Value probity and decency in public life
We have a rock solid foundation for parliamentary conduct, but it would seem we have made a travesty of it
As elections to five states, including Uttar Pradesh, get closer, language and decorum in public life seem to have become a casualty.
The tendency towards mud-slinging is visible across all sections of society, it would seem. An example is a manner in which television anchors conduct themselves on prime time shows. We were taught early on in our careers that a journalist is neither friend nor foe to anyone and that objectivity is the bedrock of the profession. Since the proliferation of television channels, the journalist seems to have become nothing more than a TRP (target rating point) machine.
In 1997, an illustrious television editor of a news show had died. The newsroom was plunged in gloom and even the anchors could not prepare themselves for the evening bulletin. But since the show must go on, a well-known journalist took on the responsibility and conducted the show with dignity and gravity. Journalism was held in high esteem as a profession until a few years ago.
Let us take a look at the debates in Parliament since live telecast of the proceedings of the House began in the early nineties. Even at that time, there were walkouts, adjournments of House proceedings and, at times, language that crossed the limits of decency. Somnath Chatterjee had made strong comments on this trend as Speaker of the Lok Sabha. Some columnists even talked about instituting measures to rein in such Members of Parliament (MPs). But in comparison to what is happening today, those days were a Sunday school picnic. Those who remember this kinder, gentler time are disheartened by the conduct of our MPs today. We expect so much better of them.
Our MPs have a tradition of passing legislation against many social evils. Among these, I count banning child marriage, female foeticide, child labour, the dowry system and triple talaq. These brought about seminal changes in society. In this Parliament, the Untouchability (Offences) Act 1955 was passed and equal rights given to men and women. It was here in November 1949, that the original copy of the Constitution was presented.
Today, MPs and ministers begin their terms by swearing by the same Constitution. But, do they live up to the claims and promises they made to their voters?
Let’s have a look at these figures to get the answer. In the previous session of the House, the monsoon session, was to run from July 19 to August 13, but was adjourned sine die on August 11. In that session, the Lok Sabha worked for only 21 hours and 14 minutes out of the stipulated 96 hours, that is, only 22%. At the same time, the Rajya Sabha could also utilise only 28% of its allotted time. In that session, the Lok Sabha passed 14 bills, which were discussed for an average of 10 minutes or less. However, the 127th Constitution Amendment Bill was debated for five hours in both Houses.
Even the current winter session has lost a lot of time due to disruptions. Those being accused of disrupting were in government seven-and-a-half years ago. Today’s ruling party used to sit in the Opposition benches and was no slouch when it came to disruptions. We have a rock solid foundation for parliamentary conduct, but it would seem we have made a travesty of it.
This decline in standards is not unique to journalism and politics. Our educational institutions are beset by controversy. Different statements from vice-chancellors, academics, and students show that an ideological divide has wreaked havoc in these institutions. The same is the case with the government machinery. Here is an example. A police officer in a Hindi belt town was trying to stop a fierce fight between two bloodthirsty groups. He found that a section of policemen was not making the necessary effort to stop the violence. Later, during investigations, it was found out that the policemen concerned belonged to one of the groups. They did not want to hold their people accountable. This shows how deeply we have become divided. Ideas have now been replaced by fabricated narratives. Perception and performance have become more valuable than the truth.
I would like to remind the political fraternity that in a democracy, the people are ruled by those representatives who are elected through their votes. These representatives have to run the country or their own pocket boroughs responsibly. We may have abolished monarchy, but there were some good governance lessons in that system. There was a time when kings, who were above the worldly allures, would plough the farms to send out a meaningful message. There are many lessons from the past, which we would do well to learn if we are to work towards a more inclusive and democratic society that values probity and decency in public life.
Shashi Shekhar is editor-in-chief, Hindustan The views expressed are personal