Monday, October 20, 2014
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India’s Hostage Parliament

NEW DELHI – The ongoing disruption of the “monsoon session” of the Indian parliament has showcased both the resilience of India’s democracy and the irresponsibility with which its custodians treat it.

Demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh over the allegedly improper allocation of coal-mining blocks to private companies, the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party has stalled parliament’s work for three of the session’s four weeks. The repeated paralysis of parliament by slogan-shouting BJP members – violating every canon of legislative propriety and prompting the hapless speaker to adjourn each day’s meeting – has caused legislative business to grind to a halt.

The code of conduct that is imparted to all newly-elected MPs – including injunctions against speaking out of turn, shouting slogans, waving placards, and marching into the well of the house – has been completely ignored. Equally striking is the impunity with which lawmakers flout the rules. Successive speakers have pleaded helplessness in the face of such determined obstructionism by the principal opposition party.

India’s parliamentary system is embedded in its British colonial history. Like the American revolutionaries of two centuries ago, Indian nationalists fought for “the rights of Englishmen,” which they thought the replication of the Houses of Parliament would both epitomize and guarantee. Former Prime Minister Clement Attlee, a member of a British constitutional commission, 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. When bills are put to a vote, an affirmative call is still “aye,” rather than “yes.”

Even the Communists embraced the system with great delight. An Anglophile Marxist MP of yesteryear, Hiren Mukherjee, used to assert proudly that British Prime Minister Anthony Eden had felt more at home during Question Hour in India’s parliament than he had in Australia’s.

But six decades of independence have wrought significant change, as exposure to British practices has faded and India’s natural boisterousness reasserted 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.

While things have not yet degenerated that far in the national legislature, 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. This time, mercifully, at least one week’s worth of business could be conducted before the troublemaking began.

There was a time when parliamentary misbehavior was dealt with firmly. I, and many of my generation, recall the photograph of the burly Socialist MP, Raj Narain, a former wrestler, 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.

But, over the years, standards have been allowed to slide, with adjournments being preferred over expulsions. Last year, five MPs in the Rajya Sabha (the upper house) were suspended for charging the presiding officer’s desk, wrenching his microphone, and tearing up his papers. But, after a few months and some muted apologies, they were quietly reinstated. Perhaps this makes sense, reflecting a desire to allow the opposition its space in a system where party-line voting determines most outcomes, but it does little to enhance the parliament’s prestige.

Opposition parties, recognizing that the outcome of most votes is a foregone conclusion, treat parliament not as a solemn deliberative body, but 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, after several futile attempts to restore order, adjourns in despair.

The result is that the vast majority of the public has lost respect for the “temple of democracy,” as the parliament is known. The daily adjournments have also taken place on many occasions in the presence of bemused visiting members of other countries’ legislatures, which does India’s international reputation little good.

Pluralist democracy is India’s greatest strength, but its current manner of operation is the source of its major weaknesses. The disrepute into which the political process has fallen, and the widespread cynicism about the motives of India’s politicians, can be traced directly to the flawed workings of the parliamentary system.

India’s many challenges require political arrangements that permit leaders to concentrate on governance and take decisive action, whereas its parliamentary system increasingly promotes drift, indecision, and a narrow focus on survival in power. And now the cavalier attitude reflected in the opposition’s frequent disruption of the parliament risks discrediting parliamentary democracy itself. That is one thing India cannot afford. But its politicians must recognize that for themselves.

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  1. Commentedsri ram

    Very superficial- not so much by choice but by necessity. the author, a brilliant leader otherwise is shrinking in stature , in public perception, as he uses his magnificent intelligence for partisan ends. Too sad Mr.Tharoor. You should take some blame for the Paralysis of Parliament.

  2. CommentedRajesh D

    By highlighting Impunity of the MPs, the author has succeeded in successfully derailing the readers mind on the Actual issue - Corruption at the highest Echelons.

