Friday, August 12, 2022

A Mockery of Parliament

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The Monsoon Session has been a washout, with Treasury and
Opposition benches having a head-on collision. The net result is that taxpayers’ money has been wasted

By Bhavdeep Kang

The Monsoon Session of parliament, marked by filibustering and provocative exchanges between Treasury and Opposition, has doubtless been one of the least productive. Critical legis-lations were held to ransom by an Opposition intent on making an impact out of proportion to its numbers. We are lean but mean, signaled the Congress.

The motive may have been revenge for the electoral debacle of a year ago, a tit-for-tat for the many occasions when the BJP held up the House during the UPA regime, or a bargaining tactic towards some unspecified end. The Congress sought to paralyze parliament, the ruling party appeared content to let it do so and neither believes it will suffer electorally as a result.

Which leads to the question as to whether the parliamentary process has been transformed, primarily through media, to the point where its members see a disconnect between electoral politics—the business of getting elected—and their role in the Lok Sabha. A senior Congress leader puts it succinctly: “BJP blocked parliament for five years and what happened? It came to power with a majority. Voters are not concerned with passing bills.”

But passing bills is one of the three primary responsibilities of a member of parliament. Although the role of an MP is not codified— Article 105 of the Constitution pretty much leaves it up to parliament to decide—it may be broadly described as representative, legislative and supervisory (watchdog). He (or she) is expected to represent the interests of the parliamentary segment which has sent him to the Lok Sabha. He also presents the views and will of his constituents on matters of national importance which do not directly affect their interests; in so doing, he must exercise his own judgment, albeit on their behalf.

Sushma In parliament (1)...............
External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj confronts Rahul Gandhi in the Lok Sabha

Given that most MPs are elected on a party platform, their personal views are subordinated to those of the party leadership. MP Shashi Tharoor (and others) may well oppose the stalling of parliament in Congress forums, but he must toe the line in the House. Our parliamentary democracy leaves little scope for a conscience vote, but it does demand that an MP balance his commitment to party and constituents. His watchdog role is naturally accented when he is in the Opposition. Through interventions during Question Hour and Zero Hour, he can directly put the executive on the mat. The Opposition can also bring into play devices such as an adjournment, a calling attention motion, a censure motion or in extreme cases, a no-confidence motion.

Increasingly, news channels offer political parties an alternative forum for questioning
the executive. Sound bytes in talk shows substitute debate on the floor of the House. The media not only plays the role of watchdog—as it should—but also serves as a mock (and mockery of) parliament where treasury and opposition can go head-to-head, untrammeled by rules of procedure and code of conduct. It then flagellates MPs for wasting taxpayers’ money (given that it costs Rs2.5 lakh per minute to run parliament).

The Congress, afforded the opportunity for serious debate on matters of ministerial propriety and corruption in parliament, refused to avail of it. Congress leaders sought to embarrass the government and gain traction among voters by addressing the nation through live TV—and the BJP responded in kind. The confrontation escalated with the suspension of 25 Congress MPs. The pig-headedness backfired towards the end of the session and the main Opposition party found itself isolated, with non-NDA parties supporting SP leader Mulayam Singh Yadav’s stand that the House must function.

Strategically, the Congress move made sense. TV is a level-playing field, one where numbers do not matter and where allegations —substantiated or otherwise—can be freely leveled on air in a language that would invite disciplinary action in the House. It allowed the Congress to bring into play its more articulate spokespersons, most of whom are currently not in parliament, having lost the Lok Sabha elections (and unable to find a berth in the Rajya Sabha, given the party’s limited numbers in state assemblies).

The ordinary MP is thus excluded from debate, which dilutes his supervisory role and de-incentivizes him from taking interest in matters of national importance. He is reduced to a bench-warmer, whose input is neither sought nor valued. Through him, the electorate he represents stands, if not dis-empowered, certainly ignored.

The legislative role of MPs has already been delegated to standing committees of parliament, whose reports are presumed to represent the general view. Most MPs—even ministers—often do not acquaint themselves with bills passed with their consent, on the assumption that the party leadership knows all. (This is not necessarily true, the Land Acquisition Bill, 2015, being a case in point. Widespread confusion regarding its provisions led to NDA spokespersons making unfortunate errors.)

In such a scenario, the MP’s primary role becomes representative. He is judged by the work he puts into his constituency, where he is often called upon to play drain inspector, lineman and employment exchange (as a recipient of the Best Parliamentarian award wryly observed), thereby engaging himself in areas best left to local bodies or MLAs.

Parliament has witnessed an elevated level of discourse in the past, with the likes of Jawaharlal Nehru, Ram Manohar Lohia, JB Kripalani, Feroze Gandhi, Piloo Mody, S Jaipal Reddy, Chandra Shekhar and Atal Bihari Vajpayee, to name a few. Sound bytes are no substitute and the dilution of parliament’s relevance is regrettable.

Treasury and Opposition could well have achieved an entente if either had wanted to. Politics is, after all, about deal-making. A responsible politician makes deals for the benefit of the nation, rather than indulging in blackmail, which compromises public interest. And a responsible Opposition serves as the government’s conscience and vox populi. It has quite rightly raised issues of impropriety and corruption—but voters elect MPs to represent them in parliament, not in TV studios.

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