Debasing the Institution of Parliament
– Fault Lines of the Polity
“Ye are the salt of the earth:
but if the salt have lost his savour,
wherewith shall it be salted?
It is thenceforth good for nothing,
but to be cast out,
and to be trodden under foot of men.”
– Sermon on the Mount
“The daily routine of disruptions, adjournments and shouting in the House is leading many outside to question the efficacy of the institution.”
Guess who issued this dire warning? It is none other than the helpless, hapless Prime Minister of India, Manmohan Singh. And that was in 2012. The then sickeningly ongoing disruption of the “monsoon session” of the Indian parliament showcased the utterly cavalier display of irresponsibility with which its custodians treated it.
India’s Hostage Parliament
Demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh over the allegedly improper allocation of coal-mining blocks to private companies, the opposition stalled parliament’s work for three of the session’s four weeks. The repeated paralysis of parliament by slogan-shouting members – violating every canon of legislative propriety and prompting the disgusted speaker to adjourn each day’s session – caused legislative business to grind to a halt.
When newly-elected MPs join the House for the first time they are initiated into a code of conduct which instructs them into certain do’s and don’ts – including injunctions against speaking out of turn, shouting slogans, waving placards, and marching into the well of the house. The next day all that is thrown to the winds. Amazing indeed is the impunity with which lawmakers flout the rules. Successive speakers of the House have pleaded abject helplessness in the face of such determined obstructionism by whichever party constitutes the principal opposition party.
India’s parliamentary system is deeply indebted to its British colonial history. Like the American revolutionaries of two hundred years ago, Indian nationalists fought for “the rights of Englishmen.” They seemed to be convinced that the replication of the Houses of Parliament would at once epitomize and guarantee parliamentary democracy in India. Former Prime Minister Clement Attlee, a member of a British constitutional commission, famously recalled that when he suggested the United States’ presidential system as a model to Indian leaders, “they rejected it with great emphasis. I had the feeling that they thought I was offering them margarine instead of butter.”
Many of India’s veteran parliamentarians – several of whom had been educated in England and regarded British parliamentary traditions with admiration – reveled in their adherence to British convention and complimented themselves on the authenticity of their ways. Indian MPs still thump their desks in approbation, rather than applauding by clapping their hands. Why? Because that’s how it is done in the House of Commons. When bills are put to a vote, an affirmative call is still called “aye,” rather than “yes.” Why this quaint practice? Again, that’s the style obtaining in Britain.
Even the Communists embraced the parliamentary system with great aplomb. An Anglophile Marxist MP of the early years after Independence – remember Hiren Mukherjee – used to tell proudly how British Prime Minister Anthony Eden had felt more at home during Question Hour in India’s parliament than he had in Australian Parliament.
Six decades of Independence have, regrettably, brought about significant changes, as exposure to British practices has faded and India’s characteristic boisterousness of adda meets asserted itself. Some of the state assemblies in India’s federal system have already witnessed scenes of unruly legislators fighting, overturning furniture, ripping out microphones, and flinging slippers and exchanging fist blows
While things have not yet degenerated that far in the national legislature –hopefully, soon they will – the practice of disrupting the House has become an established substitute for parliamentary procedure.
In 2010, an entire parliamentary session was lost when the BJP held it hostage to the party’s demand that government establish an investigative committee to inquire into an alleged act of corruption. At that time just one week’s worth of business could be conducted before the troublemaking began.
There was a time when parliamentary misbehavior was dealt with firmly. Do you recall the photograph of the burly Socialist MP, Raj Narain, a former wrestler – yes, the same man who holds the distinction of defeating Indira Gandhi in the post-Emergency elections – being carried out of the house by four attendants for shouting out of turn and disobeying the speaker’s orders to return to his seat. Not anymore. Over the years, standards have been allowed to slide, with adjournments being preferred over expulsions. Five MPs in the Rajya Sabha (the upper house) were once suspended for charging the presiding officer’s desk, wrenching his microphone, and tearing up his papers.
Display of Disruptive Power
When the Bofors scandal rocked the country in the late ‘80s, the Opposition boycotted both the Houses for over six consecutive weeks. But the ruling Congress, with a clear majority, ensured that the disruptions did not affect the government’s business in Parliament. After some initial reluctance, the Congress government yielded to demands for a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) probe into the issue. Later, during the Narasimha Rao government, the Opposition put up a united fight for the removal of the then telecom minister, Sukh Ram, who was caught red-handed taking bribes. This time, though, the Congress did not give in to the demand for a JPC, Parliament proceedings were disrupted for a fortnight. But the Bills moved by the government were passed in the midst of ruckus that all concerned got used to.
