Democracy in peril

Published : Jan 28, 2011 00:00 IST

BJP leaders L.K. Advani, Sushma Swaraj, Arun Jaitley, Rajnath Singh and others with Sharad Yadav of the Janata Dal (United) and other leaders of the National Democratic Alliance at a protest outside Parliament House on December 13 demanding a JPC probe into the telecom scandal. - SUBHAV SHUKLA/PTI

BJP leaders L.K. Advani, Sushma Swaraj, Arun Jaitley, Rajnath Singh and others with Sharad Yadav of the Janata Dal (United) and other leaders of the National Democratic Alliance at a protest outside Parliament House on December 13 demanding a JPC probe into the telecom scandal. - SUBHAV SHUKLA/PTI

By stalling the winter session over its demand for a JPC on the telecom scandal, the BJP used Parliament for ends other than parliamentary.

THE statistics will be cited for long. But memories of the recent siege of Parliament by the Opposition parties will haunt India far longer once its implications begin to sink in in the public mind. All this clamour was for a useless and discredited instrument, which could not have worked at all, the Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC). A scam of massive proportions exacting a loss of Rs.17,600 crore deserves the most rigorous probe and accountability. It is equally true that nine years ago the Congress also clamoured for a JPC as a political tool, as K.V. Prasad recalled in The Hindu, and was none-too-disciplined on the floor of the Lok Sabha.

But the siege of November-December 2010 is unique. It is different from Raj Narain's trials of physical strength with Marshals in the Rajya Sabha, to the despair of its Chairman, Dr Zakir Husain; from the antics of the Lohiaites, particularly Madhu Limaye, or the barracking by the Sanjay Gandhi brigade, led by S.S. Ahluwalia, now appropriately a darling of the BJP, after the Congress' return to power in 1980; or, for that matter, from any of the other cases of organised unruly behaviour in Parliament, whether by the Congress or by the BJP.

In the present case, the BJP decided to use Parliament for ends other than parliamentary. It decided to pervert the forum to serve as a weapon of coercion and blackmail. The staggering statistics tell the tale. The Lok Sabha worked for just seven hours and 37 minutes, barely 5.5 per cent of the time available.

The Rajya Sabha worked for barely two hours and forty-four minutes, 2.4 per cent of the time available. Its Chairman, Hamid Ansari, in a measured rebuke on December 14, summed up the features and aptly characterised them as being distinctive. He said: No debates or discussions on matters of public interest took place; no Special Mentions were made or papers laid on the table; no Zero Hour interventions were sought; no questions were answered orally and no supplementary questions were raised.

He concluded with an unforgettable remark: Peace prevailed only when obituaries were raised. Only the dead inspired becoming behaviour. The anxiety that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh expressed on December 11 was perfectly justified: I am worried about the future of the parliamentary system.

Parliament is truly the Grand Inquest of the Nation. The debates are meant as much for the people as for the participants; hence the role of the fourth estate in the reporters' gallery. John Stuart Mill's classic Considerations on Representative Government (1861) answered the jibe a talking shop sometimes levelled at Parliament: Representative assemblies are often taunted by their enemies with being places of mere talk and bavardage. There has seldom been more misplaced derision. I know not how a representative assembly can more usefully employ itself than in talk, when the subject of talk is the great public interests of the country, and every sentence of it represents the opinion either of some important body of persons in the nation, or of an individual in whom some such body have reposed their confidence. A place where every interest and shade of opinion in the country can have its cause even passionately pleaded, in the face of the government and of all other interests and opinions, can compel to listen, and either comply, or state clearly why they do not, is in itself, if it answered no other purpose, one of the most important political institutions that can exist anywhere, and one of the foremost benefits of free government. Such talking' would never be looked upon with disparagement, if it were not allowed to stop doing;' which it never would, if assemblies knew and acknowledged that talking and discussion are their proper business, while doing, as the result of discussion, is the task not of a miscellaneous body, but of individuals specially trained to it; that the fit office of an assembly is to see that those individuals are honestly and intelligently chosen, and to interfere no further with them, except by unlimited latitude of suggestion and criticism, and by applying or withholding the final seal of national assent.

Mill asked: Of what efficacy are rules of procedure in securing the ends of justice, if the moral condition of the people is such that the witnesses generally lie, and the judges and their subordinates take bribes? Again, how can institutions provide a good municipal administration if there exists such indifference to the subject that those who would administer honestly and capably cannot be induced to serve, and the duties are left to those who undertake them because they have some private interest to be promoted? Of what avail is the most broadly popular representative system if the electors do not care to choose the best member of Parliament, but choose him who will spend most money to be elected? How can a representative assembly work for good if its members can be bought, or if their excitability of temperament, uncorrected by public discipline or private self-control, makes them incapable of calm deliberation, and they resort to manual violence on the floor of the House, or shoot at one another with rifles?

The siege was inspired by a view which opposed these very basics of representative government. We don't want a debate for debate's sake, Atal Bihari Vajpayee said on December 19, 1995, apropos the demand for a JPC on the charges against the Minister for Communications, Sukh Ram, in the telecom scandal.

Fifteen years later, on December 13, 2010, Lal Krishna Advani justified the stalling of the Lok Sabha with a corollary to the Vajpayee theory. He asserted, Sometimes business not proceeding also yields results. In plain words, the desired result will be obtained by forcibly preventing Parliament from performing the tasks assigned to it by the Constitution. If this passes muster, there will be nothing to prevent the BJP from holding Parliament to ransom on any demand; for example, legislation for the construction of a Ram temple in Ayodhya.

