House in distress

The Indian 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.

Distressingly, 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 episodes.

Younger generations 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.

Unfortunately, the 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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