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Debates in Parliament

By Arvind P. Datar

Paralysing House proceedings does not solve any problem. In the long run, it will only affect the credibility of Parliament as an institution.

FROM DAY one, the working of the new Parliament was paralysed on one ground or the other. Initially, the Opposition stalled the proceedings over the issue of chargesheeted Ministers. Later, it was Lalu Prasad's comment on Godhra, and then the case of the missing Shibu Soren. The entire session was hampered by repeated shouting and periodic walkouts. For those who watched the Parliamentary proceedings live, and from press reports, there was no meaningful debate on any issue. The hallmark of an effective parliamentarian now seems to be the ability to shout and disrupt proceedings, preferably from the well of the House.

The practice is to completely paralyse any discussion in Parliament if the Opposition is agitated about any particular subject. In the last Lok Sabha, the Congress disrupted work for several days after the Tehelka controversy. Subsequently, proceedings were frequently disrupted on some pretext. The practice of repeatedly obstructing the proceedings in the House is most regrettable and defeats the very purpose for which the Legislature exists.

Under our Constitution, the three pillars of Government are the Legislature, the Executive, and the Judiciary. The Legislature is perhaps the most important branch; it makes laws and guides the destiny of the country. The Executive implements the laws, while the Judiciary interprets them. Badly drafted laws lead to administrative chaos and generate avoidable litigation. It is vitally necessary that important enactments are discussed in detail before they become the laws of the country. Similarly, Government policy, howsoever controversial, requires dispassionate debate and cold facts, and logic must prevail over emotional rhetoric.

The Constitution grants several privileges to Members of Parliament. Article 105 guarantees freedom of speech in Parliament and ensures that no Member of Parliament can be made liable for any proceedings in court in respect of anything said by him in Parliament or for any vote given by him. Such protection exists even to proceedings of any committee of Parliament. Article 88 confers the right on all Ministers to speak and take part in proceedings in either House of Parliament and to also attend any joint sitting or committee of Parliament. Similar powers and privileges are conferred on members of Legislative Assemblies under Article 194. Thus, the constitutional scheme enables all important issues to be fearlessly discussed in the House.

While we have borrowed parliamentary privileges from the United Kingdom, there is no desire or intention to properly debate various bills that are proposed to be enacted or to discuss other important policy issues. Any debate requires extensive preparation and a recent article in a popular weekly made the shocking revelation that very few members use the huge Parliament library.

The behaviour of several members is in complete breach of the rules of Parliamentary etiquette. Rule 349 of the Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business in the Lok Sabha categorically states that a member should keep his place while addressing the House and should not interrupt any other member who is speaking; any disorderly expressions, or other interruptions or noises are prohibited. Indeed, the last session of the Lok Sabha was conducted in a manner contrary to the prescribed rules.

Some of the greatest speeches in history have been made in the British Parliament. William Pitt the Elder, Edmund Burke, Thomas Erskine, Gladstone and Churchill spoke on controversial topics and sometimes defended unpopular causes. But they were listened to with rapt attention. There were no walkouts, shouting or members rushing into the well of the House. One has to read the speeches of these parliamentarians to fathom the enormous preparation they would have entailed.

In the Constituent Assembly, the participation of Alladi Krishnaswamy Aiyer, B.R. Ambedkar, Pandit Kunzru and other stalwarts ensured that important issues were debated in great detail. Unfortunately, there is now virtually no discussion or debate and, on a rare occasion, when a good speech is made, there are frequent interruptions.

The leaders of the respective political parties are squarely to blame for the pathetic state of affairs. If they want to make the coming session of Parliament, beginning on August 16, a meaningful one, they must completely prohibit walkouts, shouting or any disruption of the House proceedings. Paralysing House proceedings does not solve any problem In the long run, it will only affect the credibility of Parliament as an institution.

It is also high time that the Speaker exercises his power to suspend unruly members so that some dignity and decorum is restored. The running of Parliament casts a heavy burden on the taxpayer. The legislators must conduct themselves in a responsible manner and discharge their constitutional obligations. It is fervently hoped that the coming session will be a witness to a new era where skilful debates and meaningful discussions replace the shouting and walkouts that marred the earlier session this year.

(The author is a Senior Advocate of the Madras High Court.)

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