election Commission, 34 per cent of the new MPs are facing criminal charges. The percentage in 2009 and 2004 stood at 30 and 24 respectively.

While no one should grudge rich from getting elected but we should worry about our MPs multiplying their riches overnight. What is even more disturbing is the increasing number of MPs facing criminal cases. Do such developments give us a clue to the current happenings in Parliament?

The conduct of parliamentarians inside and outside the House and the privileges enjoyed by them has so far been guided by customs, conventions and norms listed in the “Handbook for Members” issued by the Parliament secretariat from time to time. These are in a way Do’s and Don'ts intended to guide members in their parliamentary behaviour. What precisely constitutes an unbecoming or unworthy conduct has not been exhaustively defined.

It is within the powers of the House to determine each case. In cases of misconduct, the House can impose a punishment in the form of admonition, reprimand, withdrawal from the House, suspension from service of the House, imprisonment and expulsion from the House. How can a House take any action against its erring members if their party has the majority in that House, as is the current situation in the Rajya Sabha?

Immune to criticism
There is hardly any parliament/senate or call it by any other name which have not seen disruptions at some time or the other. Occasional disruptions for valid reasons should be acceptable as they send the right message to the ruling party to pay heed to the legitimate and reasonable demands of the opposition. But disruptions without any reasons or for wrong reasons are bad signs for democratic functioning and must be condemned by all.  

Our Parliamentarians seem to be immune to public criticism and are opposed to any statutory regulations for their conduct inside the Parliament. On the contrary, they have been increasing their salaries and allowances very frequently.

It is the judiciary, which has been intervening when the legislature and the executive fail to discharge their functions properly. It is the judiciary, which decided that sanction of prosecution for MPs/ MLAs is not necessary for prosecution under the Prevention of Corruption Act. Similarly, it is  judiciary, which decided that the convicted MPs and MLAs were disqualified to hold these offices.

It is time that our elected representatives realised that they cannot continue to enjoy unfettered freedom to do what they want inside the legislature. They make laws for every one and expect us to follow these laws. They also claim that we have a rule of law in India. Then how come they don’t want to have any rule of law for their own conduct inside the legislatures?

It is time we had a strict law regulating the business of our legislatures with an independent authority to ensure its compliance. I do not expect Parliament to agree to such measures in the near future. We must generate enough public opinion in this regard and force them to, at least, start thinking about it seriously. We also need to start a serious public debate on this issue.

(The writer, a retired IAS offi-cer, is President, Policy Analysis and Action Research Centre, Bengaluru)
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