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.”