Why is our Parliament so often dysfunctional? And, when it is, why are our MPs so unconcerned about that? They’re well aware of the disgust they provoke. Yet they persist.
This conundrum becomes all the more poignant when you pause and consider that many MPs are intelligent and gifted people. In private conversation they are gripping to listen to. Not just their knowledge but their insight is often impressive. And when they do stand up and speak they can hold you enthralled.
So why do they deny themselves, so often and so readily, the chance to impress the country? For it’s true that when the Indian Parliament functions — as it did occasionally this week — it can be truly uplifting. Usually you have to go far back in time to recall such moments. Nonetheless, who can deny that Vajpayee’s speech in 1996, during the no-confidence debate, or Pramod Mahajan’s in 1998, when the BJP dramatically lost, or the extended session on the Lokpal issue were memorable occasions?
When they are permitted, Arun Jaitley and P Chidambaram in the Rajya Sabha, Sushma Swaraj, without doubt, in the Lok Sabha but also, and I don’t add them as second thoughts, Yashwant Sinha on Tuesday or, in earlier times, Mani Shankar Aiyar, Kapil Sibal and younger MPs such as Deepender Singh Hooda, Jayant Chaudhary and Shashi Tharoor are riveting performers.
Over the last four depressing weeks, I’ve wracked my brains to answer the twin questions I’ve posed initially. Our MPs are not naturally obstreperous. They are certainly not fools even if some might be knaves or villains. And they definitely want to be highly thought of.
The conclusion I’ve come to is, undoubtedly, by default. Because nothing else explains this it seems to be the only answer. Our MPs misbehave, deliberately and repeatedly, because they can get away with it. In the process, ironically, they often get what they want.
In comparison, consider the British House of Commons or the Australian House of Representatives. John Bercow, the British Speaker, or Anna Burke, the Australian, rule their domains with iron discipline. It only needs Bercow to bark a single ‘order’ to silence the Commons. Burke doesn’t hesitate to order MPs out of the Chamber. When she does, they quietly and swiftly depart.
In contrast, Meira Kumar is far too gentle and far too accommodating. And on the one occasion Hamid Ansari named a bunch of rowdy disrupting members he was forced to recant.
The point our MPs forget — and often, I fear, our Speakers — is that Parliament has rules that must be rigidly obeyed. Discipline is vital to its functioning. Its breach cannot be tolerated.
Those rules must be enforced — swiftly, impartially, and unfailingly. It may hurt or displease individual MPs but that doesn’t matter. It’s not popularity the Speaker should seek but the smooth and effective functioning of Parliament.
After the experience of our Sabhas, it may be hard to believe how smoothly other Parliaments function. Perhaps our MPs should be made to watch footage of the House of Commons. Meira Kumar and Hamid Ansari could arrange a special showing and force every member to sit and learn.
I wager the most striking lesson will be the fact Bercow and Burke don’t plead. They command. That’s why they are obeyed. Our Speakers implore, beseech, beg and, thus, are ignored.
If that’s reminiscent of the parental aphorism ‘spare the rod and spoil the child’, I’d be the last to deny the similarity!
Views expressed by the author are personal