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Disorder of the day

Print edition : Sep 09, 2011 T+T-
LOK SABHA SPEAKER Meira Kumar at a meeting with leaders of all parties on July 31 before the start of the monsoon session of Parliament.-R. V. MOORTHY

LOK SABHA SPEAKER Meira Kumar at a meeting with leaders of all parties on July 31 before the start of the monsoon session of Parliament.-R. V. MOORTHY

There cannot be any compromise on the smooth conduct of Parliament, and the presiding officers should exercise their enormous powers to ensure this.

FOR the duration of the previous Lok Sabha, we have information that shows how much of the time of the House, valued at over Rs.27,000 a minute, was wasted; the figure is enormous and it was paid for by us all. The exact figure is deliberately not being mentioned here because no one really cares least of all those who were members of the last Lok Sabha.

Similar is the situation during the present Lok Sabha session too. The House is simply not being allowed to function. Many Members of Parliament do what has now become standard practice they rush into the well of the House and scream and wave papers until the presiding officer adjourns the House, and then they all go out, chatting with one another.

It is more than likely that a large number of people are highly concerned at the way both Houses of Parliament are functioning. This is, after all, the supreme legislative body in the country, not just making laws but watching over their implementation by the executive, which is, in our parliamentary democracy, answerable to Parliament. It is not for nothing that we call ourselves a parliamentary democracy.

Imagine a situation where the judges of the Supreme Court come to their courtrooms every day, sit there doing nothing for about an hour or so, and then rise for the day. No cases heard, no petitions looked at, no orders passed. It is a scenario that would horrify us all; it would mean an end to the dispensation of justice. And how much worse would it be if this was how every High Court in the country functioned as well? The rule of law would disappear, obviously.

Is what is happening in the third arm of our polity, the legislature, any different? Day after day all one can hear and see is shouting, waving of papers and members of the Houses surrounding the hapless presiding officer, until he or she has no alternative except to adjourn the House.

All this is being written about by everyone who is alarmed at the fate that awaits India as its law-making powers are abnegated. None of the writings has the slightest effect on those who stop the functioning of both Houses of Parliament day after day.

Now things have gone even further. Sushma Swaraj, Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, usually a mature, dignified and magnanimous person, has declared that leaders of her party (Bharatiya Janata Party) meet every morning to decide whether they will allow Parliament to function that day. Media reports said that Arun Jaitley, Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, standing next to her, vigorously nodded in agreement. This is not a joint decision by all opposition parties, but a decision by one party.

Leaving aside the question whether this amounts to contempt or breach of privilege, the fact that a political leader can make such a brazen statement takes one's breath away. It stands democracy on its head. This party was rejected by the people in the general election, and it has the gall to decide if Parliament should function or not.

But two issues must be noted here: one is that any party in Parliament with even five MPs can say what the BJP has said after all, what does it take to shout and scream when Parliament is in session, then go and scream and wave papers before the presiding officer and continue to do so until the Houses are adjourned?

The second and more dangerous issue is the manifest inability of the presiding officers to discipline members of both Houses. All they do is keep appealing to them to return to their seats and to stop shouting. When the Speaker of the British House of Commons stands, it is obligatory for all MPs to sit. Parliamentary procedures such as naming an MP or standing up are of no use whatsoever in India.

Role of presiding officers

It is time that the presiding officers the Speaker in the Lok Sabha and the Chairman in the Rajya Sabha took a serious look at where they have taken the two Houses of Parliament. The plain hard fact is that it is, finally, they who are responsible for the conduct of business in the Houses, and they have great powers the Speaker certainly has to discipline unruly MPs. If nothing else works, the Speaker can summon marshals and have misbehaving MPs removed from the House, and determine for how long he or she will remain out for the day, a week or for the entire session.

More than this, the Speaker can, after removing as many MPs for their unruly behaviour and for defying her directions, constitute a Committee of the House to determine what the manner of punishment to be imposed on these MPs should be.

The Speaker knows what she can do far better than we do. The mystery is why she does not do it.

Unruly MPs and parties that feel they have the right to allow' Parliament to function or not may argue that sometimes there are major issues that require such drastic action. There may be, but where do you draw the line?

To a layman, the answers seem simple enough. The procedures of the House provide for raising matters of urgent public importance, for moving calling attention and no-confidence motions and a variety of other means of expressing anger, indignation and concern. It also has the means to make the ruling party or group listen and then take remedial action and report back to the House. These procedures serve the purpose of letting members express their reaction to a particular event, get the ruling group to react, and yet preserve the dignity of the House.

If these procedures are not followed, then must not the Speaker take firm, decisive action to ensure that the House can function with dignity by punishing unruly MPs either on her own or through the decisions of a Committee she has the powers to set up?

The remedies are, then, squarely in the hands of the Speaker and of the Chairman of the Rajya Sabha. The people have through their elected MPs reposed faith in them to conduct their own proceedings in an orderly, purposeful and dignified manner. Surely the presiding officers must find effective means to ensure this, and if it is blocked by the ruling party by whatever means, they should have the courage of their convictions to leave their offices, and tell the nation just why they are doing so.

The fact is the running of the Houses of Parliament cannot be compromised not by the opposition parties, not by the ruling party or parties acting covertly by pressurising the Speaker and Chairman. Nothing, just nothing, must prevent the Houses from functioning effectively.

If any individual or party tries to do that, they need to be dealt with sternly. If the presiding officers do not do this, they will be accused of complicity in letting parliamentary democracy wither to a comic version of what the Constitution meant it to be.