Did the Lok Sabha speaker murder democracy when she suspended 25 Congress MPs for five days for repeatedly and defiantly disrupting the House? Or was she, belatedly but necessarily, exercising powers that, in fact, should have been used decades earlier to enforce decorum and discipline?
These are the two questions that frame the debate that followed Monday’s suspensions.
My answer is simple and straightforward. The speaker did the right thing. And, yes, she and her predecessors should have exercised this power a lot earlier as well. But, as they say, better late than never.
The critical issue is: Why do I say this? Let me explain and, then, illustrate how this sort of disciplinary action is standard practice in mature western democracies, which we seek to emulate but mostly do not.
Parliament is the temple of democracy and debate and discussion is its raison d’etre. This is how the legislature should make the executive accountable. Obstruction or disruption can be accepted only when debate has failed. Not as an alternative to, and certainly not in preference to, discussions.
Sadly, our MPs — and both sides are equally guilty of this — have chosen obstruction ahead of discussion. In doing so they’ve turned parliamentary logic on its head. The BJP did it during the UPA years. Now the Congress is paying them back in the same coin.
In today’s specific circumstances the government’s willingness to debate, including a prefatory statement by Sushma Swaraj and even, perhaps, the prime minister, was an opportunity for the opposition to shame the government into sacking the allegedly errant ministers through the force of their arguments.
It left no justification for obstruction. Alas, the Congress made the wrong choice and the suspensions that followed were, therefore, the right response.
Now the challenge before the speaker is to prove that she is even-handed and will hold the treasury benches to the same exacting standards of decorum and discipline as she did the opposition. The next time BJP MPs disrupt they must be suspended or the speaker will justifiably be accused of partisanship.
Two years ago I visited Australia and witnessed question hour in their House of Representatives. I’m repeating what I wrote then so you can see how strong speakers impose discipline even at the cost of admonishing the prime minister:
"On the 19th of March 2013 the PM responded to a question from the Opposition Leader with a snide remark about his alleged misogyny. This brought the Manager of Opposition Business to his feet demanding she withdraw. However, he shouted out his last few sentences. Immediately, without even a second’s hesitation, the Speaker ordered the MOB to leave the Chamber. Without demur, he instantly did. Then, turning to the Prime Minister, the Speaker asked her to withdraw her comment. This was the PM’s response: “If the Leader of the Opposition is upset in any way then I withdraw.” Unsatisfied, the Speaker sternly rebuked the PM: “The Prime Minister will withdraw unreservedly.” The PM, however, hesitated. “Order!” the Speaker barked. “Would the Prime Minister withdraw?” Admonished, she did. Softly, but clearly, the PM said: “I withdraw”. The Speaker thanked the Prime Minister and continued with the business of the day. I couldn’t believe the way the Australian Speaker had handled not just the Opposition front bench but the Prime Minister herself. Could such a thing ever happen in India, I asked myself?”
Last week it did. I now hope this is a precedent that is used impartially and even-handedly.
The views expressed are personal.