A strange question is being heard in the political corridors these days: Who is responsible for running Parliament? Prime Minister Narendra Modi says he is not being allowed to speak in the House and so he is speaking outside. Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi also says he is not being allowed to speak in Parliament, otherwise he would have exposed the government. The Opposition is blaming the BJP and vice versa. In such a situation, the people are mute spectators.
Parliament not only passes legislation but is also the main platform for political parties to express their views in the public interest. The ruling party can take decisions according to its wishes, and also use the official channels to communicate with political stakeholders. Besides, the media also gives prominence to the government’s side of the story. The Opposition does not have that advantage. In such a situation, they utilise Parliament to express their views.
Agitation and pandemonium in Parliament are not new: I don’t think a single session has passed without commotion. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi had unprecedented majorities in the House but that did not deter MPs such as Ram Manohar Lohia, Jyotirmoy Basu, Piloo Mody, AB Vajpayee, Mani Ram Bagri, Mahavir Tyagi and Bhupesh Gupta from attacking the government. Personal allegations were also levelled against Pandit Nehru and Indira Gandhi. Yet they attended Parliament and listened to the Opposition.
Inside Parliament, Lohia had once called Pandit Nehru a tabla player because of the clothes he was wearing. Indira Gandhi was dubbed as “goongi gudiya” by the Opposition. But they responded to such allegations with smiles and never ran away from Parliament. If they wanted, they could have curtailed the voice of the Opposition as there were only 20-30 MPs but they never resorted to such undemocratic tactics.
Those who believe in democracy must respect dissent. When Opposition leaders like Hiren Mukerjee spoke, Pandit Nehru used to rush to Parliament from Teen Murti Bhawan to listen to them. When Vajpayee became PM, he made it a point to remain in the House during important discussions and he tackled the Opposition’s allegations with his characteristic smile, without taking them to heart. The beauty of Parliament lies in its discourse and Opposition is the gem of this august institution. Contrary to those days, political enmity rather than ideological differences is guiding decisions these days. This is not good for democracy.
When I was parliamentary affairs minister, I used to take directions from Pranab Mukherjee. He always said: You are parliamentary affairs minister but you should feel yourself sitting in the Opposition benches more than the ruling side. The key to a successful parliamentary affairs minister is his persuasive skills to take the Opposition along with him so that the agenda of the government can be passed in Parliament.
It is not that the ruling side was not attacking the Opposition but as parliamentary affairs minister, I was advised by Mukherjee not to directly attack the Opposition. The reason: In the case of a deadlock, there must be someone who can help to break it. If a parliamentary affairs minister loses the confidence of the Opposition, who will bridge the difference? This formula was working excellently.
Because of my good rapport with the Opposition, I could manage to get passed more than 20 laws per session. It is the responsibility of the Centre to find a way out to break the logjam, if any, between the government and the Opposition. The onus of running the House is on the government; the Opposition comes next.
We had the advantage of having leaders like Manmohan Singh and Pranab Mukherjee who were more than willing to engage with the Opposition as and when the situation warranted. I remember how Parliament was stalled during the Anna Hazare agitation but then there was a weeklong sustained dialogue with the Opposition, after which it was decided that a draft proposal will be placed before Parliament and it was done. The draft was passed unanimously and then Parliament functioned smoothly. At that time, I was told by Pranab-babu to get the draft prepared by the then leaders of Opposition Arun Jaitley and Sushma Swaraj. This led to political consensus on the path forward.
Both the government and the Opposition were unanimous on the draft after a meeting in the office of the PM. The Opposition was given due space in the House to raise their issues during the first half of the day and then the government’s legislative agenda was pushed after mutual discussion. This was to ensure that both the government and the Opposition raise their issues inside Parliament. I am not saying I was always successful but out of 10 cases, I could succeed in at least seven.
Now, the government is blaming the Opposition for the parliamentary logjam. Recently, I heard a senior leader saying in the Central Hall of Parliament that the BJP does not know how to run a government.
The means and expression of agitation, which the Congress leaders are showing in Parliament these days, were learnt from the BJP during the 10 years of the UPA government. BJP leaders may blame the Congress now but if they introspect they will recall that daily adjournments, slogan shouting in the well of the House and wasting sessions after sessions are their legacy.
Then a senior BJP leader who is now a Union minister had said disruption is a right way of opposing in a democracy.
Given the situation, if the government sits with the Opposition and discusses the issues with an open mind and the PM is present in the House and listens to the Opposition like Pandit Nehru, Indira Gandhi and AB Vajpayee, then certainly there will be a way out.
Rajeev Shukla is an MP and former Union minister
The views expressed are personal