House in distress
Express, September 07, 2012
Thanks, perhaps, to
my stars, I have had the good fortune to watch from a ringside
seat the inspiring rise and sad decline of India?s apex
legislature, from the first day of the first session of the
provisional Parliament in 1950. The Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha
were elected two years later. Until 1967, I covered both Houses
on a daily basis, and have never ceased my vigil since.
disruption and debasement of Parliament, at the hands of its own
members, began decades ago and has steadily worsened over the
years. It now seems that unless heroic efforts are made to first
stem the rot and then reverse the tragic trend, Parliament?s
authority and prestige could be destroyed completely.
Wednesday?s exchange of blows in the Rajya Sabha between two
?honourable members? may well be a precursor of more squalid
might find it hard to believe, but there were times when things
were totally different. The 17 years of Jawaharlal Nehru
constituted a glorious period in Parliament?s history. Foreign
observers held it up as a ?role model? for legislatures of other
newly independent countries. There was a bond of mutual respect
between Nehru and Parliament. On occasions when tempers ran
high, he would spring to his feet and easily restore calm. Today
there is no one around to be able do so. In 1957, when his
son-in-law, Feroze Gandhi, drove his government up the wall over
the ?Mundhra affair? ? a case of questionable investments by the
Life Insurance Corporation in the highly dubious shares of a
certain industrialist ? Nehru did not deny the charge of
?wrongdoing? out of hand. Instead, he spoke of ?Parliament?s
majesty? and ordered a judicial inquiry.
Parliament?s decline began after the general elections of 1967,
in which the Congress majority was greatly eroded, and the more
aggressive wing of the socialists, led by Ram Manohar Lohia, won
more seats. They targeted the rather inexperienced and shy
Indira Gandhi. Lohia nicknamed her ?goongi gudiya?; his
lieutenants used ruder invectives. Regrettably, after attaining
supremacy in both the Congress and the country, she treated
parliamentary opposition as disdainfully as it had treated her.
As now, so then ?
the heavily outnumbered opposition used the weapon of corruption
to strike at her. Hardly anybody remembers the name of Tulmohan
Ram. In Indira Gandhi?s heyday in the 1970?s, he became the
reason for the first ever disruption of an entire session of
Parliament, which has since become a precedent to be followed.
The innocuous Congress MP from Bihar had done nothing wrong
himself. His bosses had made him sign some papers and used them
to make money.
Rajiv Gandhi was
reigning supreme until Bofors got the better of him. His
nemesis, V. P. Singh, however, lasted as prime minister for just
11 months. After the defeat of P.V. Narasimha Rao?s government
in 1996, the Congress went into the wilderness for eight years,
during which the BJP-led coalition ruled, except for the first
two years. It was then that the seeds of today?s seemingly
irremediable malaise were sown.
To put it bluntly,
since 1998, the level of animosity between the two main parties
has soared so high that the basic norms and decencies, without
which the parliamentary system just cannot function, are no
longer being followed, and indeed cannot be followed. Both sides
are more or less equally to blame. For instance, the Congress is
justified in complaining that a report by the Comptroller and
Auditor General cannot be grounds for demanding the prime
minister?s resignation and then holding Parliament to ransom for
two weeks. But then, why had the self-same Congress demanded the
resignation of then defence minister George Fernandes after the
CAG had reported on the coffin scam, and then disrupted
Parliament for nearly 20 days?
What has turned the
situation particularly ugly is that the BJP is punch drunk with
the belief that it has got its Bofors moment again. The Congress
suffers from the delusion that it can pass a populist bill to
amend the Constitution in the midst of hellish noise and thus
spike the BJP?s guns, aimed at the alleged coal scam.
Indeed, politics has
become thoroughly bizarre because, whatever the issue in
contention, it instantly becomes occasion for a slugfest between
the core of the ruling coalition and the principal opposition
party. Like the proverbial kettle and pot, each is calling the
other black, although both are tarred by the same brush.
In all cultures and
all languages, there is a saying that two wrongs never make one
right. But it is the contribution of the Indian political class
to human thought that when two parties opposed to each other are
equally culpable, their guilt cancels itself out.
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