Democratic dysfunction

Published : Sep 24, 2004 00:00 IST

The parliamentary paralysis that led to important Bills being passed without debate and the disrespect shown to the Speaker are seen as indicating a new low in India's democratic practice.

WHEN the presiding officer of the Lower House of Parliament in the world's second largest democracy throws up his arms pained by the manner in which the House functions and laments that his "humble efforts" to run the House in order have proved inadequate, it is certainly a sad day for democracy itself. Speaker Somnath Chatterjee also regretted the fact that his attempts to ensure that at least important business such as the passage of the Finance Bill, demand for grants for the Railways as well as the Union Budget, which is worth over Rs.5 lakh crores, could be transacted after due debate and participation by the members too had not had the desired result. The acrimony between the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government and the Opposition National Democratic Alliance (NDA), which led to a premature end of the Budget session, had the unfortunate consequence that all the Bills were passed without debate.

Somnath Chatterjee, while calling for introspection by members of the Lok Sabha on the implications of such behaviour for the democratic polity, said: "It is destructive of the basic tenets of parliamentary functioning when disrespect is deliberately shown to the Chair. Some members seek to behave as Super-Speakers. Who will speak, when he will speak, what subject will be discussed and how the business will be conducted now seem to be decided on the floor and the Chair seems to have no role to play."

He pointed out further that there was now a disturbing trend in which "the decision is taken by some members outside the Chamber whether the House will transact its normal business or not and the Speaker is only informed of the same and he is expected to accept the decision and act accordingly". The premature end of the Budget session meant 47 hours of precious time lost owing to disorder in the Lok Sabha. Each hour that Parliament functions costs the exchequer between Rs.20 lakhs and Rs.25 lakhs. Besides adjourning early, for seven days the House did not transact any business. The reason for the stoppages was, apparently, the NDA's anger at the manner in which the Karnataka government handled the arrest warrant against former Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Uma Bharati.

But the high point of the Budget session was the standoff between NDA leaders and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh a day before Parliament was adjourned. Angered by the continued disruption of Parliament, the Prime Minister refused to accept a memorandum that NDA leaders, led by Leader of the Opposition L.K. Advani, wanted to present in his chamber. The memorandum contained their suggestions on the Finance Bill. According to Defence Minister and Leader of the House Pranab Mukherjee, Manmohan Singh told the NDA leaders: "You are not allowing Parliament to function and are submitting a memorandum on the Finance Bill in the Prime Minister's chamber. This is not the appropriate forum to debate and discuss the financial proposals. Either you allow the debate on the Finance Bill to take place on the floor of the House or stick to the agreement which the leaders have agreed." The agreement between the leaders was that in order to register its protest, the NDA will not allow any debate on the Finance Bill but will let it be passed. Taken aback by this unexpected rebuff by the Prime Minister, the NDA leaders decided to boycott the House on August 26, which happened to be the last day of the Budget session.

Commenting on Manmohan Singh's "rudeness", former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee said: "He does not seem to be aware of the unwritten code of political conduct that should guide the interaction between the Prime Minister and senior leaders of the Opposition." Alluding to the Prime Minister's call for a "code of conduct" for parliamentarians, Vajpayee said that Manmohan Singh had not set a good example by being "impolite" with the NDA delegation and "not showing the basic courtesy of receiving their memorandum."

SOMNATH CHATTERJEE, commenting on the waste of time and resources, said: "I wonder what would have been the position if our Constitution and the laws provided for the recall of members by the electorate." Parliamentary Affairs Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad, while addressing the media after Parliament was prorogued, also said: "We can't even imagine what the situation would be if the people were given the right to recall. In fact, there is a private members' Bill pending in the Lok Sabha in this connection since 1985."

Retired Indian Administrative Service Officer B.S. Raghavan writes in the The Hindu Business Line about the salary and perks of a Member of Parliament: "With a salary of Rs.4,000 per month, a daily allowance of Rs.400 and a constituency allowance of Rs.3,000 per month, the bonanzas roughly add up to a staggering figure of about Rs.1 lakh per month." The bonanzas include one lakh free telephone calls annually, virtually free electricity and water (25,000 units and 2,000 kilolitres a year) and medical expenses for him and his family. An MP is also entitled to first class air-conditioned railway travel for himself and a companion, 28 free single air journeys anywhere in the country, 15 telephone connections and 100 gas connections a year, according to Raghavan.

Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader in the Lok Sabha Rupchand Pal said: "Right to recall should be one of the basic rights of voters. After all, if you jettison the programme on the basis of which you have got elected, if you change course midway, then voters should have every right to recall you." Speaking to Frontline, he added: "It could become one of the basic tools to cleanse the electoral system, along with others. The CPI(M) has always been of the opinion that voters should be given the right to recall, but what needs to be debated is what percentage of people should be taken into consideration for this tool to be exercised, how it can be implemented and so on. The modalities can be worked out." He said that the CPI(M) would wholeheartedly support such a mechanism if ever the government convened an all-party meeting to discuss the issue.

The Communist Party of India opposes the concept. The party feels that other methods could be equally effective. CPI national secretary D. Raja says that "comprehensive electoral reforms" would help.

Former spokesman of the BJP, Prakash Javadekar, said: "We have always been in favour of such a right. But the mechanism to implement it needs to be debated and discussed. As it is, we always have elections in some part of the country or the other. How this will be implemented remains to be seen. Let the government convene an all-party meeting on the issue so that we can discuss it."

Despite Ghulam Nabi Azad suggesting the idea, the Congress sounds resolutely opposed to any such move. "Recall is not a remedy, it will lead to a mini general election every year and would lead to chaos. It is just not practical or feasible," party spokesman Anand Sharma said. He said the presiding officers of the two Houses had enough powers to handle unruly behaviour inside the House and there already were measures such as getting members evicted, named or suspended, which could have a sobering effect on the MPs.

Legal and constitutional experts also are averse to the idea. "A study by the Centre for Policy Research shows that over 70 per cent of the MPs reach Parliament even though the majority have voted against them. But they manage to reach because the vote against them gets split. In this scenario, it is virtually impossible to implement this tool because it will lead to elections almost every year," said Subhash Kashyap, a constitutional expert. According to him, in principle the idea can be discussed and debated, but it would be "most impracticable, without any regard to existing reality". In his opinion, comprehensive electoral reforms, as suggested in the Constitution Review Committee's report, are the only answer to cleansing the system and enforcing some discipline among politicians.

Another legal expert, Rajeev Dhavan, agrees. In his opinion the right to recall would eventually end up becoming a "right to political mischief of the worst kind". He says going by the way the BJP has tried to use every opportunity to destabilise the existing political situation, it would not mind whipping up frenzy in order to recall MPs of those seats that it would lose. "As a result, we will have elections after every session of Parliament," he says. In his opinion, such a solution to the problem would become a problem in itself.

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