Trying all the wrong things before doing the right one

  • Karan Thapar, None
  • Updated: Jul 25, 2015 23:16 IST

The battle lines in Parliament are firmly drawn. I suspect a war of attrition will be fought in the Rajya Sabha between the government and Congress. I don’t see the Upper House functioning, at least, not effectively, because neither side is likely to give up.

However, beyond politics, there is an interesting issue at stake. What is the greater priority for Parliament — debate, discussion and legislation to ensure good and effective governance or scrutiny of the executive with a primary focus on ensuring accountability and transparency? Even if that is not how either side frames the dispute, it’s the important issue that underlies it.

You could answer this question either way.

If Parliament does not legislate, laws will not be made nor reforms effected.

Legislation is, therefore, the bedrock on which good governance has to be built. This argument leads to the conclusion that, above all else, Parliament must function with decorum and, hopefully, efficiency and effectiveness. Supporters of the government will no doubt be on this side.

There is an alternative view and it’s equally compelling.

In our system of separation of powers, governance is the prerogative and responsibility of the executive. Parliament does not govern. It sanctions, legitimises, questions and, most importantly of all, holds the executive to account. It, therefore, follows that making the executive accountable and transparent through its scrutiny is, arguably, the first priority of the legislature. This must be the Congress’s defence.

Seen in terms of the second argument, Sitaram Yechury had a telling, if not convincing, point to make when he argued on Monday that discussion is not a substitute for investigation. All MPs can do is discuss, debate and pass resolutions. But the government, particularly when it has a majority, can ignore all of that.

What’s needed, if we’re going to get to the bottom of Vyapam as well as l’affaire Sushma Swaraj-Vasundhara Raje, is a focused, independent, professional probe. Only the executive can order that. Second, if it’s to be meaningful you could, additionally, claim that the ministers concerned must step aside lest their continuation in office prejudice the inquiry.

So now you come to a position — assuming you agree with this line of argument — that the priority for Parliament is to encourage or coerce the government into holding an investigation. That is how, in this instance, Parliament will fulfil its duty to scrutinise and hold the executive accountable. And if obstructing the functioning of Parliament is the only way that investigation can be ordered then that obstructionism is legitimate and justified.

Before you start to disagree, let me add that Arun Jaitley, in 2011, agreed with this logic: “There are but rare occasions in history when parliamentary obstructionism is a part of legitimate parliamentary tactics.” At the time he had Andimuthu Raja in mind. But now, when it’s the Congress’s turn, surely the same logic applies to Chouhan, Swaraj and Raje as well?

Finally, the truly sad part of this mess in Parliament applies as much to 2011 as it does to events today: Why should obstructionism be necessary when simple common sense and decency should have produced the same result?

Sadly, in India we have to go to extremes to ensure the right thing is done. We don’t do it automatically or quickly. We have to be pushed. That’s why our Parliament so often seems dysfunctional before it corrects itself. To mis-phrase Churchill, we try all the wrong things before we end up doing the right one.

The views expressed are personal.

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