An insouciant government, a smug Speaker, a hopelessly disorganised Opposition and a somewhat indulgent media - that’s about Madhya Pradesh State Assembly today. The recently concluded winter session only corroborated this impression.
We in the media also bemusedly saw and merrily reported the honourable members sanctimoniously indulging in ‘definition’ of culture during a question hour but seldom bothered to ask why important issues of public interest were not effectively debated, if debated at all?
If the legislature is the reflection of the government of the day then the Shivraj Government seems to be doing extremely well indeed. The Chief Minister could not have dreamt of a better Opposition. The feeble Opposition has given enough reason to the Speaker to act more like a condescending conductor than a copybook referee of the House.
The government on its part has also taken due care that Speaker Ishwardas Rohani exercises his vocal cords for far less days than his predecessors had to. Sittings of the Assembly sessions have been drastically curtailed ever since the BJP came to power three years ago.
During the BJP regime, the House assembled for only 103 days. In fact, 132 sittings were proposed during the three years but 29 of them were curtailed on the grounds that the House had no business. Average duration of a session is reduced to 10-12 days. Even the last budget session was curtailed from 31 days to just 17 days for ‘want of business’.
The previous Congress government was no stickler for the rules either, but it, nonetheless, ensured an average 70 sittings in a year. The decrease in the sittings coupled with appallingly disoriented debates threatens to reduce the Assembly into a mockery.
Speaker Ishwardas Rohani, however, washes his hands off this business. “ The government decides days of sittings and we duly send the recommendation to the Governor for notification,” he argues.
Former Minister Govind Singh contests this argument. “They curtail sessions on the grounds of lack of business but we don’t get enough opportunities to raise issues of crucial public interest. In any case, shortening sessions for want of business is a poor reflection on the ‘inactive’ government,” he avers.
Leader of Opposition Jamuna Devi pleads helplessness on the issue with the defence that the treasury members completely sway the decision in favour of the government in the business advisory committee that decides duration of sessions.
Dr Govind Singh also concedes that building pressure on the ruling party in the business advisory committee meetings is not easy.
“We are only four in the committee. Hajarilal Raghuvanshi being the Deputy Speaker desists from saying anything. So, we are three in effect against 15 of the BJP,” he reasons.
Jamuna Devi further alleges that the BJP Government deliberately keeps duration of sessions extremely short to throttle healthy debate on people’s problems.
“ It is part of their (BJP’s) culture as inculcated in them by the RSS. The BJP is not amenable to reason.’’ To buttress her point she points out the government’s reluctance to form all-party committees on major issues like natural calamity relief.
But what about the fewer days when the Assembly manages to hold its sittings? How has the Opposition fared? The just concluded winter session, like previous sessions, amply indicated the problems plaguing the House.
In the customary press briefing on the eve of the session, the Leader of Opposition claimed a strategy to put the government in the dock. The media variously reported the briefing, reiterating the next-session-to-be-stormy cliché. The session did start on a stormy note. The Uma issue had provided ammunition and Digvijay Singh trained the cannon at the government.
The first day was adjourned amid pandemonium. Next day, Digvijay Singh fired the salvo on Uma issue. However, the treasury benches looked more pleased than disconcerted over the ‘guest speaker’s’ dramatic aggression. Thanks to the Opposition move, many ministers unleashed their pent up anguish against their once-venerable leader.
The Speaker did not stop any one from riling against Uma Bharti, never mind that the Sadhvi is no longer member of the House. Uma episode over, the House sank to its usual dullness, only occasionally flashing some damp fireworks. Debate on the killing of five Gurjar youths by the Rambabu Gadaria gang was one such flash. Otherwise, lack of coordination in the Opposition had resurfaced. A sense of déjà vu ensued.
Going by developments in the recent months, the Opposition should have had no dearth of explosive issues to ‘blast’ the government. Some of the burning issues would have pushed the government on the defensive.
They included lifting the ban on participation of State Government employees in RSS activities, Prof Sabharwal’s killing, a spate of dacoities in Bhopal, bashing up of police officials by ruling party members in Bhopal and Jabalpur, chikungunya and dengue epidemics, violence against Christians in Jabalpur, excessive rains and drought in large parts of the State, poor roads and power scarcity, killing of over 50 persons in Sindhu river tragedy and brutal murder of BJP MLA Kishorilal Verma. None of the issues, except the Professor Sabharwal murder, had the kind of loud resonance in the House that they deserved.
Prof Sabharwal’s killing, hardship of farmers due to excessive rains and drought and chikungunya - dengue scare had been listed for the last day of the session. By that time, the immediacy and gravity of the issues was lost on the impatient government and listless Opposition. Next day, the ministers were scheduled to leave for Mumbai to attend the BJP intellectual discourses, ironically, on effective governance.
Jamuna Devi admits lack of coordination in the Opposition. But she also cribs about the Speaker’s ‘illiberal attitude’, which, she claims, deprived the Congress of debating as many important issues as it wanted.
“We pressed for four adjournment motions but he allowed only two - on Uma Bharti episode and Gurjar massacre. The other two motions – on Professor Sabharwal and killing of the BJP MLA - were disallowed, she bemoaned.
“This is not a number game. He should have allowed debate on the two issues through adjournment motions as he had initially agreed,” the veteran Congress leader said.
“I wrote to the Speaker to take up Prof Sabharwal’s killing through adjournment motion. I had also moved a censure motion against the Chief Minister for influencing the course of police investigation into Prof Sabharwal’s killing but it was not taken up despite my reminder,” she further complained.
The Leader of Opposition said she also pressed for adjournment motion on Kishorilal Verma’s murder but failed. “If we had stalled proceedings of the House on the issue, the Office of Profit Bill would have been passed without debate like the Freedom of Religion Bill was passed in the previous session. In that case, the media would have criticised us.’’
Her colleague Govind Singh concurs with Jamuna Devi’s views with an air of resignation. “There is little option for the Congress if the ruling party does not wish to allow it to raise issues of public interest than to expose the ‘designs’ of keeping the people in the dark,” he said.
But another former minister Satyadev Katare is candid in admitting failure of the Opposition. “Speaker’s role is more or less same in all governments. It is for the Opposition to raise issues effectively and we seem to have failed on this count. Hopefully, in next session you will see a more aggressive Opposition,” he said.
Jamuna Devi may defend the Congress’ lacklustre performance in the Assembly but she, too, agrees with Katare that lack of coordination was badly affecting the Opposition.
The Congress faces an acute shortage of alert and good orators who come prepared in the House after proper homework. Barring a few like Satyadev Katare, Dr Govind Singh, Sajjan Singh Verma and Arif Aqueel, Congress MLAs are content to be tail enders in shouting business whenever the House plunges into pandemonium. They rarely meet and discuss issues among themselves or consult MLAs of other Opposition parties. Floor management is abysmally poor.
Despite her not-so-good oratory and old age, Jamuna Devi at least identifies right issues before the Assembly session. She also gets her MLAs useful reference material to speak on any specific issue.
But she admits dejectedly that hardly any party MLA comes in advance to discuss issues or strategy on how to effectively raise them.
Absence of senior leaders like Digvijay Singh and Subhash Yadav is another handicap afflicting the Opposition. As and when Digvijay Singh has led debate in the House as in the case of the alleged attack on Uma or the budget presented by the BJP Government, his presence electrified the Opposition. But the AICC General Secretary has no time to spare for the Assembly. Subhash Yadav’s absenteeism, however, is inexplicable. Even more inexplicable is his reticence the few times he did attend the House.