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Code and conduct

Print edition : Dec 22, 2002

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Proceedings in the winter session of Parliament prove that the mere adoption of a Code of Conduct for members will not ensure discipline and decorum.

ON November 25, an all-India conference of presiding officers, Chief Ministers, Ministers for Parliamentary Affairs and leaders and whips of political parties adopted unanimously a resolution on "Discipline and decorum in Parliament and legislatures of State and Union Territories". This was preceded, on November 22, by the tabling in Parliament of a report on a code of conduct for parliamentarians painstakingly prepared by a committee on ethics. Yet, the following days saw the two Houses of Parliament plunging into disorder. The Code of Conduct went out of the window as some members, both from the Opposition parties and from the treasury benches, flouted the Chair's ruling and interrupted proceedings.

The Code of Conduct for members is categorical about what one can and cannot do while the proceedings of the House are on. The dos include: always address the Chair, keep to one's usual seat while addressing the House, maintain silence while not addressing, maintain the inviolability of the question hour, refrain from rushing into the well of the House, and resume one's seat as soon as the Speaker rises to speak. The don'ts include the following: do not interrupt any member while speaking by disorderly expression or noises, do not obstruct proceedings, do not shout slogans inside the House, do not question or comment on the ruling of the Chair, do not speak unless called by the Chair or speak unparliamentary words, do not use one's right of speech to obstruct the business of the House, among others.

A look at the proceedings of Parliament in recent days would establish that the Code of Conduct has been observed more in its violation than in its compliance. The Code of Conduct makes it mandatory for members to disclose their income, assets and liabilities through a financial disclosure statement immediately after being elected and after the completion of their term; requires them to file revised forms whenever any changes occur; and recommends that a register of members' interest be maintained on the basis of information furnished by them.

The code specifies that violations would be punishable by measures such as admonition, reprimand, censure, or withdrawal from the House for offences of a less serious nature and by automatic suspension from the services of the House for grave misconduct, which includes rushing into the well of the House. It calls upon the leaders of political parties and the leaders of the House and the Opposition to ensure disciplined behaviour by members on their respective sides and directs the government and the treasury benches to be more positive and responsive towards the Opposition by responding promptly to matters raised by them on the floor of the House. Besides, it calls upon the presiding officers and leaders of political and legislature parties to ensure that new members are given proper orientation and training in parliamentary procedure, discipline and decorum.

However, November 26 saw pandemonium in the Lok Sabha. While Opposition members vociferously demanded that the government withdraw the controversial circular ordering the deletion of certain portions from some history textbooks published by the National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT), the treasury benches tried to shout them down. Members of the Bharatiya Janata Party refused to heed the Speaker's repeated request that only the Minister for Parliamentary Affairs speak on behalf of the government. They continued to protest vociferously against the use of expressions such as "Talibanisation of education" by the Opposition as well as the charge that the government sought to impose its "obscurantist" ideas by rewriting history. The Parliamentary Affairs Minister added to the pandemonium by declaring that what the Opposition was doing was akin to what Joseph Goebbels had done - keep repeating lies until others believed them. When he announced that the circular relating to the NCERT textbooks would not be withdrawn, the entire Opposition staged a walkout. Former Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar, who remained in his seat, strongly objected to the Goebbels parallel, which he said was extremely unfortunate.

Again on November 28, Congress(I) member of the Rajya Sabha K.K. Birla refused to put supplementary questions to Defence Minister George Fernandes, despite the Chair directing him to do so. The Opposition has been boycotting Fernandes, objecting to his reinduction into the Cabinet even as a commission of inquiry was probing the charges against him in the Tehelka affair. As Birla refused to put his question to the Minister, the entire Opposition rose in his support. Members of the ruling coalition joined issues with this, leading to uproarious scenes.

The Code of Conduct is categorical about the "inviolability" of the question hour. The Lok Sabha witnessed ugly scenes as the Opposition demanded a statement from the government on the alleged violation of Indian air space by a U.S. helicopter from USS John Young, a U.S. ship that had docked at the Chennai port. Opposition members staged a walkout protesting against the absence of any senior Minister to reply to an issue of national importance. The House witnessed a similar scene the next day too as Opposition members refused to put any question to Fernandes. There were noisy scenes during zero hour, again followed by a walkout by the Opposition when Fernandes started reading out a statement on the helicopter issue.

The "inviolability" of question hour was violated once again on December 3 as Opposition members in the Lok Sabha protested against Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee's statement in Hyderabad on December 2 on the Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance (POTO). Accusing the Prime Minister of playing politics in the name of POTO, they said that his statements had hurt the feelings of the minorities. The Prime Minister refuted the charges and took Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav to task for disrupting question hour. "Heavens would not have fallen if he had raised the issue during zero hour. What is he doing if not playing politics by raising this issue during question hour?" Vajpayee asked.

Members continued to obstruct proceedings, forcing adjournments on the following days too. While on December 6 it was the protest against the demolition of the Babri Masjid, on December 7 the issue was the apparent connivance of five Cabinet Ministers in the Vishwa Hindu Parishad's (VHP) programme of temple construction. Both the Opposition and the treasury benches raised slogans, which ensured that the House was adjourned within minutes of assembling on December 7. The next day the Lok Sabha witnessed more unruly scenes as members almost came to blows after the House was adjourned following unprecedented uproar: it was not the Opposition but members of the ruling coalition that flouted the Chair's ruling; they insisted on obstructing the speech by the Congress(I)'s Priya Ranjan Das Munshi. Even after the House was adjourned, members from both sides were seen menacingly gesticulating at each other, some of them even making offensive gestures and shouting each other down.

The latest violation, interestingly, came barely 24 hours after the Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business were amended to provide for punishment for unruly behaviour. Other rules in the Code of Conduct, such as the one requiring all members to be present when important debates or business transactions take place, are often flouted. For example, the much-demanded debate on the intrusion by VHP leaders into the sanctum sanctorum of the makeshift temple in Ayodhya saw only a handful of members present.

The debate on farmers' issues, which took place earlier, saw very thin attendance. The absences mostly remain unexplained as is stated in the report of the Committee on Absences that was tabled in Parliament on November 22. The committee takes into account only those who judiciously apply for leave explaining the reason for their absence from their respective Houses. Those who wilfully choose to stay away, or those who merely come to sign the register, far outnumber them. A recent case in point was an incident in the Rajya Sabha on December 7 when the post-lunch session, which was supposed to discuss frequent disruptions in the proceedings, was delayed by 15 minutes for lack of quorum. The issue of frequent adjournments was raised by the nominated member Dr. Raja Ramanna, who said it had become common to disregard the decorum of the House, forcing frequent adjournments.

It becomes obvious that having a code is not enough to ensure decorum in the House. In order to maintain the sanctity of Parliament and the legislatures, there ought to be the will to adhere to the code. The Prime Minister has rightly observed: "We must not only evolve a Code of Conduct but also adhere to it." Here the responsibility of the government is greater than that of the Opposition. The Committee on Ethics has rightly observed that greater responsiveness and restraint on the part of the government and the treasury benches would go a long way in ensuring decorum in the House.

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