The trouble with Parliament

Live Mint, December 04, 2014

With the Rajya Sabha being adjourned for the day on Thursday, the familiar spectacle of an unrelenting opposition and a beleaguered government has reappeared. For many years that has been regular feature of parliamentary proceedings.

In the current stand-off, one reason for disruption was the outrageous statement by the minister of state for food processing industries Niranjan Jyoti in New Delhi. In an election meeting on Monday, the minister had asked a rhetorical question to a gathering if they wanted a government of the followers of Rama or one that is made up of ?bastards?. The actual expression in Hindi is atrocious.

Election speeches in India seldom stay within the boundaries of parliamentary speech. All parties and politicians are equal-opportunity offenders in this regards. It is one thing for an aspiring politician to rabble rouse a crowd but an entirely different matter for a minister to say something un-parliamentary. Somewhere, hard lines must be etched if political behaviour is not to degenerate further.

This isolated event, however, reflects two other trends. For starters it shows that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is yet to learn the art of parliamentary management after a long spell in opposition. The current session was expected to be stormy: virtually the entire opposition?the Congress, the Janata family of parties and the Left?had decided to join hands and oppose the government. The BJP, perhaps overly confident of its majority in the Lok Sabha, did not realize the potential of random incidents in causing disruption in Parliament. By the time Prime Minister Narendra Modi stepped in to do damage control, the chain of events leading to disruption had already been initiated.

The deeper malaise, however, lies with the nature of opposition in Parliament and is reflective of the polarized state of the Indian polity. In the present Lok Sabha, the number of opposition parliamentarians is so abysmally low and their drubbing in the general election so extensive that they are yet to gather their bearings. The task of the opposition is to oppose. But at the moment, there are no pressing policy questions on which the government can be taken to task. The Janata parties want to prevent the government from taking key legislative steps?such as introducing and passing the insurance amendment Bill and other liberalizing laws.

Any move or step that reduces the economic reach of government?may it be transferring control of public sector undertakings, fiscal discipline or liberalization of investment decisions and ease of doing business?runs against the politics of these parties. The opposition largely comprises parties that want to spend and win elections; the government wants to restore economic discipline. A clash is bound to occur. But because the opposition?s numbers are low and it has been largely discarded by the electorate, its behaviour, which was pre-decided, is wholly opportunistic.

There is an additional feature in this scenario: the role of the Congress. It is playing a role symmetric to that of the BJP in the last Lok Sabha. It remains implacably opposed to the BJP but realizes that some limited form of cooperation in passing Bills that are vital for the country?the insurance amendment is a good example?is essential.

There are probably no incentives for any of the parties involved to change their behaviour. Governments?irrespective of their political stripes?have to take hard economic and political decisions sooner or later. The Congress decided to bite the bullet in the dying months of the Manmohan Singh government; the BJP is frontloading the right steps. Which leaves the intermediate political parties that are truly populist in their DNA?the Janata parties, the Left and assorted regional parties.

That is the kaleidoscopic matrix of parliamentary politics in India. Incidents of the kind that involved minister Niranjan Jyoti only bring to boil what are underlying political tendencies in our democracy.

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