"One day of proceedings costs around Rs 10 crore and we have already lost over 10 days of the session. If one calculates the cost, then it is much more than the money we lost in the Bofors scandal where we lost 64 crores”
These words uttered by the former Supreme Court judge, Mr. Santosh Hegde, reveal the reality of the current (paralytic) state of our parliament. (9 December 2016)
Parliamentary disruptions have stalled several important policy decisions over the last few years. The Lok Sabha or the lower house of Parliament, ran for a total 19 hours in the 21-day winter session in 2016, not even averaging an hour a day. The Rajya Sabha did marginally better at 22 hours. The rest of the time was lost to slogan shouting and disruption, mainly over the government's demonetization policy and its popular outcry. Between the two Houses they could pass only 2 bills and most other legislative work listed by the government have been pushed to the Budget session to be held January 2017 onwards.
There are two essential factors to be noted here. The current NDA government enjoys the largest public mandate an Indian political party has had in decades. The social fault lines of our political leadership are so firmly engraved that it has rendered democracy as a mere figment of academic analysis. Secondly, despite its portrayal the disruption of the house by the opposition isn’t an issue specific phenomenon as much as it is an emerging as political recourse. The 2015 Monsoon session of the Indian Parliament ended with one of the worst records in its history. The productivity of the Rajya Sabha and the Lok Sabha were 9% and 48% respectively. (PRS Legislative Research 2015). It was succeeded by the usual resulting hue and cry by the ruling party and the ‘victim card ploy’ by the opposition. The 2010 winter session, caused a loss of more than Rs 25 crores, with the parliament losing 114 working hours in the first 11 days.
Indian Parliament is often revered as a temple of democracy. The parliament and its functionaries in this great country debate the future of 1.2 billion lives. Amidst all the rhetoric over nationalism, is there a greater exemplification of crime against patriotism than legislative negligence? Disagreements are the cornerstone of a healthy parliamentary discourse. A constructive debate on the points of contention is imperative for the passage of important bills. However, disagreements must be deliberated upon through dialogue instead of disruptions. In the last two decades, disruptions in this highest forum of debate have become a norm rather than an exception. Instead of resolving issues of dispute through dialogue, political parties have started adopting disruption as their preferred means of showing dissent.
In a strong message as he adjourned the house for the session, Rajya Sabha chairman and Vice President Hamid Ansari lamented that, "regular and continuous disruptions characterized the session... the symbolism of dignified protest so essential for orderly conduct of Parliament proceedings was abandoned," and said this had "deprived members of the opportunity to seek accountability of the executive through questions and discussions on matters of public concerns."
Most Indians are worried about the time lost due to disruptions in the proceedings. Concerns over the loss of time and the inability to transact legislative business led the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) to start an online signature campaign asking parliamentarians to end the logjam.
Many questions can be raised concerning this parliamentary impasse. Why has the “temple of democracy” reached this sorry state of affairs? Why have disruptions become so very frequent in the recent past? Who benefits from parliament disruptions? Below are stated some of the possible reasons behind this occurrence:
1. Opportunity to gain cheap popularity: From 2006 onwards, the parliamentary proceedings are telecasted live on TV. Live telecast is the best way to approach the millions of voters watching them on television. Stage walk-outs, high pitched allegations and unnecessary ruckus or complete stalemate of the parliament proceedings are one of their favorite tactics. Politicians and parties know that getting news coverage from their actions outside the parliament is much more arduous than from disrupting the parliament.
What could have been a better way to become a fashionable part of public discourse than being seen of TV channels throughout the day? Hence, it was a source of cheap publicity for them. Similarly, politicians also attempt to make capital out of parliamentary disruptions. A lesser known parliamentarian, Rajneeti Prasad tore a copy of much-debated Lokpal Bill inside the Rajya Sabha at the crucial hour of debate on 29th December, 2011. He became an overnight media sensation and was all over the TV channels and newspapers for next few days.
2. Political Rivalry: This is an age of politics of criticism. Political parties don't focus on taking their own agenda to the public. However, they leave no stone unturned in bringing rival parties' shortcomings to the fore. So, there can't be any better platform than the Parliament to bring mistakes of the party in power to public notice. BJP had disrupted the parliament in 2010 in an unprecedented manner. Now, it was time for Congress to settle scores. The strong criticism of Demonetization landed the parliament into a paralytic situation which is not only a huge wastage of the ex chequer’s money but also a negligence of more important issues concerning employment, health and education.
While the government had three enabling Goods and Services Tax (GST) Bills for the Lok Sabha, five legislative proposals, including Disability Benefits, Employees Benefits, Prevention of discrimination against HIV patients, Maternity Benefit, also been listed in the agenda of business for the Rajya Sabha this winter session. But the winter washout did not accommodate debates and discussions but disruptions and abandonment.
“The three GST Bills could be passed in din if there is no breakthrough in the logjam. Since they are Money Bills, the government is not worried,” said an NDA floor manager.
3. Party or Public: The other possible reason can be the Anti-defection law 1985, enacted against the “evil of party defection” which allows parties to herd their members. Furthermore, weakening any initiative or incentive for legislators to invest in developing their own viewpoints and express them freely as they cannot use their own stand on different issues to evolve or develop their own political careers. The effect of anti-defection law is not only manifest in disruptions or the nature of protest and dissent, but is also negative for intra-party democracy. The role of legislators has been reduced to merely instruments from the point of view of a party, because they follow the diktat of the party as far as legislative business is concerned. The purpose of the debates and discussions is to allow the MPs to hold the government accountable for its action and to raise issues related to their constituencies and regions.
The Vice President Hamid Ansari asked lawmakers to "introspect on the distinction between dissent, disruption and agitation."
Instead of going the ordinance route, the government should rethink how changes can be implemented in the functioning of the Parliament and the role of the Opposition in bringing about those changes. This revolves around, how the Speaker handles the disrupters? how much is the cost to the exchequer in terms of losses? and why the government is unable to manage the floor and coordinate properly with Opposition members? “There is a lot of chest beating about the inability of the ruling party to do proper floor management or build consensus across parties on important issues” (Madhavan 2015)In words of Kaushiki Sanyal
“A parliamentary government is described as government by discussion. Therefore, by allowing for wider and more impactful participation in parliament, it is possible that some of the causes of disruptions would get addressed. Simultaneously, it may improve the quality of debates if members with more expertise on a given subject are allowed to speak longer in the House. All of these measures would have to be coupled with other capacity building activities such as providing office space to all MPs, access to institutional research support and quality training programs in order to both deepen and broaden our democratic polity.”
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