A fundamental question regarding the role of Parliament in our constitutional republic has come to the forefront in the background of the current disruptions. The issues under contention causing these disruptions are the serious allegations of misuse of office pertaining to the Union minister for external affairs and the chief minister of Rajasthan regarding the undue favours they have shown to a fugitive from Indian law.
It is alleged that their recommendations, as leaders of the opposition in the then Parliament and assembly respectively, facilitated this fugitive’s efforts to remain beyond the jurisdiction of Indian law. It is alleged that they facilitated the procuring of a legal travel document for this fugitive from a foreign government.
The BJP, naturally, refuses to accept this charge by saying that these actions were prompted by feelings of humanism to help the fugitive to attend to his ailing wife. Many media reports have shown how this limited objective could have been done ensuring the return of the fugitive to be tried under Indian law without recommending the issue of a general travel document.
Parliamentary disruptions are also connected with the demand for action on serious allegations against the Madhya Pradesh chief minister in the Vyapam scam. This scam represents a deadly cocktail of crime and corruption that has claimed the lives of scores of people, many outside the state.
Regarding the former, the BJP argues that such recommendations do not constitute an act of corruption. The Prevention of Corruption Act 1988, Article 13 (1) (d) (iii) states, ‘while holding office as a public servant, obtains for any person any valuable thing or pecuniary advantage without any public interest’. Surely, obtaining a travel document from a foreign country when the Indian passport of the fugitive is declared invalid under law is a ‘valuable thing’.
This government charges the Opposition parties with avoiding a discussion in Parliament when they are prepared to allow one. The Opposition correctly maintains that a parliamentary discussion cannot be a substitute for an investigation. These are serious charges that need to be investigated at the highest level.
As long as such an investigation is ongoing, as is the norm for any government servant, the accused demits office in order to ensure strict impartiality. It is precisely this that is being asked of this BJP government. After all, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared from the Red Fort that he is not the ‘Pradhan Mantri’ but he is the ‘Pradhan Sewak’.
Much has appeared in the public domain on the positions taken by the minister for external affairs as the leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha and the union finance minister as the leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha when similar disruptions rocked Parliament during the UPA government’s tenure.
On the oil-for-food scandal, the 2005 Parliament’s Winter Session was disrupted leading to the resignation of the then external affairs minister. Parliamentary disruptions during the 15th Lok Sabha eventually resulted in the resignations of some UPA-2 ministers. We can go back even earlier. Atal Bihari Vajpayee in December 1995 said, “We don’t want a debate for debate’s sake” demanding the resignation of the then communication minister Sukh Ram.
The very same BJP, in fact the very same people, now charge the Opposition of being ‘scared of a discussion’ and “noise making is all that you want to do, and you don’t want to discuss” etc. (Arun Jaitley as Rajya Sabha leader of the House). Surely, two wrongs do not make a right. The point is not to score points with the BJP on what they said when they were in the Opposition. It is important to restate the constitutionally-mandated responsibilities of Parliament.
Specifying separation of powers and spelling out the mechanics to work in harmony where the three wings — executive, legislature and the judiciary — play a joint and participatory role, our Constitution defines the centrality of the will of the people. The preamble defines this most eloquently by stating, “We, the people of India” and “do hereby Adopt, Enact and Give to ourselves this Constitution”.
The eternal message is the sovereignty of the people and its primacy in our Constitutional system. The people exercise this sovereignty through their elected parliamentarians who, in turn, are accountable to the people by making the government accountable to Parliament. The executive and the legislature, given their responsibility under the Constitution to manage public affairs, are in the final analysis accountable to the people. Accountability, in fact, differentiates a democracy from other systems of governance.
Parliament, thus, can only ensure executive accountability through effective legislative scrutiny, not through a debate but by pressurising the executive to order an investigation into the allegations. This BJP government is escaping being accountable behind the veil of conducting a “debate for debate’s sake”. It is this BJP government that is today, thus, causing parliamentary disruptions.
Recollect how a modern western democracy deals with similar situations. The resignation of Peter Mandelson from the Tony Blair government in Britain is appropriate. In early 2001, British media reported that Mandelson had raised money for the ‘millennium dome’ from the Hinduja brothers, in return for a ‘favour’ of securing a passport for one of them, Srichand.
The passport was delivered within six months of applying against the average 20 months, in breach of the British Nationality Act, 1981. There was a hue and cry in the British Parliament. Mandelson had to resign though Srichand Hinduja was not accused of wrongdoings and was not a fugitive from justice.
Also, the ‘millennium dome’ was a national edifice. Further, there was no suggestion of any “cosy relationship” between the two. It was the sheer impropriety of the act of recommendation for which Mandelson had to resign. Wither PM Modi’s “good governance” promises?
(Sitaram Yechury is general secretary of the CPI(M) and a Rajya Sabha MP. The views expressed are personal)