Tuesday, Aug 19, 2003
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By Pran Chopra
ABSURD THINGS have happened in Parliament before. Such as demands in the spring of the year 2000, among others by a leading barrister and a former Cabinet Minister, that the Government must resign before Parliament could be given the chance to discuss the reasons why it must. The scene on the floor of the House continued to deteriorate in the year that followed. When Parliament is stifled by disorder democracy is muzzled. Parliament is the highest forum the people have chosen for voicing their views, and if they are silenced there democracy is silenced as much as it may be by a dictator.
Fortunately the ultimate crime against democracy has not been committed as yet. A man in uniform has not marched into Parliament House. The worst so far been an attempt by some terrorists, whether inspired or not by other men in uniform in other countries, to sneak into Parliament House and blow it up. On the contrary, ordinary Indians, wiser than many who claim to represent them, have repeatedly proved they continue to believe in democracy even if many of those elected by them do not seem to any longer. Witness the stunning display of voter power in States as diverse and far apart as Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Gujarat, and above all Jammu and Kashmir. Witness also the defeat of an increasing proportion of sitting candidates.
Perhaps in response to such warnings all MPs and their parties did three creditable things in recent years. First, they responded with near unanimity to the former Speaker, P.A. Sangma's example-setting move for a pledge by all that they would behave better; second, they restrained themselves sufficiently to allow Mr. Sangma's successor, G.M.C. Balayogi, a person of limited experience at that time, to re-establish the authority of the Chair; and, third, they agreed that any member who rushed to the "well of the House" in defiance of the Speaker would be automatically considered to have been "named" and therefore qualified for expulsion.
But recent events have shown that the season of shamelessness is in full swing. "Criminals in politics" may be a serious cry. But crimes against Parliament, and in Parliament, continue to be committed with impunity, and are even celebrated by an increasing number of members who do not deserve the seats they occupy when they are not shouting in the well. In fact, so alarmingly has their number grown that the Speaker's power to "name" the offender has been all but nullified by the numbers he would have to "name" when he begins with some. They are lucky that the people have not begun, yet, to turn their backs on democracy. But the time may not be far off when they do, and there may not be a lot of time left for those who let their lung power make up for their deficiencies.
Something worse is also happening, and it can grow into the ultimate crime against democracy, which of course will wipe out Parliament first. As a result of its high visibility and the power of its example, the virus of the discord which breaks out in that "well" so often is spreading throughout the polity. It is depriving Indian democracy of its life-saving quality, that it has hitherto been consensual by nature. For example, however bitter the electoral contest in any general or State election, the result goes in favour of parties or coalitions which follow or are getting into middle of the road politics, and are free of or are giving up extremist positions, whether they do so because of change of heart or because of the democratic compulsion that they can be in power only if they have or attain the support of the majority, in the legislature and in the country, or at least broader support than any other party or combination gets. But the spirit of discord is spreading into the practice of governance as well, and the result can be fatal for democracy.
In fact, the trend seems to be that the more important the issue at stake the less likely it is to receive the benefit of the kind of serious debate which alone can forge a durable consensus behind it. It is because of the value attached to debates that may lead to such a consensus that so many deliberative institutions were written into the Constitution, including some attached to the parliamentary process. For the same reason, an added advantage was accorded to them by the practice that they would decide matters by consensus and not by counting heads even though the final decision would rest on a vote in the relevant higher body such as either of the two Houses of Parliament.
For example, two committees of Parliament, the Public Accounts Committee and the Business Advisory Committee. Both are most relevant to some current controversies which have assumed a most corrosive character. The Business Advisory Committee is for advising the House on whether a particular matter should be debated on the floor, and if so under what rule, when, and for how long. The Public Accounts Committee is for scrutinising for the House whether the monies voted by it for the Government have been properly spent by the latter. The final decision on both questions rests with the full House in debates steered by the Speaker. But over the years a convention has grown that their advice is accepted by the House; and that because of the companion convention that they reach their conclusions by consensus not by partisan voting in the committees.
But that appears not to have happened in a matter that has plunged Parliament into the current phase of acrimony. The disagreements that are being so vociferously voiced on the floor probably also blocked consensus in the Public Accounts Committee, and this has also dragged in the Business Advisory Committee though tangentially. It has been alleged that the Government refused to give a report of the Chief Vigilance Commissioner to the Public Accounts Committee and, therefore, the latter has not been able to make its report to Parliament. The Government explains it is only refusing to place the CVC report before Parliament because the Commissioner himself has marked it top secret. The debate is also caught in the absurd tangle that while the House recognises the incumbent Government and its Prime Minister, the Opposition is not willing to hear the Defence Minister, George Fernandes, on a matter which directly relates to his portfolio. It insists that the Prime Minister must speak instead. While refusing to hear the Defence Minister, the Opposition is unable to vote him out because it can do that only through a vote against the Government, and it does not have the numbers needed for winning that vote.
It is possible that we are in a grey area and there are not enough precedents to show the way out on whether the CVC can mark his findings top secret and whether, if he does, the Government can withhold it from the Public Accounts Committee or from Parliament. Or on whether, on the principle of collective responsibility, the Minister most directly concerned with a matter can speak on it for the Government and the Prime Minister, without necessarily having to speak on it first, can later on add what he thinks he may need to. But when new situations arise they can be converted into useful precedents for the future by debating on them in a befitting parliamentary manner, not by walkouts.
What seems more likely at the moment is that proper parliamentary procedures, evolved over several decades of parliamentary democracy, will go the way many other institutions have gone although they were created, by people wiser than succeeding generations appear to be, precisely for the purpose of building useful precedents for dealing constructively with new situations. Institutions such as the Inter-State Council, the Zonal Councils, the regularity with which councils of Chief Ministers or Ministers concerned with specific departments used to be held to evolve remedies, standards, procedures. Instead we seem to have fallen into the habit of converting every understandable disagreement into an incendiary dispute. The current crimes against Parliament may be only the fuse.
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