Three cheers to Parliament

The Hindu, April 17, 2012

Chennai comes up with innovative ideas. ?Prime Point,’ set up by a gentleman known in true Tamil Nadu-style as ?Prime Point Srinivasan,’ has instituted a set of awards for parliamentarians called Sansad Ratna Awards. ?PP’ felicitously chose Ambedkar Jayanti for the conferment ceremony this year and conferred the honour on four MPs:

Anand Rao Adsul ? Number 1 in Questions (754). The total tally of debates, private bills and questions raised ? 784.

Hansraj Gangaram Ahir ? Number 1 in private bills ? 20 in number. Questions raised ? 755.

S.S. Ramasubbu ? Number 3 at the all-India level with a total score of 742 questions. Attendance ? 97 per cent.

Arjun Ram Meghwal ? Number 1 in debates with 251 debates to his credit. Attendance ? 100 per cent.

I was asked to do the honours, I do not know why. I have never been elected to a legislative body. Nor am I ever likely to be. But then the ?gracing? of occasions is ever done by those singularly unqualified for the role. Seated on the dais at the IIT-Madras auditorium with me was one who was eminently suited for the event, the veteran Era Sezhiyan. An opposition MP for 22 years, Mr. Sezhiyan has shone as a studious parliamentarian whose lack of interest in the perks of that position has been diametrically opposite to his fascination for the work-opportunities Parliament gives to a serious legislator.

Rajaji once said: ?It is easy to fast sitting at home on Ekadasi but very difficult to fast sitting in the middle of Modern Caf? at meal time?. Whether or not the award-winning MPs have been on a metaphorical fast or working away during ?meal time,? they have been clearly conscientious legislators.

As I applauded them, I could not but recall to myself Dr. B.R. Ambedkar’s words spoken on November 4, 1948 in the Constituent Assembly: ?The parliamentary system differs from a non-parliamentary system inasmuch as the former is more responsible than the latter but they also differ as to the time and agency for assessment of their responsibility. Under the non-parliamentary system, such as the one that exists in the U.S.A., the assessment of the responsibility of the Executive is periodic. It takes place once in two years. It is done by the electorate. In England, where the parliamentary system prevails, the assessment of responsibility of the Executive is both daily and periodic. The daily assessment is done by Members of Parliament, through Questions, Resolutions, No-confidence motions, Adjournment motions and Debates on Addresses. Periodic assessment is done by the electorate at the time of the election which may take place every five years or earlier. The daily assessment of responsibility which is not available under the American system is far more effective than the periodic assessment and far more necessary in a country like India. The Draft Constitution in recommending the parliamentary system of Executive has preferred more responsibility to more stability?.

The early days

The early Lok Sabhas and Rajya Sabhas more than rose to the standards of ?daily assessment? set by Dr. Ambedkar, especially in MPs’ stellar debating contributions. The lyrically thoughtful Nehru was matched by the rasping Kripalani. The Houses were well-served by the laser-eyed Feroze Gandhi, the fiery Bhupesh Gupta, the impassioned Hiren Mukherjee, the sedate Lakshmi Menon, the thermal Violet Alva, the acerbic Rammanohar Lohia, the excoriating Nath Pai, the striking Renu Chakravartty, the diligent Minoo Masani, the startling C.N. Annadurai, and, of course, the poetic Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

But even in our ?own’ times, the recent debate on the Lokpal Bill saw some exceptional speeches. Pranab babu , Sushma Swaraj, Kapil Sibal, Rahul Gandhi and Sandeep Dikshit spoke with persuasion in the Lok Sabha, as did Arun Jaitley, Sitaram Yechury, D. Raja, Shobhana Bhartia and Abhishek Singhvi in the Rajya Sabha. As a citizen, as a voter, I felt proud hearing them and knew that Dr. Ambedkar would have felt proud hearing them as well, because they were actuated by a clear sense of parliamentary accountability.

The Lokpal debate brought in many dimensions of the issue, each critical, each controversial. No one spoke like the other. Indeed none could have, for each came from different political addresses. Yet, basically, what they were all saying was: The world’s largest democracy deserves the world’s best Parliament. We may be far from that state yet, but the country should trust the institution to rise to the occasion whenever necessary.

But so high are those ?occasions,? so tall our expectations, so pressing our needs for Parliament’s attention, that our disappointment at its failure to meet our aspirations blinds us to the advantages of ?daily assessment?.

Such an assessment would add up to an impressive tally by any standards. If untouchability has been abolished in our country, let us acknowledge the fact that it has so been abolished by the wisdom of the founding fathers of our Constitution and our Parliament. If that ugly stain on our society ? dowry ? has been outlawed in our country, it is by an Act of Parliament. Likewise, land reforms were brought in by Parliament, police reforms, prison reforms, labour law reforms, and an enactment, perhaps the first of its kind in the world, for the prevention of cruelty to animals.

Gifts to the country

All these are the gifts of our early Lok Sabhas and Rajya Sabhas to the country. They also bent to heed popular opinion, most notably, in the amendment to the States Reorganisation Bill, which had in a rather wooden manner proposed a composite state of Bombay, to divide it far more realistically into Maharashtra and Gujarat.

One might say all that ?happened’ in the golden days of Jawaharlal Nehru.

And so it did. But then the record has continued. The landmark reservation of seats for women in our local bodies happened long after and, in our ?own’ times, if domestic violence has been made a crime in our country, it is by an Act of Parliament; if the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme is a fact of life today, giving employment and wages and nourishment to millions, it is because of Parliament; if the Right to Information is a household name today, being utilised across the length and breadth of India, and the Right to Education Act promises education to all of India’s children, it is because of Parliament. If several States have Lok Ayuktas and the Centre may ? inshallah ? soon have a Lokpal, it is again because our legislatures have responded according to their own lights to public opinion, to public campaigns.

We ought not to take a measure of Parliament’s height (and that of our Legislative Assemblies) on a low tide. Nor put the tape to where an exceptional high-scaler has reached. We should go by the mean level of our legislative record.

Something missing

And yet, there is a sense of something missing in our parliamentary record, something that is slipping through the fingers, almost.

?Committee work’ in Parliament and in our Assemblies can be exacting. But then, some seem to work far harder than others. And on the floor of the House, some attend regularly, others frequently, yet others fleetingly, and another category, only selectively.

And speeches? Some make a tidy number of them. Others opt for silence. It has been said speech should improve upon silence. Individual silence cannot improve on ambient silence, except in a Rishi’s hermitage. Walkouts too are optional, as is raising one’s voice beyond the requirements of audition, stepping into the Well of the House, tearing up documents. Those options are more visibly exercised.

Individual legislators do shine, sparkle and even stun us by their good performance. But going by the strict standards of responsibility that Dr. Ambedkar spoke of, it is Parliament as a whole and our Legislative Assemblies as a collectivity, that must be seen to pass the tests ? rigorous, exemplary tests prescribed by him.

The most important step that needs to be taken in the matter of improving the ?daily record? of our legislatures is to increase substantially the ?daily? nature of its business ? in other words, to have them meet oftener, sit longer, conclude the listed business. The Ministries in New Delhi bemoan the number of Bills that are ?languishing? in Parliament. The Lokpal Bill is only one among many bills, each of great import, that are just unable to come up for discussion. Surely, this situation needs remedying.

The people of India will not begrudge the happy perquisites of MP-ship and MLA-ship if they are proportionate to the work put in, to high attendance, to the number of serious questions-per-session, and quality debates on bills. The people of India are generous. But as they also happen to be hugely intelligent, they want to see a good perk-work balance.

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