Politics of obstructionism

Politics of obstructionism

Congress tried to resort to its tactics of disruption just to log itself out of the morass of its electoral insignificance.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi exhorted the Congress to take a New Year resolution to allow Parliament to function for the sake of development and not to drag it down for “political reasons”. He said Congress has more responsibility to ensure functioning of Parliament as they had “enjoyed power” for over six decades. There was a holier-than-thou attitude in Modi’s characteristic flourish, if one sees it in the light of Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley’s justification of the bedlam in Parliament during UPA II. 

“If parliamentary accountability is subverted and a debate is intended to be used merely to put a lid on parliamentary accountability”, Jaitley said, “it is then a legitimate tactic for the Opposition to expose the government through parliamentary instruments available at its command”. Jaitley who is very vocal about the obstructionism spearheaded by the Congress in this season, should know that his logic can come wrapped in ideological trappings and can thus be justified in one pretext or the other.  

With the winter session of the Parliament fizzling out with many hours lost in endless inanities, one cannot help feeling that the Congress tried to resort to its tactics of disruption just to log itself out of the morass of its electoral insignificance. What is mandated as a forum to enable and regulate governance through dialogue, argument, consensus and legislation was lost in agitpropism.

There must be some consideration left for the prices that the nation has to pay – in desperate need for agricultural and economic reforms, not to speak of the financial burden – for such endless and ineffectual bickering among our learned members of Parliament.

As Modi admits to the longer space occupied by the Congress, some bit of churning is necessary. India has witnessed the emergence of an opposition that is vocal and large from the 1970s and particularly in the 1990s. Several new institutions have arisen during the period whose primary rationale is the enforcement of accountability, effective representation, visibility of those in the margins, and institutional stability.

It bears recall that Nehru, maligned by the new dispensation, sometimes acted as his own opposition to cultivate and foster one, although parliamentarians of great calibre such as Hriday Nath Kunzru, Acharya Kripalani, A K Gopalan, H V Kamath, Ram Manohar Lohia, and Minoo Masani, were ranged against him. The general tendency in the first few years was to hold the opposition in high esteem, a tendency which was overturned by Indira Gandhi who tried to vilify and bulldoze the opposition.

Till the 1990s, Indian public institutions at the Union level fought shy of mentioning caste in public discourses though it was regularly invoked and practised. But many issues that became central to the Lok Sabha in the 1990s were closely related to the concerns of the ba-ckward castes and some of the most important constitutional amendments were directly or indirectly related to them.

The game changer was the advocacy of Hindutva spearheaded by the BJP, first as an opposition and later as a ruling dispensation that came to redefine the Lok Sabha in the 1990s. It further brought to the fore the issue of religious minorities.

Misuse of zero-hour
In the following years, we got accustomed to the misuse of the zero-hour, pointless motions of privilege and walkouts on the slightest provocation. Journalist-author-politician Arun Shourie noted that when a party is in the opposition, it feels compelled to oppose everything that whosoever is in government is doing, even when that is not just a further development of, but a literal and faithful continuation of what it was doing when it was in office.

While concerns such as development policies, welfare, culture and social justice have been the thorniest points, there have been moments of convergence as regards national security, and law and order. The hurried passage of the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Bill, 2014 is also an instance of rare solidarity but it was driven less by consideration of justice than by capitulation to popular sentiments.

What is remarkable is that from 1989 till 2009, there have been seven coalition governments, three of which – from 1991 to 1996, from 1999 to 2004, and 2004 to 2009 – completed their full terms – and the entire tenure saw the presence of a strong opposition. Despite that, some of the far-reaching and deeply contested policies such as implementation of the Mandal Commission Report, structural adjustment programmes, signing of the Farakka Agreement, and the Pokhran II and the nuclear deal with the US were carried out during this period.

Now, if we wonder why we see a re-run of the endless game of filibustering and a role-reversal every time there is a change of government at the centre, the 15th Lok Sabha, with UPA II at the helm, and the NDA at the opposition is a good instance. As enumerated by observers, compared to 297 bills during the 13th Lok Sabha, when the BJP-led NDA was in power and Congress in opposition, the UPA II could pass only 179 out of its planned 328 bills.

Pieces of legislation such as Women’s Reservation Bill, Direct Taxes Code, Bankruptcy Code, Micro Finance Bill, Judicial Standards and Accountability Bill and the Bill enabling the introduction of Goods and Services Tax were waylaid with gay abandon. The BJP acted atrociously while in opposition, a role replicated now by the Congress.

The Parliamentary Affairs Ministry’s proposal to double the salary and allowances of MPs to a lumpsum of Rs 2.8 lakh per month must be justified by the quantum and quality of legislative corpus put in by them.

Even if we leave aside cost benefit analysis of Parliament such as number of hours lost, duration of the sittings and adjournments and ‘value for money’ as merely simplistic, there is something very seriously amiss with Parliament’s functioning, particularly in the Lok Sabha.

Both the parties should tarry and ponder while conducting their parliamentary responsibilities what is more important in their scheme of things – settling scores, narrow partisanship or national interest?