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A PROMISE BROKEN

PARLIAMENT HAS GONE live as promised by Somnath Chatterjee. However, the footage that reached millions of television homes as part of the new experiment did no service to the institution. Indeed the Speaker could hardly have foreseen that among the early scenes to be beamed live would be his own anguished offer to vacate the post of presiding officer: "It has become a matter of agony for me to occupy this Chair." Mr. Chatterjee's Brahmastra (ultimate weapon) came in response to incessant hectoring by the Opposition Bharatiya Janata Party. Two developments appear to have pushed the Speaker to the wall. First, the fact that no less a leader than Atal Bihari Vajpayee brought pressure on him to adjourn the House. Secondly, the Opposition charge that Mr. Chatterjee was dictatorial in his conduct. It can be nobody's case that Parliament ought to be run like a school with the presiding officer in the role of headmaster. Far from it. Over decades, these editorial columns have held the liveliness of the Lok Sabha to be a reflection of the joie-de-vivre that makes Indian democracy so special. But it is one thing for members to spar, tangle, and indeed trade charges among themselves — and quite another for them to make personal attacks on the Chair.

Who better than India's first Prime Minister to define the place of the Speaker in a parliamentary democracy? "The Speaker," instructed Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, "represents the dignity of the House, the freedom of the House, and because the House represents the nation in a particular way, the Speaker becomes a symbol of the nation's freedom and liberty. Therefore, it is right ... [it] should be an honoured position, occupied always by men of outstanding ability and impartiality." Few will dispute that Speaker Chatterjee, India's senior-most parliamentarian, more than meets these standards. It is doubly distressing then that aspersions should have been cast on the Chair during his stewardship of the House. Perhaps the ten-term MP will feel less distraught knowing other presiding officers have walked the same path. In November 1997, P.A. Sangma adjourned the Lok Sabha sine die in the face of continuing Congress intransigence over the Jain Commission report. Years earlier a tearful Shankar Dayal Sharma had asked to be allowed to quit as Chairman of the Rajya Sabha, unable to bear the stress of presiding over a noisy and unruly House.

The Lok Sabha has been in commotion mode ever since the United Progressive Alliance Government took office following the upset defeat of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance in the14th general election. The tale of disruption and interruption is best told by Lok Sabha statistics for the last two sessions, the first during June 2-10, 2004 and the second during July 5-August 26, 2004. The first ought to have been a smooth affair considering the largely ceremonial nature of the business at hand (the President's Address, the swearing in of members, and such). Yet the nine-day session saw the House sit merely for 13 hours and 41 minutes; as many as 10 hours and 15 minutes were lost to adjournments. Worse was to follow in the Budget session with the BJP going as far as to boycott the Finance Bill. Consider the scorecard. Number of days: 53. Hours of sitting: 92 hours, 29 minutes. Hours lost to adjournment: 45 hours, 26 minutes. As for the ongoing winter session, the less said the better. Just months ago Lal Krishna Advani promised better parliamentary behaviour by the BJP. Maybe he will be persuaded to consider the Bill recently moved in the Rajya Sabha by Fali S. Nariman. If the Disruption of Proceedings of Parliament (Disentitlement of Allowances to Members) Bill, 2004 can become law, MPs will be denied allowances on days when Parliament is adjourned.

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