This month’s issue of the US magazine Esquire runs a survey of 3,257 Americans to find out what’s making them angry and why. The long-drawn-out process to elect the next US president has begun and the magazine, along with NBC News, did the survey to cover a multitude of issues — citizens’ views on racism, inequality, the economy and gender issues, but there’s also a section that lists a set of imaginary headlines and asks people how angry each of those makes them. One of those headlines is about Congress, the US bicameral legislature, and says ‘Congress: More Dysfunctional than Ever?’ More than 40% of those polled said that headline made them very angry and 32% said it made them somewhat angry. For purposes of the survey, the headline in question may have been hypothetical but the ire of voters against a legislature they have elected when it fails to deliver is not unexpected. What do you think most Indian voters would say if you surveyed them and asked whether a dysfunctional Parliament made them angry? And after the Indian Parliament’s washed-out monsoon and winter sessions, during which little got done by way of legislation, it wouldn’t have to be a hypothetical question either.
In less than 10 days, the Budget session of Parliament will commence. It’s always a busy session marked by red-letter day events such as the President’s address, the Railway Budget, the Economic Survey, and, finally, the Union Budget. Few expect these not to sail through smoothly. Equally, very few expect any progress on long-pending legislation (such as Bills for the GST, real estate regulation and labour reforms) during the coming session. Such cynicism among citizens, even before Parliament convenes for the Budget session, is telling but there’s little to show that our MPs (on either side of the political divide) and their party leaders are concerned.
Last December, when the Congress was exercised over the National Herald case, this newspaper’s website ran an online poll on whether that issue would affect the fate of important Bills in Parliament. More than 80% (out of a total of nearly 2,600 voters) said yes, it would. They were right. And in September, when PM Narendra Modi attacked the Congress party while he was in the US, we ran another poll asking whether after that the BJP could hope to get the Congress’s co-operation in Parliament. Nearly 73% (of 5,200 voters) said no. They too were right.
It is true that the lopsided composition of Parliament — the ruling NDA is in an overwhelming majority in Lok Sabha but an underwhelming minority in Rajya Sabha — gives the Congress and others a convenient lever to disrupt normal functioning but there is also a general air of confrontation between the regime in power and the others, principally the Congress, which has made things worse. In earlier regimes, parliamentary affairs ministers (such as the Congress’s Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi or, during a previous NDA regime, the BJP’s Pramod Mahajan) would be seen interacting with their political rivals on the Opposition benches, often to ensure support for crucial legislation. Mahajan, who died in 2006, was especially known for his spirit of camaraderie towards Opposition leaders. Today there’s less of that and more of sharp (and often ugly) hostility between the Opposition and the Treasury benches. Outside Parliament, charges, including personal attacks, are traded between the two sides, further vitiating the situation. Such attacks and counter-attacks rage on even when the PM is on international trips — something that political parties on both sides of the fence have avoided in the past.
The government spends Rs 2.7 lakh on each MP every month; this includes salaries, travel allowances, sitting fees and other expenses. For 543 MPs, that means a monthly burn of Rs 14.66 crore. MPs now want their basic monthly salaries to be doubled from Rs 50,000 to Rs 1 lakh. None would grudge such spending, if only Parliament functioned properly and business got conducted. In 2014, just after steering his alliance to a landslide victory, Modi, then PM-designate, described Parliament as a “temple of democracy” where MPs, cutting across party lines, should work selflessly for the people who elected them. If we were to do a poll like Esquire’s on what angers people most, how high on that list do you think would a dysfunctional Parliament feature?
Sanjoy Narayan is the editor-in-chief of Hindustan Times and tweets as @sanjoynarayan
The views expressed are personal