When the Tehelka tapes, brought into the open the rot within the BJP-led NDA government, Sonia Gandhi, who was then the Leader of the Opposition, demanded a JPC probe. The NDA was adamant against it. Parliament was subsequently stalled, but the government managed to push its agenda in the House. The logjam in Parliament over the 2G scam and other corruption scandals has not only hurt the taxpayer but also stalled the legislative business of the House.
Recognizing that the outcome of most votes is a foregone conclusion, opposition parties treat parliament as a theater to demonstrate their power to disrupt. The well of the House – supposedly sacrosanct – becomes a stage for opposition MPs to crowd and jostle, waving placards and chanting slogans until the speaker is forced to adjourn the House. For TV channels it has become a daily exercise of shooting boisterous scenes for the entertainment of their viewers. No wonder the vast majority of the public has lost respect for the “temple of democracy,” as the parliament was once known. The daily adjournments have become the joke of the day so much so that the opposition’s frequent disruption of the parliament risks discrediting parliamentary democracy itself as if it was a circus show.
Loss to the Exchequer
With frequent disruptions and forced adjournments of Parliament by the opposition becoming the order of the day, the public exchequer loses crores of rupees. Each hour of functioning of the House costs Rs 25 lakhs. Somnath Chatterjee, unanimously elected Speaker of Lok Sabha in 2004 pointed out his memoirs of the years he presided over the Lok Sbha – Keeping The Faith –
Out of 1738 hours and 45 minutes, the fourteenth Lok Sabha wasted 423 hours because of disruptions and adjournments due to disorderly scenes. This amounted to 24 per cent of the time of the House, which constituted an all-time alarming record. The cost to the public exchequer was unacceptable and justifiably drew a lot of trenchant criticism from all quarters. Harping on holding sittings of Parliament for at least 100 days in a year was meaningless if members could not conduct themselves in a befitting manner in the days that the House actually did sit. (Keeping The Faith: Memoirs of a Parliamentarian. p.160)
So disgusted was he at times with the conduct of our MP’s that he is on record to have made observations such as:
‘I hope that all of you are defeated in the election.’
‘You have to be taught a lesson.’
‘This House of People should be adjourned sine die. People’s money will be saved. Useless allowances should not be given to all of you. I think that is the best thing to do. You do not deserve one paisa out of public money.’
‘You are insulting the people of this country.’
‘I do not know how your voters are tolerating you for five years.’
Can you dig such gems from the parliamentary proceedings of any legislature that claims to have a democratic polity?
Among the bills passed without discussion included the general and railway budget for 2004-05 and the railway budgets for 2006-07 and 2007-08. This evoked an adverse reaction in the public and the media, but did not seem to affect the members. There were dark days like 13 August 2007, when even the Prime Minister was not allowed to speak – on the Indo-US nuclear deal – and he had to lay his speech on the table of the House.
“I considered it a matter of the greatest shame,” records Somnath Chatterjee. He goes on to add: “Regrettably, this happened again on 22 July 2008, when the trust motion was debated. Many important bills met the same fate, and were simply rushed through, making a mockery of the House. However, I found that bills relating to salaries of members, judges and high constitutional offices were always dealt with promptly.” (I referred to this malpractice in an earlier article in this series.) Appendix III. (p. 173) in his book has a chart listing the occasions when important business could not be conducted properly due to the deliberate disorders created in the House during the fourteenth Lok Sabha.
Broad Social Impact
Apart from making our parliamentary system both disillusioning and dysfunctional there is, I think, an extremely deleterious social impact of how our political system is delivering.
I ask the cab driver if he isn’t overcharging, he barks back: ‘who in this society isn’t? What about our Ministers? How do Government functionaries perform?’ What answer have I to convince him that two wrongs don’t make one right.
There is a profoundly significant verse in the Bhagavad-Gita: Chapter III: 21 which explains what is happening around. It says:
Yadyadacharit shrestha statattadevetaro jana;
Sa yat pramanam kurute lokastat danuvartate 3. 21
‘Whatever the superior person does,
that is also followed by others;
what standard he or she demonstrates by action,
people follow that.’
Shrestha means one holding a high position; money, intellect, political power, whoever has more of any of these, that person is a shrestha in that particular society; (Don’t our MPs fit into this category?) ‘whatever he does, other people try to follow’. That is the nature of human society: yadyadacharit shretha stattattadevetaro jana; Sa yat pramanam kurute lokastat danuvartate, ‘whatever standard he or she keeps up, all others follow that very standard’.
What a great concept indeed. Yet, it can also be in the wrong way. That is why today, with corruption at the top, corruption has reached down from top to every social stratum.
Hence, people at the top must display the highest standard of conduct. In our traditional concept of human society, we had in earlier times a wonderful idea and practice; the highest person in society was also the poorest person. Take Gandhi for example. The man had no bank account. He didn’t bequeath any worldly possession for his kith and kin. He maintained very high standard of conduct and behavior. This was our tradition for centuries together till the whole society and social standards had a precipitate fall.
