An unparliamentary democracy

The Indian Express, December 20, 2015

India has a remarkable electoral democracy, which, with its 800 million voters, is an envy of the world. The executive is functioning well; note the amazing breakthrough in the India-Pakistan negotiations. India did well at Paris and Shinzo Abe was generous with the deals. The judiciary is active across the board on green issues and social issues, holding the powerful to account as in the National Herald case.

The problem is with the legislature. The Winter Session has proved to be worse than the Monsoon Session. There are daily disruptions. Parliament during the day has come to resemble the TV news channels at night. Not much work seems to be done and the GST Bill looks like it may miss another deadline.

This is bad but not news. In the Budget Session in 2010, the Lok Sabha functioned only for two-thirds of its time and the Rajya Sabha three-quarters. That was much better than the Winter Session of 2013 where the wastage rate was 94% for the Lok Sabha and 81% for the Rajya Sabha.

But the anger and the bitterness are the most disturbing aspects of the present scene. Indeed there is an escalation of language and imagery which is remarkable. Even outside Parliament, the language has reached hyperbolic proportion. Thus the alumni of St Stephen?s, no doubt the cream of the liberal, tolerant elite, have accused the principal of being like ISIS. Professor Irfan Habib also used ISIS as an analogy for the RSS. ISIS kills and beheads people, abducts, enslaves and subjects women to appalling violence, and has been killing their fellow Muslims with impunity. How does one lightly use such a label to describe what can be a difference of opinion, even of ideology? Then the Chief Minister of Delhi calls the Prime Minister a psychopath. Why such language?

In the parliamentary arena, the week before the Winter Session seemed promising. The Prime Minister had tea with Sonia and Rahul Gandhi. The Finance Minister was consulting the Opposition about GST. But as soon as the session opened, one thing after another with little relevance to the business at hand has provided the excuse for rushing to the well. The breaking news of previous night is used to break up Parliament.

The root cause is unparliamentary behaviour. In my 24 years as a British parliamentarian, I have never once seen members shouting, leaving their place, rushing to the Speaker (we have no well) let alone waving banners. Members enter and leave the chamber bowing towards the throne. They shout in the House of Commons but the Speaker can always scold the members into submission. They enter and leave bowing to the Speaker.

This contrasts with the weak position of the presiding officers in the two houses. Why do MPs disobey the presiding officers and thereby humiliate them? The whips of the many parties have become cheerleaders in the disruption and not constraining elements as they should be. In this they have the approval of their leaders who aspire one day to be in power themselves, no doubt to face the same music. Then they will blame the Opposition and the cycle will resume.

Parliament has been turned into a general purpose complaint akhada. This prevents it from being a forum for serious debate. India deserves better.

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