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House of mirrors

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh needs to engage with Parliament much more. The House needs to respect itself before people do the same. Barkha Dutt writes.

india Updated: Dec 09, 2011 22:22 IST
Barkha Dutt,Prime Minister,Clement Attlee

At the heart of India’s body politic lies the country’s Parliament. It is meant to pump blood and life into the veins of public discourse. Or rather, this is how it was once conceived — in a burst of idealism and good intention. There is the oft-told historical anecdote of how Clement Attlee, former British Prime Minister and a member of the British Constitutional Commission, proposed a presidential system of government for India, modelled on the American form. “They rejected it with great emphasis,” he said, “I had a feeling they thought I was offering them margarine instead of butter.” Perhaps Parliament still offered the hope in those days of optimism that butter wouldn’t melt in the mouths of its members.

Today, constant adjournments, a breakdown of inter-party relationships and a politics rooted in adversarial competitiveness have made Parliament precariously irrelevant to the public imagination. It’s a shame because on the rare day that the House functions, the quality of oratory, repartee and debate can still be riveting. It’s especially volatile because the breakdown in Parliament coincides with a wider distrust of the political establishment and the political process. The Anna Hazare movement has been a lightning rod for the deep disillusionment of the citizenry. The fact that the government nervously lurches from one crisis to another, thrown about by tidal waves of controversy has only deepened the sense of the country being adrift on a rudderless ship. That a parliamentary panel still found time in the midst of this disarray to recommend ‘lal battis’ for their cars only furthers public anger at the VIP culture of entitlement.

India is going through dangerous times. In the past, our democracy was our badge of honour. Its hustle and bustle — and even the noise of its loud, often inchoate arguments — was our proud distinction from China. Now the very symbol of that democracy is under unprecedented scrutiny. Some of the problems are both structural and a sign of changing times. The success of the Right to Information Act as an information enabler has diminished the importance of Question Hour. The onslaught of TV panel discussions has made the studio a handy and entertaining substitute for House debates. In fact, one of the questions raised again and again by audience members in such shows is why civility is possible on primetime but not inside the House. The hullabaloo every time the Opposition seeks a vote on an adjournment motion is a reflection of anachronistic rules. A government that is confident of its numbers should not worry about the outcome of such a vote. Else, the Opposition has a point in saying that they would be emasculated and Parliament would be reduced to a highfalutin debating society.

The empty benches or sleepy snores during key debates are also a sign of how little incentive there is for participation. We go on about how our politics would be different if it was younger in age and mindset. Yet when was the last time you heard a young idea from one of the gen-next leaders on the floor of the House? The diktat of the party whip imprisons both free speech and thought, locking younger minds into ancient, pre-ordained ideas.

An independent thinktank — PRS Legislative Research — has a telling statistic to underline the systemic dullness. The last time a Private Member’s Bill was passed in Parliament — a Bill not introduced by a minister — was in 1970. In other words, in the last 40 years, we have not created any incentive for an individual MP to bring forward a new way of legislative thinking. Of the 14 such Bills ever passed by Parliament, six were passed in 1956.

But the diminishing importance of Parliament in the minds of the people also has to do with the invisibility of the country’s top leadership in parliamentary proceedings. How often do you remember Prime Minister Manmohan Singh steering a House debate? Why should he only speak when forced to by a belligerent Opposition or in times of crisis? For that matter, why should Congress president Sonia Gandhi not take on the Leader of the Opposition on the floor of the House? Rahul Gandhi — poised to be the future of the Congress — has participated in parliamentary debates but it remains an erratic engagement. Mostly, the government has left it to its troubleshooter — Pranab Mukherjee — to be the face of any interaction with an aggressive Opposition.

There is an evident irony in the PM trying to convince the people that Parliament should have the last word on the Lokpal Bill, when he is more seen than heard inside the House, and that too, not enough. It seems an obvious political reform to introduce a fixed and allotted time for a PM’s question hour. Now that proceedings are televised, a weekly question hour would allow the general public to hear directly from the PM as well as satisfy the Opposition’s need for putting the government on the mat with tough questions. Perhaps the opportunity to quiz the PM in full public glare would also incentivise them to not adjourn the house but put their protests to a less personalised and more productive form of articulation.

India’s political history has chronicled how Jawaharlal Nehru unfailingly respected Parliament and attended the Question Hour even when his ministries were not involved. Sometimes he would grab a seat in the back benches and listen to his younger colleagues. On other days, he would monitor the debate in his room through a microphone. His stinging exchanges with right-wing ideologue Shyama Prasad Mookerjee are now the stuff of legend. Nehru’s engagement with Parliament illustrated a commonsensical fact: if you want people to respect an institution, start by respecting it yourself.

Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV
The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Dec 09, 2011 22:17 IST