    Great Mr Tharoor, its in the shadow of the so called intelligentsia (like yourself) that the congress/UPA is playing hide n seek to brush the issues of actual importance under the carpet. You are talking about the values and leadership qualities that the MPs must stand for, did you by any chance forget that "Integrity" tops this list?
    Sir, you are more bothered about the adherence to the British convention citing Indian Parliamentarians thumping their desks in approbation rather than applauding by clapping their hands. This issue is more bothersome to you than the humongous loot of Public wealth the very same UPA parliamentarians are embracing.
    With the effect of the British wading off, you state that India’s natural boisterousness reasserted itself in the form of their behavior in the state assemblies. Just wondering why a learned author like you does not dedicate a line for the reasons behind their frustration. Lets talk about the cause rather than the effect, which you have cleverly presented to the outside world out here. The cause is incontrovertibly the interminable rampant graft, payola, fraudulent, dissoluteness and debauched public representatives delivering the opposite to what they are supposedly elected for. Your leader, supposedly - The Prime minister can perhaps be muted over such whopping amounts of scams under his supervision, but sadly the state assemblies cannot ape your leader on this. They get incensed over such a misuse of power and theft of peoples money. Sadly their appetite to bear such things are very low, in comparison to the congress, who have been on the job of robbing since the time only you can comprehend.
    Please keep your "Temple of democracy" and your 'sacrosanct' like adjectives to yourself. They are for people of your caliber and appetite to be mute on graft.
    I have always liked your writings; I will be having at least 200 articles that you had authored in my Google docs, and I don’t intend to keep this one in that collection.

  3. CommentedProcyon Mukherjee

    The conduct of leadership and the values we stand for is in disarray to say the least and the frustration is understandable; it leaves an impression of remorse for those millions who need policies to be debated and enacted that could only change their destiny.

    While we celebrate the Indian democracy with pomp and glory we have not progressed much rather than becoming more violent and disruptive to the cause of improvement of the human conditions. China with its only suffrage consisting of village level direct voting and the rest left to the direction of a central top down process, has progressed so much on the upliftment of human conditions like nutrition, consumption factors for the poor, primary education, infant mortality, and a host of factors that define the border line for upward mobility from poverty to its moderation, only acheived through institution buidling and policy enactment with a ferocity that can hardly be replicated.

    It leaves a sobering thought that the polity that is designed to be disruptive to growth and improvement of human lives better be replaced with something that makes progress possible; failure of democratic institution leaves very little for the building and nurturing of the other vital institutions of the country that our forefathers took pains to initiate and build. Demographic dividends will not take us any far and it is time we go back to institution buidling from scratch.

    Procyon Mukherjee

  4. CommentedJagan Rampal

    We are missing the larger point.

    Indian parliament has been the pivot of Indian democracy in earlier times, because of the erudite and statesmen amongst the parliamentarians. The deliberations/discourse was worth listening to ; and also the basis for policy and governance.

    The consultative dialogue in the parliament has given way to cantankerous fingerpointing, because of the intellectual mediocrity amongst our parliamentarians.

    The UPA says NDA is all wrong. NDA says UPA is all astray. God forbid, both may yet prove to be dead-right.

    It is upto us to elect our representatives who are committed, wise and capable of running things rather than blaming other for not doing so. Our parties have lost their relevance, unless we can find a way to populate them with the likes of Nehru and Bajpayi.
    God bless India.

  5. CommentedVivek S

    Mr. Tharoor, the true irresponsibility is shown by your party leaders Sonia and Rahul Gandhi. Just look at their abysmal attendance records, total absence of sponsorship of bills, and close to nil participation in debates. If the majority leadership does not participate in Parliament anyway, why should the opposition attend? The responsibility lies with both sides. If all the govt is going to do is debate and then shirk responsibility, why bother with a debate?

    The opposition had success with this strategy in the 2G scam protests, when asking for a JPC and Raja's resignation. So, naturally, they are going to up the stakes using the same strategy. Parliament is no more or less broken as compared to other institutions.

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