Set House in order

March.03 : CAPTAINS OF trade and industry, economic experts and media analysts have broadly welcomed Union finance minister Pranab Mukherjee’s Budget. But the overall message emanating from Parliament at the end of the first week of its current session is gloomy. Of various reasons for this, the most important is the government’s dismal display of its helplessness about the spiralling food prices.
By contrast the Opposition’s attack on the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) was vigorous and devastating. Remarkably, all Opposition parties and groups, from one end of the spectrum to the other, were united on this issue. This made the more sensitive occupants of the treasury benches, whose number is rather limited, squirm in their seats.
However, the very next day the Opposition, with its rare unity intact, not only squandered away the brownie points it had won during the day-long debate on food prices but also descended to a very low point in the chronic and seemingly incorrigible pastime of disrupting parliamentary proceedings. As far as I know never before has the finance minister’s Budget speech been interrupted and barracked so raucously and persistently as this time around. The Opposition’s anger against the increase in petrol and diesel prices that would inevitably push up further the already skyrocketing cost of food items is entirely understandable. But there is a time and a way to give vent to it.
Repeatedly did Mr Mukherjee plead that he was discharging a “constitutional duty” that must not be obstructed, but to no avail. Only after the entire Opposition had staged a noisy walkout could the speech be completed. This ought to be a matter of grave concern even to those who have become inured to the almost daily disruption of Parliament over the years. Watching the latest spectacle it occurred to me that even at a time when the United States Congress was impeaching the then President, Bill Clinton, it showed him the utmost respect when he came to deliver the State of the Union address.
Come to think of it, even the food debate was marred somewhat by the procedural dispute that preceded it and led to the adjournment of both Houses for a whole day. Since all the Opposition parties eventually agreed to have the debate without voting at the end of it, what was the point of insisting that the motion must be subject to a vote in both Houses?
By the same token the Congress, which is the core of the UPA, must explain whether the heavens would have fallen had the two Houses voted on food prices. In the Lok Sabha, the government would have won; the almost certain defeat in the Rajya Sabha would have brought it down. It is time, therefore, to cry halt to the ceaseless erosion of Parliament’s prestige and authority, and there are only two ways of undoing the humongous damage that has already been done.
Either the two sides — principally the two mainstream parties, the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party — should bury the hatchet and agree to abide by the basic democratic and parliamentary norms without which the federal parliamentary system cannot work. The party leaders would then be responsible for controlling recalcitrant members in their respective flocks. Alternatively, the ruling party or combination, while being responsive to all its democratic obligations, must muster the necessary courage to take — under the chair’s impartial guidance — strict disciplinary action against the wrongdoers. Other legislatures, including the Japanese Diet and the Italian Chamber of Deputies, have done so, to great advantage. There is, however, a gnawing problem: What discipline can the UPA enforce when it is stunningly undisciplined itself?
Leave aside the loudly defiant manner in which Cabinet ministers such as Mamata Banerjee and M.K. Azhagiri (who is the elder son of Tamil Nadu chief minister and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam patriarch, M. Karunanidhi) have been functioning from the word go. Ms Banerjee and Mr Karunanidhi are now on the warpath over the very issue — enhanced fuel prices — that caused the irruption in the Lok Sabha on Friday. They are demanding a “roll back”. On the other hand, Mr Mukherjee has dug in his heels in defence of his proposals. But who knows what the outcome of this thunderous strife will be?
In available space it is not possible to analyse the debate on food prices in any detail but a brief word on the subject is called for. The debate demolished the excuses that the government had given for its failure to cope with the huge inflation in food prices in the President’s address to the joint sitting. Sushma Swaraj in the Lok Sabha — whose maiden speech as the Leader of the Opposition was a virtuoso performance — and Brinda Karat, the equally eloquent Communist Party of India (Marxist) member in the Rajya Sabha, hammered home that manipulation of policies, especially on sugar, and not the shortage of supplies or the high level of international prices, was responsible for the current mess.
Ms Swaraj quoted chapter and verse to make more than a prima facie case that there had been massive scams to push up the profits of unscrupulous traders. Both she and Ms Karat underscored that the profits of the 30 sugar mills listed on the stock exchange had shot up from Rs 30 crores in 2008 to over Rs 900 in 2009. Since no one has contradicted this, isn’t there a clear case for an inquiry into how profiteering on such a mind-boggling scale could take place?
The tragic debate on the government’s stark failure to stem the price rise was not without a touch of comic relief. It is no secret that the Congress Working Committee and a very large section of the Congress Parliamentary Party blames agriculture and food supplies minister Sharad Pawar for not just letting, but sometimes encouraging, food prices to soar. On the other hand, many activities of Mr Pawar, the leader of the Nationalist Congress Party, an important UPA ally, have given the Congressmen, particularly in Maharashtra, sleepless nights. The Samajwadi Party leader, Mulayam Singh Yadav, whose own plate is piled with troubles, used the food debate to wean Mr Pawar away from the ruling alliance. Sphinx-like the Maratha strongman showed no reaction.

Inder Malhotra

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