Open Diary

Swapan Dasgupta is an MP and India’s foremost conservative columnist
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When Parliament lets us down

IT IS SEEN to be bad form to decry your own country’s institutions and praise those of other nations. Over the past few weeks, I have been attempting to follow the maddening complexities of the Brexit debates in Westminster. I am still unsure whether I know what the hell is happening and how a government can stay in place despite suffering a series of defeats in the House of Commons. However, what is enviable are two things: the passionate nature of the controversies and, most important, the undeniable importance of Parliament in the whole matter.

Cut to India. That the Winter Session of Parliament, which con cluded with the two Houses clearing a Constitutional amendment to enable means-tested reservations for government posts and educational institutions, would be quite heady was never in doubt. The Session was, after all, for all practical purposes the last one before a new Lok Sabha is elected in May 2019. There will be a short session in February to clear the Vote on Account, but that is more like a farewell party as the focus will entirely be on the constituencies.

The Winter Session was, as expected, heady. But, at least as far as the Rajya Sabha was concerned, it was heady in a wrong sort of way. It was a near-washout with only three days of meaningful work. It was particularly frustrating for us, the backbenchers. At the best of times we don’t seem to matter too much, but in this session we didn’t matter at all. I managed to get three minutes during one Zero Hour to speak on Assam and tried—unsuccessfully— to raise the issue of political violence in Kerala, but that was all. To say that the whole experience was frustrating and exasperating doesn’t quite convey how rotten I felt. On top of that, I felt totally ashamed that the entire opposition actually protested when the session in the Rajya Sabha was extended by a day. In my view, it should have been extended indefinitely—and included weekend sittings—until all the pending business was completed.

What is happening in Parliament is truly disgraceful. Political disagreements are the stuff of parliamentary democracy. Parliament is the forum where representatives of the people and the states raise matters that are of concern to the people. Legislation is proposed, debated, and passed or rejected. These are the rules of the game that have been settled by national consensus, and MPs are expected to adhere to them. In return for assuming the stipulated role—which is time-consuming—members are accorded certain privileges that include accommodation, free travel and some secretarial allowances. If, in return, MPs cock a snook at the whole system and prevent Parliament from functioning, the whole system becomes dysfunctional.

What we are witnessing is truly paradoxical. On one hand, democracy is striking deeper roots in the country. Elections are more fiercely fought than ever before, voters are extremely demanding and want results from governments, and the voter turnout in each set of elections is going up. Political apathy is a declining trend in India. On the other hand, we are witnessing the growing dysfunction of Parliament. The situation doesn’t square up at all.

It is not that the majority party is preventing the opposition from discussing issues that are potentially embarrassing. Far from it. The Rajya Sabha Chairman has been most accommodating, although, and quite understandably, he is on a permanent short fuse. But what do you do when for nearly 12 consecutive sittings a handful of members carrying placards rush to the well of the House chanting slogans for TV cameras? Soon they are joined by others who have separate grievances. There can be no discussion amid these slogans, the House is adjourned, and everyone retires to the Central Hall for a cup of coffee and even chicken biryani. Is this what Parliament was created for?

Two extreme solutions are in order. First, those who flaunt placards and enter the well of the House should be automatically debarred from Parliament for the rest of the day. The rule can be made more draconian by excluding them from the rest of the session for three violations. An even more draconian measure would entail suspending all privileges—including salaries, perquisites and even housing—for the period of suspension. I believe that should do the trick.

Secondly, I really believe that live proceedings of Parliament on TV should be terminated. If these proceedings have to be telecast, it should be a recorded version. To restore normalcy, the oxygen of publicity has to be turned off.