This is what we are up against. The enormity of the challenge to India's parliamentary democracy cannot be exaggerated. The demand for a JPC betrays sheer ignorance. One of the most distinguished judges of the last century, Lord Justice Salmon, wrote its requiem in 1966. He was Chairman of the Commission on Tribunals of Inquiry (Cmnd. 3121). Its report said, From the middle of the 17th century until 1921, the usual method of investigating events giving rise to public disquiet about the alleged misconduct of ministers or other public servants was by a Select Parliamentary Committee or Commission of Inquiry. Some of the serious disadvantages of this procedure are illustrated by the following examples from the history of the last 300 years.

It cited an early case as the first of the many and remarked: That Committee of Inquiry had no claim to impartiality. It was actuated solely by party political motives. This is a characteristic defect of such committees inquiring into matters of this kind which has persisted throughout their history. Later in the same century there were further Select Parliamentary Committee of Inquiry to investigate the alleged mismanagement of Irish affairs and charges of widespread corruption, including charges against Sir John Trevor, the Speaker of the House of Commons.

In the 18th century, select parliamentary committees of inquiry were appointed to investigate circumstances leading to the signing of the Treaty of Utrecht, with the object of discrediting members of the Tory Opposition; to investigate allegations of incompetence and mismanagement of Sir Robert Walpole. In the 19th century there were select parliamentary committees of inquiry to investigate the conduct of the expedition to the island of Walcheran, the war with Napolean, and the Crimean War.

Early in the present century [the 20th century] there occurred what became known as the Marconi Scandal. In 1912 the Postmaster General in the Liberal government accepted a tender by the English Marconi Company for the construction of a chain of state-owned wireless telegraph stations throughout the Empire. There followed widespread rumours that the government had corruptly favoured the Marconi Company and that certain prominent members of the government had improperly profited by the transaction. The Select Committee appointed to investigate these rumours represented the respective strengths of the Liberal and Conservative parties. The majority report by the Liberal members of the committee exonerated the members of the government concerned whereas a minority report by the Conservative members of the committee found that these members of the government had been guilty of gross impropriety. When the reports came to be debated in the House of Commons, the House divided on strictly party lines and exonerated the Ministers from all blame. This is the last instance of a matter of this kind being investigated by a Select Committee of Parliament. (Emphasis added, throughout.)

Parliament, therefore, enacted the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act, 1921, on which our Commissions of Inquiry Act, 1955, is modelled. A JPC can perform only if there exists substantial common ground between the major parties. It will only muddy the waters and widen the cleavage if they are bitterly divided.

The Rules of Procedure of the Lok Sabha provide enough warning of the wrangles to come. A committee's chairman is appointed by the Speaker. All questions are decided by a majority of votes. A committee has the power to send for persons, papers and records. But objections to their relevance are for the Speaker to decide. The Speaker has issued Directions to supplement the Rules. Direction 68 (3) says, There shall be no minute of dissent to the report. Aladi Aruna had to take special permission from the Speaker to append his dissent to the Bofors JPC Report.

A JPC will not work in a polarised parliament

Congressional investigations in the United States have become highly politicised as bipartisanship has been eroded. A JPC on the telecom scandal of 2010 will suffer the same fate. Its Chairman's impartiality will be challenged. There will be disputes on the relevance of summons to persons or for production of papers, on questions put to witnesses and on the report. The JPC will end up in noxious fumes.

One is not sure that this is not just what the BJP wants. Never reconciled to the people's verdict in 2004, though reaffirmed in 2009, it has desperately been seeking issues on which to impale the Manmohan Singh government. The tempo will increase with time in preparation for the 2014 elections. The year 2010 marked two decades of rancorous partisanship let loose by L.K. Advani with his rath yatra in 1990. Reported snubs in the party's councils have done little to dampen the ferocity of his frustrated ambition. He calculates, regardless of the snubs, that if the BJP were somehow to regain power who else but he would be asked to be Prime Minister?

In the process, India's parliamentary democracy will suffer blows it can well do without. Thanks to the Hindutva intrusion, ours is a split polity. People who fancied that the BJP would emerge as a democratic right-wing party overlooked the umbilical cord which ties it to its parent the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS). It is the RSS which ejected Advani from the presidentship of the BJP and appointed two presidents, successively Rajnath Singh and Nitin Gadkari.

The philosopher-politician A.J. Balfour said in a conversation with his niece Blanche Dugdale on April 25, 1925: I doubt if you would find it written in any book on the British constitution that the whole essence of British parliamentary government lies in the intention to make the thing work. We take that for granted. We have spent hundreds of years in elaborating a system that rests on that alone. It is so deep in us that we have lost sight of it. But it isn't so obvious to others. These people Indians, Egyptians, and so on study our learning. They read our history, our philosophy, our politics. They learn about our parliamentary methods of obstruction, but nobody explains to them that when it comes to the point all our parliamentary parties are determined that the machinery shan't stop. The King's government must go on', as the Duke of Wellington said. But their idea is that the function of opposition is to stop the machine. Nothing easier of course, but hopeless (Blanche E.C. Dugdale, Arthur James Balfour; Hutchinson, 1936, page 364).

The same caution was delivered by a recognised authority, Ivor Jennings: A government in control of both Houses could effectively stifle the Opposition. An Opposition which would not accept the majority rule could make the parliamentary system unworkable. In practice, government is by consent and opposition by agreement. He added: The government governs and the Opposition criticises. Failure to understand this simple principle is one of the causes of the failure of so many of the progeny of the Mother of Parliaments and of the supersession of parliamentary government by dictatorships. (Ivor Jennings, Cabinet Government, Cambridge University Press, 3rd edition, 1996. pages 11 and 472)

From Raj Narain in the 1960s we have come to Advani & co. 50 years later. How much lower are we to move in that direction?

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