Our basic institutions do our nation proud when they function in the spirit in which they were conceived and constitutionally ordained. When Parliament debates in right earnest, and the Supreme Court functions to protect equality, liberty and justice, we hold our heads high as citizens of a great democracy. When the Election Commission upholds probity, integrity and political neutrality in the world’s largest festival of universal democratic franchise, the world looks at us in wonder and admiration. However, if and when, the Executive delivers a project on time by means that are corruption-free, we consider that a providential blessing. How do we feel when Parliament is found in a state of disruption? When sloganeering by a solid phalanx of partisan members within the Lok Sabha reaches a deafening and deadening crescendo? Do our MPs ever reflect on why they are in Parliament and how history will judge them?
<b1>The debate on the final draft of the Indo-US civil nuclear agreement called for a careful study of what it will do and not do for India. It called for a reasoned debate, an in-depth cross-examination of the government and critical analysis. It called for a balance-sheet objectively audited by both sides. That opportunity was missed on the very first day by the disruption conceived in chaos and delivered in confusion, by not listening to the Prime Minister. Turning a deaf ear to the Prime Minister on a subject of great national importance and drowning his voice in an unbecoming pandemonium denied Parliament the respect and dignity implicitly its due. There is, perhaps, need for a specific constitutional revision of the oath that members take when they become Members of Parliament. They must be obliged to conduct themselves in a manner consistent with the dignity of Parliament. It may be naive, though, to expect that it would really make a difference.
The real responsibility lies at the doors of political parties. The unseemly behaviour of an individual in a system is always a consequence of systemic failure. That is how institutions decay and disintegrate. The waywardness and irresponsibility of political parties have been the main culprits in both Houses of Parliament. Ruling coalitions must respect and accommodate the Opposition. The Opposition must secure from its members a modicum of good behaviour. Parliament and its members are honour bound to prevent the image of that great institution from being tarnished by what amounts to lapse and fall from parliamentary grace.
I came to Lok Sabha in 1962 when parliamentary courtesies and graces were the order of the day. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and other statesmen inspired and motivated us in those days in parliamentary endeavours. H.V. Kamath, Nath Pai and I constituted ourselves the vigilant defenders of the Rule Book and we were more effective than those who march into the well of the House. The government had its way reasonably but those of us who belonged to different political parties, and Independents like me, always had our say. The Opposition enjoyed respect. The government knew its power and responsibilities in parliamentary governance; the Opposition knew its role and limits of opposition. I am referring to not a distant golden age but a period of time within living memory. We are the same people but it is certainly not the same Parliament. Panditji once said that if there were no Opposition, it would have to be invented. Today Opposition parties have mushroomed. The government has to find new ways and means of accommodating the Opposition in a more sedate and sensitive manner.
Restoration of Parliament and its dignity ought to be our highest priority. India is distressed by the frequent parliamentary chaos but is helpless. Political parties and MPs know only too well the perilous consequences of rendering Parliament an irrelevant institution, effete in our national life. But they are often too myopic to care or correct themselves. The media have to take upon themselves the role and the risk of consistent and pointed exposure of individual and group lapses. Ultimately, we have only ourselves to blame for electing the convicted, and those of shady reputation, and those who are ill-equipped by training and temperament to discharge parliamentary duties. Once again it is the political parties which are responsible for the rising power of money, muscle and decibel.
Political parties cannot be expected to have a change of heart and reform their ways unless they perceive it all in their own interest. A plea in the name of national interest is seldom heard. Strong civil society reactions, widespread media disapproval, and retribution at the polls are the only effective antidotes to irresponsible behaviour.
Whom do we blame but ourselves? A constructive partnership of the media and a vigilant society is capable of tackling and treating arterial blockages in the cardiovascular health of Indian democracy. The first national imperative is a mindset change and a lifestyle change in the management of political parties and in the efficient and purposeful conduct of parliamentary proceeding. A second imperative is to reinstate the discipline of rules, to restore the dignity and the authority of the Chair to take penal cognisance of misbehaviour. A commission should be set up to secure and enforce decent and democratic parliamentary norms. Let us never forget that democracy without norms and discipline is dissipation, and discipline without democracy is tyranny.
LM Singhvi is former Member, Lok Sabha (1962-67) and Rajya Sabha (1998-2004)and is a constitutional and parliamentary expert.