There is little to be gained in trying to establish culpability for this deplorable state of affairs.
Politicians are supposed to have their finger on the pulse of the people, but they are hopelessly out of sync with what people feel with regard to the spectacle they make of themselves in Parliament. The simple fact is that Indians are fed up of Parliament looking like a circus gone berserk. They are tired of the indiscipline, ruckus, din, vandalism, hooliganism and sheer bad behaviour of their elected representatives, both in some state Assemblies and in the Sansad — the highest temple of democracy.
The ongoing session of Parliament has not functioned for a single day. Within minutes of the House convening, MPs shout slogans, display placards, hurl invectives and enter the Well of the House, thereby forcing an adjournment. On some occasions, an attempt is made to convene the House a second time, but now mostly both the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha are adjourned for the full day. The next day the same tasteless charade is repeated. In its entire history, the House of Commons has not been adjourned for a single day. Soon we will be able to say with pride that there is not a single day when our Parliament is not adjourned!
Does this behaviour further the cause of the protesting MPs/political parties? I think not. There was a time when a spectacle in Parliament leading to an adjournment made news. No longer. Since adjournments — preceded by the predictably undecipherable din — happen so regularly, they have no news value, and only create another ripple of disgust in the ordinary citizen. In fact, the paralysis of parliamentary business is increasingly proving to be counter-productive: people are more annoyed at Parliament’s non-functioning than supportive of the reasons why it is not allowed to function. The agitating MPs would do far more for their cause if they allowed for a discussion, where they could present their point of view in a reasoned manner, and enable the entire country, through the media to hear it.
There is little to be gained in trying to establish culpability for this deplorable state of affairs. All parties are culpable. When the UPA government was in power, it blamed the BJP for disruptions. This was not untrue. The BJP actually sought to give “ideological” sanction to their parliamentary indiscipline. Arun Jaitley and Sushma Swaraj, Leaders of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha and the Lok Sabha respectively, asserted that disruption of the House is a legitimate part of parliamentary strategy. As a consequence, Parliament did not function for days on end.
But now the shoe is on the other foot. The BJP occupies the treasury benches, and the Congress — along with its erstwhile UPA allies — is in the Opposition. No one in politics suffers from amnesia in these matters. So the Opposition is now doing to the BJP what it did to them. The treasury benches protest, just as the UPA, when in power, used to. This undignified game goes on as part of a hopeless vicious circle, while the nation — and the world — watches the antics of the world’s largest democracy.
What can be done? It is true that the primary responsibility to run the House lies with the treasury benches. The ruling party must interact with respect with the Opposition — both in the House and outside, or in forums in Parliament created for this purpose — so that logjams are broken. A key role here is that of the minister of parliamentary affairs. In the UPA years, Rajiv Shukla held this post. Pranab Mukherjee, then leader of the House, used to tell Mr Shukla that his performance would be judged by the amount of time he spends in the Opposition benches, building bridges and diluting friction. The same responsibility now lies with the leaders of the BJP, and it cannot be implemented with arrogance or disdain. But, equally, the Opposition cannot say that it is blameless. There is nothing the treasury benches can do if the Opposition is hell bent on now allowing the House to run. That is the plain truth.
Can the Speaker of the Lok Sabha and the Chairman of the Rajya Sabha enforce discipline? Of course, they can. The presiding officers of the two Houses are invested with wide ranging disciplinary powers. They decide when a member speaks and for how long; they decide what will not go on record; they can direct a member to withdraw from the House for a specific period; any member who flouts their orders can be named, and in such cases, may have to withdraw from the House; they can warn a member for flouting rules and suspend him; the marshals of the Houses work under them; and, within the House, their rulings in such matters, are unchallengeable. With such powers at hand, why do presiding officers not exercise them to maintain the discipline and decorum of the House? For too long now, blatantly unacceptable behaviour has been tolerated or condoned by presiding officers, and this lack of a resolute stand has undoubtedly contributed to the slide into parliamentary chaos over the last few years.
The basic fact is that the non-functioning of Parliament must stop. Over Rs 2.5 lakhs is spent per minute to run Parliament. The current leg of the Budget Session is for 23 days, of which 14 have so far been wasted. Important bills that affect the lives of ordinary citizens are pending, even as every day both Houses are adjourned. There is merit in the proposal that if Parliament does not work due to lack of parliamentary decorum, members should not be paid their allowance for that day, and presiding officers should be impartial in enforcing this rule.
The nation expects reasoned debates of the highest calibre from its elected representatives — as, indeed, used to be the case in the past. The Opposition must establish the validity of its point of view through the dignity and substance of debate and not through slogan shouting. The treasury response should be likewise. To put it bluntly, the people of India have had enough of the unseemly shenanigan in Parliament. The time has come for all political parties to get this message.