When disruptions trump deliberations

When disruptions trump deliberations

President's quote

The sights and sounds witnessed on the floor of the House of the 15th Lok Sabha during its recently concluded winter session were such as to make the heart of any believer in parliamentary democracy bleed. Parliament is no stranger to disruptions, pandemonium and occasionally, even chaos, but even by its steadily declining standards, the use of pepper spray by a member on his peers to disrupt proceedings marked an all-time low, and left us all hanging our heads in shame at the ridiculous antics of our elected representatives. That the ‘Honourable’ member concerned went to the extent of justifying his act in the ‘temple of democracy’ seemed ludicrous, if not downright nonsensical.

When India became independent after being subjected to centuries of foreign rule, and we adopted a hitherto untried, and untested system of parliamentary democracy based on universal suffrage, not many would have been optimistic of its survival, at least in the long run. Indeed, Winston Churchill was dismissive of the very stability and survival of India as a free nation. That it has proven the naysayers wrong and survived thus far is remarkable indeed but again, that has much to do with the caliber and integrity of our leaders who represented us in Parliament in the infancy of the Indian Republic. Those were times when use of pepper sprays and brandishing of knifes would have been unthinkable. Those were the days when theatrics did not pass as debate. Not now. Not anymore. Those were the times when giants like Pandit Nehru and Hiren Mukherjee and Syama Prasad Mookerjee, all firm believers of parliamentary democracy and conscious of upholding the great traditions of democracy and the hopes and aspirations of the masses wallowing in poverty, strode the parliamentary scene.  This is best exemplified in this gem of a speech delivered by Jawaharlal Nehru in the Lok Sabha on March 28, 1957: “Surely, there can be no higher responsibility or greater privilege than to be a member of this sovereign body, which is responsible for the fate of the vast number of human beings who live in this country. All of us, if not always, at any rate from time to time, must have felt this high sense of responsibility and destiny, to which we had been called. Whether we were worthy of it or not is another matter. During these five years we have not only functioned on the edge of history but sometimes plunged into the processes of making history.”

Cut to present. Though not wanting to portraying a gloomy, doomsday scenario, one can but not help shudder, wondering at the future of our parliamentary democracy, if incidents of the kind which transpired in our Parliament recently were to recur. Even if one can be dismissive of incidents of the kind referred to earlier as a one-off incident not worth getting too much agitated about , these incidents are really, only symptomatic of a larger and deeper malaise: the virtual non-performance of Parliament.

Chew on these numbers: An analysis of the performance of the 15th Lok Sabha by PRS Legislative Research, shows that the productive time of the Lok Sabha in the past five years stands at 61%. ‘This has been the worst performance of the lower house in more than fifty years’ says the PRS study. In comparison, the 13th and 14th Lok Sabhas worked for 91% and 87%, respectively. Lok Sabha lost 61% of the time scheduled for Question Hour and Rajya Sabha lost 59% during the life of the 15th Lok Sabha. The time spent on discussions and debates has also come down over the years. The last session has seen almost no deliberations, and even the Railway Budget had to be tabled midway through the minister's speech. Of the 116 Bills, other than finance and appropriation Bills, passed by the 15th Lok Sabha, a significant percentage of Bills were passed without adequate debate in the House. In the Lok Sabha, 36% of the total Bills passed were debated for less than thirty minutes. Of these, 20 Bills were passed in less than five minutes. In the Rajya Sabha, 38% of the total Bills passed were debated for more than two hours, and 7 Bills were debated for less than five minutes. The Interim Budget in 2014 was passed without discussion. In 2013, the Finance Bill and Demands for Grants amounting to Rs 16.6 lakh crore were voted and passed without any discussion. In 2011 and 2012, 81% and 92 % of total demands by ministries were voted on together, without any discussion.

Still further, the 15th Lok Sabha passed 179 Bills of the 328 to be considered and passed during its five year tenure. This is the least number of Bills passed by a full five year term Lok Sabha. In comparison, the 13th and 14th Lok Sabhas had passed 297 and 248 Bills, respectively.

Even the Question Hour has not been spared by our parliamentarians, as Lok Sabha lost 61% of the time scheduled for Question Hour and Rajya Sabha , 59%, due to disruptions caused by members running to the well of the House at the drop of a hat instead of indulging in constructive debate. Loss of so much of precious time of the Question Hour invariably means lesser accountability of the Government of the day to Parliament.

It is truly a saddening plight to see the ‘temple of democracy’ as our Parliament is often called, becoming dysfunctional and paralysed most of the time due to continuous disruptions unleashed by one or the other political party at the drop of a hat. Have things reached a point where the Opposition, and increasingly, even elements within the Government (as we saw recently when Ministers disrupted the functioning of Parliament over the Telangana issue) think that they can hold the Government of the say accountable through disruptions than debate and discussion? If that indeed be the case, then our parliamentary democracy risks degenerating to anarchy, a veritable free-for-all, which we can ill-afford. According to official estimates, running the House costs Rs. 25 lakh per hour. One can barely imagine the loss caused to the exchequer as a result of the disruptions caused during the term of the 15th Lok Sabha.

