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What price privileges for lawmakers?

March 26, 2013 14:30 IST

A legislator can invoke privileges only if prevented from performing his obligations as an elected representative. Breaking speed limits on a sea link or brandishing a weapon against a business rival is not one among such obligations, says Mahesh Vijapurkar.

Ganpatrao Deshmukh, is a veteran opposition leader in the Maharashtra assembly, there since 1962 but for a gap between 1995 and 1999. He is most respected among his peers in politics. He was appalled when some members performed a maha arati inside its precincts and later spoke of how “unfortunately times have changed." He had hoped it was only a transitory slide.

Now that he has been asked to take a comprehensive view of, or rather investigate, the recent fracas involving a police official and some MLAs which led to the arrest of two, suspension of some including of the policeman, he would hopefully get to the right perspective and pin the blame where it belongs. Once that is done, the elected representatives could hopefully know their limits.

At the nub, it should not be just the behaviour of the legislators inside their hallowed precincts but of how privileges are invoked by the elected representatives at the drop of a hat for any minor personal affront to them. If a legislator does not get what they call ‘respect’ -- quite a nebulous term -- they raise Cain and the supposedly guilty are hauled up to the bar of the House. The intemperate behaviour of legislators is always ignored.

Not only that, two television editors now face a privilege motion against them for describing the unruly, even violent legislators in terms which even ordinary citizens would not hesitate to employ. The question was whether a police officer who did his duty should be lawlessly punished instead of being praised, and the ugly manner of retaliation inflicted upon him. The very fact of being a legislator is supposed, according to the legislators, to shield them.

This should not work but it does. How else does one look at the conduct of another MLA, this time from Kalyan, thrashing a business rival in cable television distribution and threatening him with a revolver? While a case has been booked against the honourable MLA, in the light of the assault on a policeman within the assembly premises, would it lead to a logical conclusion? It would not be surprising if the concerned police official who booked the case is already intimidated.

The point here is that privileges are not personal and centric to the presumed eminence of a legislator. Privileges have been conceived to enable the law-making for a, assembly or Parliament, to function without fetters in the interest of their respective states or the entire country. As journalist and MP, Bharatkumar Raut wrote on Tuesday in the marathi newspaper Maharashtra Times, confusion exists between what they think is their rights and that of the Houses they are members are.

Raut appropriately quoted P G Mavlankar, the first Lok Sabha Speaker, as having said in 1956 that “Privileges of Parliament do not place a member of Parliament on a footing different from that of an ordinary citizen in the manner of application of law, unless there are sufficient reasons in the interests of the Parliament itself to do so.” That places the legislator on par with a common man except when performing as an elected representative. Breaking speed limits on a sea link or brandishing a weapon is not one among such obligations.

It would appear that those in the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha are circumspect and do not invoke privileges as many worthies in the state assemblies do. However, MPs too are not untouched by this desire to get their respect restored. There was a case of that community of citizens getting upset because they were forced to travel second class instead of first following which the railway board set up a special cell to deal with MPs’ train reservations. Across the country, MLAs have been angered at lesser slights.

Maharashtra -- the incidents in its assembly being the provocation for this article -- has had several farcical instances. Once, Anna Dange, MLC faulted a newspaper for not publishing the image of Chhatrapati Shivaji on his birth anniversary and had to be told off by the editor, Govind Talwalkar that if there was anything new to say there would have been. Also, what the newspaper chose to routinely publish was not the legislatures’ or Dange’s prerogative. The community of legislators had also taken exception to Police Commissioner A S Samra talking to the press on March 1993 bomb blasts without first taking the legislature into confidence.

But when it came to serious issues, the legislature itself has played politics on privilege. When a Privileges Committee headed by Shankarrao Jagtap, a former Speaker had recommended in 1995 a week of jail to Bal Thackeray for an offence against the Maharashtra assembly, it was returned asking for a stiffer punishment. The trick was a hidden one: It was days before the assembly’s term ended and it would not subsist in the next. The government, then headed by Sharad Pawar, appeared stern but escaped responsibly.

Then what price the privileges so often claimed?

Mahesh Vijapurkar