Two cheers for Parliament

Sunday’s celebration of Parliament’s completion of 60 years — first at special sittings of the two Houses and then at a joint sitting in the Central Hall — were entirely understandable, even inspiring, if only up to a point. After all, as many, including all the four top dignitaries, have underscored, Indian Parliament has “disproved” those that doubted its durability. Yet, if India remains the world’s largest democracy, it is due more to the free and fair elections, ensured by the Election Commission, than because of the performance of those elected to the nation’s apex legislature.
Happily, there was adequate recognition of this grim reality in the speeches of President Pratibha Patil, vice-president Hamid Ansari, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar and numerous honourable members. But, given the occasion, they had to be cautious while regretting what Dr Singh politely called the substitution of “debate by daily disruption”. Mr Ansari, more pointedly than others, summed up the situation thus: “There is a perceptible drop in the working days of Parliament. Deliberation is less frequent; legislation is at times hasty.” He also spoke of the growing impression that “diligent parliamentary work is less rewarding in political terms.”
Quite frankly, even this is an understatement but perfectly understandable because on a day of self-congratulation there has to be a limit to self-criticism. The malaise that has driven the country to despair is much worse than most parliamentarians would admit. Most alarmingly it has gone on and on for more than four decades, and instead of being first arrested and then rolled back, it has been allowed to nosedive and assume horrifying dimensions. A vivid example is the Lemming-like rush to the Well of the House by obstreperous members whose identity may vary but never their manners and methods.
To this must be added a relatively new and aggravating factor. Thanks to bitter hostility, indeed hatred, between the two sides of the parliamentary divide, particularly between the Congress, the core of the ruling coalition, and the BJP, the principal Opposition party, Parliament is grid-locked. Little work is done though mercifully the situation is not as frightening as in 2004 when, thanks to unending disruptions, the Budget had to be passed without a single minute’s discussion!
It is under these circumstances that one must be forgiven for according Parliament only two cheers, not three, and certainly not enthusiastic approbation.
Sadly, the state of affairs was not always so bleak as it is and has been. On the contrary, during the first two decades after Independence, virtually coinciding with the Nehru era, Parliament maintained the highest standards. The Prime Minister showed it great respect, attending it every day whenever it was in session. The Congress majority was overwhelming, but that did not overawe the heavily outnumbered stalwarts on the Opposition benches, who, over the years, included Acharya Narendra Dev, the lone liberal H.N. Kunzru, radical economist K.T. Shah, Nehru’s former comrade Acharya Kripalani and the founder of the Jana Sangh (the forerunner of the BJP), Shyama Prasad Mukherjee. Such communist leaders as A.K. Gopalan, Hiren Mukherjee and later Indrajit Gupta, such eminent scientists as Meghnad Saha in the Lok Sabha and S.M. Bose in the Rajya Sabha, Ashok Mehta, H.V. Kamath, Nath Pai and many others formed a galaxy. Atal Behari Vajpayee joined them later. Even after Nehru’s China policy came under heavy attack and very harsh things were said against him, there never was any attempt to obstruct discussion. His critics listened to his elaborate defence with rapt attention.
If a date is to be fixed for the start of the dismal downhill trend, around 1967 it will have to be. Then, despite having been sworn in as Prime Minister for the second time after the elections that year, Indira Gandhi was new to the job. Fiery socialist leader Ram Manohar Lohia nicknamed her “goongi gudiya” (dumb doll). His cohorts were not so polite. They treated her churlishly. It was only after her tremendous triumph in the 1971 general election that she gained supremacy in both the Congress and the country. The mistake she then made was to start treating Parliament almost exactly as it had treated her.
The much greater damage done to parliamentary decorum and norms in post-1971 India flowed from the mounting arrogance and corruption of quite a few Congress leaders. The party, with its brute majority, met the Opposition’s onslaughts with cynical stonewalling. Discord and parliamentary disruption followed. At one stage Morarji Desai threatened to sit on an indefinite dharna inside the House. Hardly anyone remembers the name Tulmohan Ram today. But in 1970s a whole parliamentary session was wasted because of the Tulmohan Ram affair. The poor man was innocent; his party bosses had made him sign papers that had enabled them to mint millions.
The Emergency (1975-77) was the watershed. The short-lived Janata regime that replaced Indira Gandhi worsened the situation by persecuting her and her son Sanjay, and thus hastening her spectacular return to power in 1980. For her part she continued the politics of vendetta. The rest is history.
Against this backdrop the unanimous resolutions of both Houses to “uphold and maintain” Parliament’s “dignity, sanctity and supremacy” and to “enhance the accountability of the government” should be seen as a shaft of light and a source of joy. But to expect that the two Houses would deliver what they have promised would be a classic case of the triumph of hope over experience. Just rewind to the equally solemn resolution the joint sitting of the two Houses had passed on the 50th anniversary of Independence on August 15, 1997, and look back at what has actually happened since then.
Nothing will make me happier, however, than if I am proved wrong and Parliament begins to function normally, maintaining quorum and decorum, discipline and decency and relying on reasoned debate, not on raucous noise and barracking.

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