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Time to change course

It is heartening to note that despite the deterioration of parliamentary standards, civil society still has respect, admiration and curiosity about the House and is keen to attend debates, writes Abhishek Singhvi.

india Updated: Sep 18, 2007 23:20 IST

The parliamentary debate on the Indo-US nuclear agreement never happened but a cross-section of civil society showed an uncommon keenness to attend it. They contacted my office for fixing the date, time and passes for the debate. Initially, the date(s) kept changing and the keenest of the applicants — a diverse group of people comprising the young and old, intellectuals and the middle-class — found that they could not agree on a particular date. Finally, when September 6 was announced as the likely date for the important debate, most of them regrouped and clamoured for the House passes. But after they cleared the formalities, they were told at noon not to reach Parliament unless they were called by my office, since it was unclear whether the debate would take place at all.

However, another cross-section of Indians did make it to Parliament in the last two weeks of August and the first week of September, including September 6. Each time they went to the visitors’ gallery, they found the same sequence of events happening in front of them: a low-key start to the Question Hour at 11 am, shouting and then MPs rushing to the Well at or around noon followed by adjournment of the House from 12 to 2 pm. Things would not improve even after this because the slogan-shouting would begin again at 2 pm and then the House would be adjourned till 11 am the next day. This happened in the Rajya Sabha on September 6 but similar incidents happened earlier in both Houses.

I don’t intend to blame anyone for this but this disruptive parliamentary behaviour makes certain things clear.

First, it is heartening to note that despite the deterioration of parliamentary standards, civil society still has respect, admiration and curiosity about the House and is keen to attend debates. The level of disillusionment is not at high as assumed by the critics. This should give the MPs a reason to pause and decide on urgent steps that need to be taken to retrieve the situation before the slide becomes irreversible.

Second, statistics reveal that at least half (and sometimes three-fourth) of each parliamentary session is lost thanks to disruptions. This leads to an enormous drain on the national exchequer.

Third, and most important, the frequent disruptions may steadily spell the beginning of the end of parliamentary democracy. If we focus on two words — parliamentary democracy — we will realise the huge and irreversible injury we have caused to this fundamental organ of the State, which has always been the basic premise of our democracy. How would we react if we are told that our judiciary did not work half of the time? Or other constitutional institutions like the Comptroller and Auditor General and Election Commission could be disrupted any time?

Such disruptive behaviour in Parliament will lead to an entrenched pattern and in no time neither the parliamentarians nor the public will take the institution seriously.

Fourth, the time for lamentation is over. Breast-beating or sermonising will not improve matters or the institution. Whether we like it or not, a carrot-and-stick policy can only improve things, even if marginally. This is a weird situation because there are laws, rules, practices, and resolutions prohibiting disruption, approaching the Well of the House for creating disturbance or speaking out of turn.

No new rule or law can make a difference since the dilemma is not about the absence of rules, but about who would guard the guardians of the rulebook. Since those guardians, Members of Parliament, have themselves failed to preserve the House’s purity and sanctity, the relevant authorities, through the Speaker/Presiding Officer had to initiate the process of suspensions to maintain discipline and decorum. Unfortunately, only such coercive action may generate a change of mindset, which, over time, may translate into a general ethic of non-disruption.

Fifth, innovative and monetary disincentives need to be added to the coercive ones. A proportionate reduction of the salary and allowances of MPs who persistently indulge in disruptive behaviour will work as a deterrent. The proportion of salary cut can be calibrated according to the time lost by Parliament due to their unruly behaviour. The point of these measures is not to threaten, intimidate or coerce MPs or entrench a culture of confrontation; it is to gently nudge the participants towards a new sense of collective responsibility. By implementing such a law, we will not be doing a favour to the nation. Purely from selfish, self-centred and self-preservatory viewpoint, it is something that has been crying out to be done for some time. MPs owe it to themselves and the nation.

The six major debates, which I have had the privilege of participating in Parliament, have been an enlightening experience because of the depth of knowledge and information, the diversity of viewpoints and innovative insights they had to offer. It shows that Parliament can, with some effort, regain its lost glory. Parliamentarians have nothing to lose except the public’s collective anger.

Abhishek Singhvi is MP, National Spokesperson, Congress, and a senior advocate.