Is our Parliament consumed by a death wish?

It was to the credit of the redoubtable Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati to pose the question that has been uppermost in the minds of all Indians who do not want India to go the way of Pakistan or many other countries where a functioning democracy is a distant dream.

“Who will ensure proper functioning of the House?...What kind of a House is this?,” she angrily asked Rajya Sabha chairman Hamid Ansari on December 12 after days of repeated adjournments. Although it was injudicious loss of temper and her anger was misdirected against the chair when in fact misbehaviour by fellow MPs of rival Samajwadi Party was the cause of her distress, the questions posed by her were a significant pointer to the danger of allowing a handful of MPs to hold the entire

House to ransom.

Mayawati’s burst of anger had the desired effect. For the very next day – after she made amends for her nasty remarks by affirming she had the fullest respect for the chair -- the House functioned somewhat smoothly. But not before powers under rules 255/256 were used by the chair to ask SP MPs creating the ruckus over the 117th Constitution Amendment Bill on quotas in promotions for SC/STs in government jobs to withdraw from the House. It is also to the credit of the SP that over the next few days their leaders participated peacefully in the discussion preceding the adoption of the Bill on December 17.

It is not that Mayawati’s own MPs have never been rowdy – in September there was a scuffle between SP and BSP MPs on the tabling of this very SC/ST promotion quota bill. The BJP has been regularly stalling Parliament for one reason or another; the Congress has done it many times when the NDA government was in power; MPs from Telengana cutting across parties have done it as have MPs of the Shiv Sena and other parties, often on the flimsiest of excuses.

It is not that unruly MPs were disciplined in this extreme manner for the very first time. The chair in the Upper House has used rules 255/256 allowing it to evict or suspend disorderly members as many as 11 times since the very first session. In March 2010, seven MPs from four different parties were physically evicted to enable the peaceful passage of the 108th Constitution Amendment related to political reservation for women. And since then what would have been a historic legislation has not been brought to the Lok Sabha as Leader of Opposition Sushma Swaraj categorically stated she would not agree to its passage by using marshals to evict protesting members. That stance certainly suited the 85 per cent male members cutting across parties who, for obvious reasons, dread the bill going through.
Functioning democracy

One has only to look around one’s neighbourhood to realise that a functioning democracy, of which Parliament is the supreme institution, is the most precious asset of any country. Yet, sadly and strangely, parliamentarians themselves are busy writing their own epitaphs; rowdily making themselves irrelevant; inviting the kind of fascist language used against them by the Hazares and Kejriwals who said MPs deserve to be strung up on the nearest lamp-posts. Is it that our Parliament is consumed by a death wish?

India is not alone in witnessing stalling tactics in Parliament. During the Obama presidency filibustering has reached new peaks and British Parliament is also not immune from this disease. Thankfully, here there are limits on how long a member may speak.

While most parties would not like to see presiding officers use their powers to evict MPs even after repeated obstructive behaviour, the time may have come for the chair to use drastic measures. Every surgeon knows sometimes amputation becomes necessary to control a festering gangrene.

 Ironically, when it comes to disciplining their own MPs, party leaders happily use draconian powers: whips are issued; explanations are sought for absence without permission; and MPs are suspended or even disqualified under the anti-defection law. Parliamentarians know failure to please party bosses means no tickets when it is election time again. House chairmen, alas, are loath to use their power to evict misbehaving MPs.  Let us not kill Parliament by the kindness of presiding officers. Let them look over their shoulders: some state assemblies are headed for the ICU.
 While ‘leaders’ mostly hog the limelight during important debates, the question hour, calling attention to matters of urgent public importance and special mentions belong to the backbenchers of every party. Repeated disruptions and adjournments, mostly planned by their party leaders, result in the trampling of their rights and stifling the voices of the people they represent. When no questions are asked of ministers, no answers are given. Is it the government that loses out?

It is not as if chairman Ansari was not aware of the daily misdemeanor of members even before the Mayawati missile was fired at him. The previous day he had expressed his anguish, saying he had ‘helplessly’ watched disruption of the question hour on a daily basis. He suggested, as he had done earlier that question hour be shifted to a later slot to allow MPs to take up matters they see as urgent when the House convenes at 11 am each morning.  He was so upset that he wondered aloud whether question hour should be “dispensed with altogether” since members “do not seem to attach much importance to it”.

Harsh words indeed, but remember, politicians have thick hides.  More than mere words are necessary to stop parliamentary sessions being reduced to a shouting match. Everyone knows, disruption gives offending MPs and their parties free newspaper headlines and television grabs. No need for paid news here.

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