In an article written in August 2012 when Parliament was in the midst of being paralysed by the Opposition, a seasoned political leader and Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, Mr. Arun Jaitley went to the extent of justifying disruptions as a weapon of the last resort: "If parliamentary accountability is subverted and a debate is intended to be used merely to put a lid on parliamentary accountability, it is then a legitimate tactic for the Opposition to expose the government through parliamentary instruments available at its command."

One wonders how a seasoned leader like Mr. Arun Jaitley could refer to walk-outs, boycotts and disruptions as parliamentary instruments to expose the Government, when these are not even recognized in the rule book. For sure, the Government of the day needs to be receptive to criticism of its functioning but to re-iterate a clichéd phrase, the opposition too should play a constructive role, instead of resorting to frequent walk-outs, boycotts and disruptions which paralyze Parliament and inflict wanton financial loss to the Exchequer.

When our parliamentarians are well-paid and well-looked after, it is nothing less than scandalous that they betray the faith and expectations of the masses by indulging in theatrics and gimmicks in parliament in a dangerous game of political one-upmanship to score brownie points instead of holding the Government of the day accountable through question hours, motions and debates. It is shocking really that critical Bills with far reaching consequences are passed in Parliament almost as of routine without any discussion on the floor of the House. The opposition it seems, uses Parliament more to impugn the credibility of governments through resort to all manner of theatrics than to make the Government accountable for its acts of omission and commission in a constructive and vigilant manner to ensure good governance. It is also to be seen that the Opposition is more often than not, focused in its attacks on individuals and political and financial scandals and acts of corruption within the Government than to try to bring in institutional and systemic change. Put in other words, the Opposition does not bring to the table, a credible alternative choice of path or policy as such, but confines itself to exposing the Government and putting it in a tight spot through a strategy of relentless attacks, inside and outside Parliament, of which disruptions have taken a central role.  Incidentally, it might be said that even with an opposition focused on corruption and financial scandals, Parliament has yielded very few results and almost all of the parliamentary probes into these scandals have led nowhere. But then, that is a different issue altogether, and perhaps, beyond the scope of this piece. Coming back to the point, the day to day scrutiny of the political executive has been whittled down with relentless disruptions, even during the Question Hour, becoming the order of the day in the 15th Lok Sabha, as the statistics prove. Disruptions rather than reasoned argument have become the main weapon in the arsenal of the opposition.

Such disruptions are a negation of the very essence and ethos of Parliamentary democracy. While elected representatives have every right to voice their opinions and put forward concerns of their constituencies, representative democracy needs to be distinguished from anarchy. Constitutional procedures and rules cannot be subverted to score political brownie points. We the people of India deserve a better deal from the Parliament and our Parliamentarians. An Arun Jaitley or Sushma Swaraj delivering a speech on the floor of the House in full flow taking the Government head-on makes for better viewing any day than their being party to a mindless walk-out or boycott or disruption. Indeed, they are among the better ones of their lot.

By subverting parliamentary democracy, consciously or otherwise, Parliamentarians are unwittingly cutting the very branch they are sitting on: their propensity for disruptions have only served to erode the faith of the people in Parliament and political class as a whole, which is sure to have ominous effects on the future of our democracy.

To be fair, the Government too has played hardball; way too often at that, when they could well have agreed to a debate. Neither the Government nor the Opposition can be unmindful of the raison d’etre of Parliament. Its role as the ultimate deliberative body of the people cannot be lost sight of by either of them. Our parliamentarians need to commit themselves to the vision of Parliament as a primarily deliberative body where serious discussions replace nonsensical antics and day to day scrutiny of the actions of the Executive is vigilantly maintained. Let us hope, and pray, for the sake of or parliamentary democracy to flourish and remain vibrant that the 16th Lok Sabha will throw up better stats relating to its performance than its immediate predecessor.

I started this piece with a quote of Pranab Mukherjee, our President. It might be a co-incidence, but I conclude this piece by once again referring to his wise words. This is from a Speech delivered by Sri. Pranab Mukherjee, the President of India at the Jawaharlal Nehru University recently: “Leaders and the political class exist to serve people and not the other way around. In a democracy, the Parliament is the primary instrument of good governance and social economic transformation. Parliamentarians should treat it with the deference it deserves and at the same time, recognize its potential. Our Parliamentarians and legislators must see the opportunity provided to represent the people as a great privilege and honour.”

Ajith is the Associate Editor of Live Law.