Let me illustrate by a story.
Sri Ramakrishna’s father, Kshudhiram Chatterjee, was asked by the local zamindar to give false evidence in the court in his favour. (Seldom in fact is truth told in our courts of law.) He replied, ‘Sorry, I cannot. I know it is not true, I cannot give false witness’ The zamindar was enraged by his reply and told him: ‘Then you will have to pay for the audacity to refuse.’ ‘I don't mind. I shall speak only the truth. I am not going to give any false witness.’
Because of that, Ramakrishna's father was thrown out of that village by the zamindar. He took his small bundle of possessions and, with his two children and their mother, started trekking for shelter elsewhere. After some distance, another zamindar, a good man, in another village saw him. He told Kshudiram: ‘you come and stay in my village, Kamarpukur. I will give you a piece of land.’ That village is today deemed as a sacred center – the birthplace of Ramakrishna. What deep difference did all this make to the sanskars that Ramakrishna inherited from a father who upheld truth at all cost, what profound influence on the inherited genetic code.
Years late in life on the threshold of the rarest of rare human experiences, called self-realization the priest of Dakshneshwar temple, stood before Kali. He surrendered to Her all he had that stood in the way, the most formidable of which is human ego. “One thing,” Ramakrishna used to narrate later in life, “that I couldn’t surrender even to Kali, was Truth.”
Honour and Truth are most precious attributes of human conduct. And it is these that we are losing by the day. What is valued the most in today’s society is money and money alone for which we are prepared to barter away everything else.
If parents at home keep a high standard of conduct, children will follow the straight path in life. The old aphorism has it that children may or may not do what they are told by their parents, but they certainly will so what they see their parents do. It is natural. Krishna tells here in this verse that to be at the top of society is not easy. It carries great weight of responsibility.
It is a matter of profound regret that in our day and time people have come to believe that what matters the most in life is money alone and the means to acquire it don’t matter. A simple corollary of this social philosophy is that only those are important in life, who help you acquire more money. Otherwise they are worthless.
I’ve seen in rich Marwari homes a most unedifying sight. The telephone rings. The grandson or Bahu picks up the receiver. The caller wants to speak to Sethji. She looks at Sethji’s face after disclosing the caller’s identity. He nods a coded ‘no’. The Bahu tells the caller that Sethji is not at home. A blatant lie indeed. The child who hears all this learns the lesson that truth is what suits your convenience and what matters in life is to treat others as mere means to your end.
We Indians are notoriously unpunctual. The phenomenon is a matter of concern in places of work. The basic reason among others is the sahib himself never shows up at the fixed hour but expects his subordinate to be on time. If the boss himself reaches before the prescribed time, punctual reporting would register a sharp improvement.
People at top have to set high standards. That is not what is happening. In fact, more and more evil people are getting all the honour in human society. Aping the west, our media gives most coverage to evil people; somebody who robs a bank or passengers in a running train. The media makes that robber a hero, books are written about him and he becomes a millionaire in no time. That’s known as cheque-book journalism. An honest person has no place at all. This is an inverted type of social value system. Beware! If you are a leader, set an example for the rest of the community. To be a leader is not easy. No, not at all. You have to be very strict about yourself – a sardar, leader, must be a sardar. We stand, today, on the edge of a precipice. Unless we beat a retreat, doom stares at us.
I quoted in the beginning from the Sermon on the Mount. Tell me what shall we do with the salt (of our parliamentary leadership) that hath lost his savour: cast it out and let it be trodden under the feet of men who had once on the beckoning of their leaders set store by it? More importantly, what will it be substituted by? Chaos? Anarchy?
Day after day we discuss and bemoan the dissipation of our spiritual resources and the onset of what appears to be irreversible descent into decadence. The fundamental cause of that is the Political State we have created or, more correctly, what our parliamentarians have converted it into. Can we set it right?
The answer is not be sought from Western experts and their acolytes in India. It lies buried in our epics. The Mahabharta War was over. On Krishna’s earnest plea, Bhisma, lying on the bed of shafts, agreed to expatiate, for Yudhisthira’s education, on the subtleties of the statecraft.
The right people – men and women endowed with wisdom and integrity – filling political and administrative positions, can transform creatively the whole human situation in our or in any other country. Bhisma’s exhortation to Yudhisthira in the Mahabharata about the pre-eminence of the political state rings more true today (12.70.6) than ever before:
Kalo va karanam rajnah raja va kala-karanam;
Iti te samsayo ma bhut, raja kalasya karanam —
“Is time the cause of the political state
or the political state the cause of time?
Let not this doubt assail you (Yudhisthira);
for it is the political state
that creates and determines the times (in which we live)”.
My compatriots, however, will heed the sane advice only the day Prof Michael Sandel expounds it in his famous Harvard course ‘Justice’, and not if it continues lying buried in the Shantiparva of Mahabharata.