Parliament is a difficult place

Author - Baijayant 'Jay' Panda

Posted on - 7 February 2011

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This article was published on ‘The Indian Express’ on 7th February 2011





Members of the House routinely pulled knives and guns on one another. There were shoving matches and canings… tables were flipped,inkwells and spittoons went flying.

No,that’s not a description of India/s Parliament. Rather,its from an article by Joanne Freeman,an American professor of history at Yale University,describing typical behaviour in the United States Congress in the mid-nineteenth century. Yet today,while Americans may bemoan the lack of bipartisanship in their polity,their legislatures cannot be faulted on civility and rule-based functioning.

When we Indians decry the state of our Parliament,we mostly focus on the symptoms,not the underlying causes. The undesirability of disruptions and the repeated adjournments of Parliament are obvious and have been done to death. It is important to shift the discussion to the root causes and possible solutions if we are to see any improvements.

What changed in America? By the second half of the 19th century,the Industrial Revolution kicked in and transformed the US. From a country where the vast majority of the population made its living from agriculture,it went on to become the most developed economy in the world. This process was not always smooth. Neither was it uniformly “inclusive”,to use the buzzword of the decade here in India. The US had its share of labour exploitation and disproportionately wealthy robber barons. But the process did reach a point where the majority of the population described themselves as middle class.

Somewhere along that transition was an inflexion point,where the middle class values of the populace — including the expectation of civility from their elected representatives — could no longer be ignored. Subsequently,rules and traditions evolved to facilitate better etiquette in the US House and Senate. There are striking parallels in this for India.There is hope,but also lessons that need to be learned.

It is our burgeoning middle class that is most dismayed by the sub-optimal functioning of Parliament. While the growth of our middle class will gradually build pressure on legislators to adhere to better standards of public behaviour,there are specific steps that need to be taken in the meantime. To do that,it is important to understand the nature of parliamentary disruptions and deadlocks,most of which can be classified under two categories. First,many disruptions are caused by small groups of MPs who are usually grandstanding for audiences back home. The second category are deadlocks that involve large groups of MPs,sometimes even the entire opposition,as in the present dispute over whether to appoint a joint parliamentary committee on the 2G spectrum scandal.

The first category of disruptions,involving smaller groups of MPs,will require implementing decisions that have already been taken as well as introducing certain modifications to parliamentary procedures. Resolutions passed by successive presiding officers of both Houses of Parliament — that is,speakers and vice presidents— and leaders of parliamentary parties,provide the moral authority for presiding officers to have disrupters physically removed for a day or even more (the legal authority has always existed).

While the speaker and vice president could,and should,take such disciplinary measures to ensure that their Houses function,it is equally important to recognise the need to provide for a structured way for MPs to legitimately play to their galleries. Many MPs,hemmed in as they are by party whips and limited time available to make a mark,find it far easier to attract attention by creating a ruckus. And the media is happy to collude by highlighting those instances rather than when MPs participate in debates.

Instead of allowing such impulses to disrupt Parliament,the proceedings can be structured to provide an outlet for it,much like school days have playground breaks for students to work off their energy. There have been proposals to restructure the daily parliamentary schedule,to start the day with Zero Hour instead of Question Hour. Since many MPs come to Parliament first thing in the morning all charged up about something or the other,this would allow them a legitimate outlet to vent their steam,and in the process signal their constituencies that they aren’t just idling in Delhi. It would also prevent the routine disruption of Question Hour,which should be shifted to the late afternoon. Since the majority of MPs are actually keen on questions,that would have the added benefit of boosting attendance in an otherwise slow part of the day. Resistance to change seems to be the major reason why such proposals haven’t found acceptance,but many younger MPs are in favour of such change. Perhaps it will find some traction soon.

The second category of disruption,when large groups of MPs block parliamentary proceedings,requires deeper reform of parliament. Take the current JPC imbroglio. The opposition’s stubbornness can be summed up in the argument,If the largest ever allegation of malfeasance in the country’s history does not justify a JPC,then what does? The government’s obduracy lies in the stand that Parliamentary rules provide for JPCs to be set up by consensus. The opposition is trying to bulldoze the majority opinion. If they don’t agree with our stand,let them move a vote of no confidence.