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Home > India > News > Columnists > Neerja Chowdhury

The dumbing down of Parliament

April 28, 2008

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All of last week there was suspense in Parliament whether the Budget session would be adjourned on April 30 instead of running its course till May 9. The decision is not known till the time of writing. Both the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party favour a curtailment of the session. They wanted to get on with campaigning in Karnataka, where elections are due in May, its outcome expected to set the tone for assembly polls in the winter and for the general elections next year.
 
The argument for cutting short the session however did not make sense. Elections after all are a reality of a democratic polity and one or another election is on during every session of Parliament.
 
Parliament used to meet for almost half the year. Now it meets for less than 100 days. The number of sittings has gone down by a third what it used to be in the fifties and the hours per sitting have declined. More than 20 percent of Parliament's time is wasted through disruptions. It costs you and me Rs 26,000 per minute to keep Parliament going. We can go over the facts and figures ad nauseum. But it seems to have little effect. It is as if no one is interested in Parliament any more.
 
Last week, the BJP, for instance, rightly took up price rise as an issue agitating people. It even formed a human chain outside Parliament House to draw attention to the problem. It stalled parliamentary proceedings but when the time came for a discussion, the party did not field its big guns.
 
Shouting and disruption have become the language of parliamentary functioning, and we saw it again in the Budget session. It is easier to drown out the opponent than to marshal arguments, coin a new turn of phrase or demolish an argument by the display of wit and humour, or by the use of  ridicule, both being deadly weapons of communication. The cut and thrust of parliamentary debate is fast becoming a thing of the past. Forget the fifties, sixties, seventies or eighties. We have seen great debates and it was not so long ago with people glued to their television sets.
 
This does not mean that those coming into Parliament are not capable of great debates. If almost one-quarter of  the current Parliament is made up of people who have criminal cases against them, and want to use their entry into politics to influence their cases, there would certainly be an equal number of MPs with a  grasp of issues and the ability for great debates.
 
Several of the younger MPs are promising. But some of them admit that they came into Parliament starry-eyed but were very quickly disabused of their illusions. They have learnt to do their own thing and go home. The empty rows of green and red, quorum bells, the devaluation of Question Hour, frequent adjournments, and the now desultory atmosphere that often prevails in Parliament House, continue unaddressed.
 
Politicians charge the media with not being interested in covering substantive debates. Journalists lament that good debates have become few and far between. 
 
Many MPs admit in private that they find the proceedings "boring". Some come to Parliament to network, to catch ministers to do the work of their constituents, be it a school admission, a railway ticket, a gas agency or a business contract. They have increasingly become the dispensers of patronage rather than the formulators of policy. The tragedy is that their constituents also view them in that role.
 
Others come to further their business interests. The recommendations of a key parliamentary committee that those with business interests should not be associated with committees which deal with those areas has come not a day too soon.
 
These issues are not new, and have been taken up time and again. Why are things not changing?
 
Last week Pranab Mukherji called for "zero tolerance" towards disruptions. The trouble is that the Congress exhorts the BJP to behave when it is in power and at the receiving end of flak. The converse is equally true.  Neither side is sincere in finding ways which could  make a difference and stem the growing cynicism about Parliament's functioning or, in Nehru's words, its "majesty".
 
There is another reason why disruptions go on unchecked despite promises made by parliamentary party leaders time and again to reform. The last two decades have seen the devolution of Indian democracy, throwing up a large number of regional players and they are increasingly  influencing national politics. If  Mayawati tells her band of MPs in Delhi to take on the Congress in Parliament over Rahul Gandhi's [Images] forays into Bundelkhand, the BSP members are not likely to  heed the entreaties of the Speaker. If Jayalalitha has given the nod to her MPs to take on the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in Parliament, they will outdo each other to please their leader, unmindful of any code of conduct.
 
The Maitreyan episode last week was a case in point, though an even handling of the situation might have helped bring down tempers. The AIDMK MP was suspended for his rowdy behaviour when he sought action against Union Minister T R Baalu. But Baalu's unashamed admission that he had approached the petroleum minister for the supply of gas to companies headed by his family only added fuel to fire. Both violated the spirit of the oath they had taken.
 
Today the key to smooth and dignified parliamentary functioning  lies not just in Delhi but also in the state capitals. Jayalalitha, M Karunanidhi, Mayawati, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Nitish Kumar, Chandrababu Naidu [Images], Parkash Singh Badal, Bal Thackeray, Naveen Patnaik may not be in Parliament but they hold the levers which controls movement in Parliament.  
 

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