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From farce to tragedy
August 17, 2006
When future historians evaluate the current session of Parliament, they will rate it as one of the most raucous and unproductive series of sittings ever held by India's lawmakers.
Its first half was dominated by a non-issue -- a hollow, unsubstantiated, cheaply sensationalist claim made by one of India's most pompous politicians. Lord Haw-Haw Jaswant Singh of Kandahar couldn't produce even an iota of evidence to show that there was a 'mole' in P V Narasimha Rao's inner circle, who passed sensitive information on to the United States on India's nuclear programme.
Singh first pretended that he knew more about this matter than he had disclosed in his tacky, self-obsessed, self-promoting book. The book is infuriatingly entitled A Call to Honour. It tries to whitewash just about everything dishonourable in the Bharatiya Janata Party's years in power: its attempt to radically rewrite the Constitution, refusal to bring to book the culprits of the Babri masjid demolition, its decision to cross the nuclear threshold without a security review or rationale, its realignment of foreign policy towards the United States, its pursuit of super-elitist, pro-corporate free-market policies; and above all, its culpability for the terrible Gujarat carnage of 2002.
Regrettably, the Opposition concentrated only on the 'mole' issue. Singh offered to name the 'mole' -- only to the prime minister, of course, and that too on request, in keeping with his own bloated self-image. He insinuated that the person was a top civil servant in the Prime Minister's Office, who has since retired and settled abroad.
But when confronted with names that matched the description, he ignominiously backed out. Then, Singh cited a letter from a US "Senator" to an American official. This turned to be a crude forgery. Singh couldn't stand his ground against a US embassy rebuttal. Yet, Parliament wasted scores of hours on the non-existent 'mole'.
The Monsoon Session's second half was consumed by another issue, which too is trivial to Parliament's overall agenda: the leak to the media of the Pathak Commission's report on the Iraq oil-for-food scam, before it was presented to Parliament. A peculiar line-up is emerging on the "breach-of-privilege" issue. Along with Singh, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance has been joined by the Regional-3 -- Samajwadi Party, Telugu Desam and AIADMK. Whether this develops into the kernel of a new political front or not, it speaks of these parties' short-term, parochial calculations.
However, neither that, nor the politics behind the Volcker Commission, can exonerate Natwar Singh of the charge of facilitating the Iraqi contracts. Although Justice Pathak has found no evidence that Singh personally received money from the shady deals, it's undeniable that he introduced his son and Andaleeb Sehgal to the Iraqi government. Singh stands morally and politically indicted. The SP-TDP-AIADMK have a narrow, parochial, opportunist motive behind backing him -- namely, embarrassing the Congress through the privilege motion.
However, there's no prima facie evidence of any breach of Parliamentary privilege. Nothing suggests that an official body leaked the Pathak report. (It probably came from a lawyer until recently associated with the Commission.) In any case, a leak involves an impropriety, not breach of privilege. The legitimate way to fight the Congress is to dissect the Pathak report, and question the process through which Volcker came selectively to name names in his multiple-version/instalment report. But The Regional-3 are looking for cheap gains.
The SP is keen to recruit Singh as its Jat face -- a poor replacement for Ajit Singh, who's in departure mode. The BJP, of course, makes no bones that its real, indeed only, target is Ms Sonia Gandhi -- no matter whether she was or wasn't involved in the Iraq deal. She's an "evil foreigner". But this is irrelevant to the issue at stake.
In fact, there has been more shadow-boxing than debate in Parliament so far. Even on the nuclear deal with the US, a far more important matter, the emphasis has been on procedure, rather than substance. The question being asked is not if the deal is in India's interest, promotes world peace, and defends sovereignty -- or doesn't. Rather, it's whether the US Congress has changed the goalposts from July 18 last year.
However, for those from the Left who criticised the original deal, this should be of much less consequence than their basic opposition to an India-US "strategic partnership" -- as well as to uncritical promotion of nuclear power. They can't treat the original deal or the PM's statements on it as sacrosanct and keep silent on their own concerns about sovereignty (which lies in the people, not mass-destruction weapons), nuclear disarmament and peace, or the environmental and health effects of nuclear power.
Those who attacked the original deal from the Right are even more inconsistent. If, in the first place, the deal is a "sellout" and will cripple India's capacity to make enough nuclear weapons, it cannot be remedied by minor changes to the Bills drafted in the US, and even less by the PM's assurance that he will stick to the July 2005 parameters, no more, no less. However, the BJP doesn't even behave like a proper, sincere, principled Right-wing party, which takes its ideology seriously. It's just plain opportunist and obsessed with attacking the Congress on every conceivable issue, with or (generally) without argument or reasoning.
The time claimed by the incredibly noisy, singularly unenlightening and largely futile debate on such trivial issues is not only a waste. It carries a heavy opportunity cost. Quite simply, it means that major issues worthy of serious debate are bypassed, important Bills are shelved or rushed through without the required readings, and precious opportunities to improve governance are squandered away.
Typically, 40 to 65 percent of all Bills listed for a Parliament Session are skipped for lack of time. In this Session, for instance, important business like the 33 per cent reservations-for-women Bill, measures to provide social security to unorganised workers, and drastic changes in the Right to Information Act, will not be taken up. Some of these have been hanging fire for as long as 10 years. This is a sad comment on our apex legislature.
Other parliamentary functions such as debating important national and international events, and articulating peoples' grievances and analysing their causes, have also suffered. Over two decades, the number of working days during which Parliament meets has shrunk by a fifth. Typically, Parliament now devotes only 14 per cent of its time to legislative business, compared to 48 per cent in the first two Lok Sabhas. The reason isn't that it discusses emergent developments and policies at greater length. Rather, its time is taken up in procedural matters, stonewalling questions, in acrimonious exchanges or noisy walkouts. Parliament is becoming less and less relevant in voicing popular concerns.
Parliamentary questions and the Zero Hour are extremely important instruments for drawing out information from the government and pointing its attention to major events. Even the most cynical of politicians and bureaucrats answer Parliament questions relatively honestly. They know they will pay a personal penalty if they're caught lying. But the number of questions that can be asked during Zero Hour has been reduced to just 10. The overall proportion of starred questions -- on which further debate is allowed -- has decreased. As has the quality of the information contained in the answers. This bodes ill for transparency.
This should give serious cause for concern to our leaders, both in and outside government. By contributing to the trivialisation of parliamentary discourse, they risk damaging the greatest assets they can possess in the eyes of the people: credibility and legitimacy. Without these, our leaders won't count for toffee. The era of manipulative politics, in which people voted naively, has ended. Identity representation is no longer enough. People want direct power -- as well as transparency, action, accountability.
Today's wholly justified outcry over the government's disgraceful attempt to exempt file notings from the purview of the RTI Act is an expression of this grass-roots urge, which is increasingly proving irrepressible. People want to know how their money is spent, how corruption can be punished and eliminated, how governments can become more responsive. That's why the growing demand that policies should be discussed and approved in Parliament. As also the demand for parliamentary ratification of all international treaties and agreements.
The thrust of all these is unambiguous: greater transparency and accountability from every institution, every official, every service provider. Parliament is clearly central to this. If it lets the people down, it will jeopardise India's own future. From the current farce, we would then move on to a true tragedy.