Sixty eight per cent of the time of the previous Lok Sabha was lost to BJP-led disruptions. It is hardly surprising that UPA members have decided to emulate their predecessors.
As Parliament’s delayed winter session gets under way, the threat of disruption is in the air. There is also belligerent talk of aggressive new measures to be taken by the presiding officers to deal with it.
As a conscientious objector myself to disruptions, and as one whose first-hand education in Indian parliamentary practice only goes back two terms, I find my mind going back to certain episodes and statements on the subject not very long ago.
The House was in bedlam but the Opposition legislator was unrepentant. “The disruption we have started in this session will be taken to the people till we are able to restore fairness and some degree of accountability,” he said. “If parliamentary accountability is subverted and a debate is intended to be used merely to put a lid on parliamentary accountability, it is then a legitimate tactic for the Opposition to expose the government through the parliamentary instruments available at its command.”
He was righteous in his indignation that by disrupting Parliament he was not doing the work he was elected to do. “Disrupting does not mean not doing work. What we are doing is in fact very important work.”
Asked whether Parliament should not be used to debate rather than disrupt, the Opposition MP was categorical. “A national debate is on. Every aspect is being debated, yet not in Parliament. This debate rages on elsewhere, while the government runs Parliament. Our strategy does not allow it to be debated in Parliament, that is all.”
“In a debate, you talk the issue out,” he said dismissively to Open magazine. “Sometimes, disruptions bring greater gains to the country.”
Another senior Opposition figure, a former minister herself, was asked about the losses to the national exchequer from the disruption of Parliament, which was wasting crores of taxpayers’ rupees. Yes, she agreed, “when Parliament ends this way, there is criticism – we are told that there is a loss since the Parliament wasn’t allowed to function. By losing Rs 10-20 crore from loss of Parliament proceedings, if we can build pressure on the government, then that is acceptable.”
Veteran leaders of the Opposition agreed. A former Prime Ministerial candidate of the party declared that sometimes, blocking legislative action “yields results”. A former Finance and Foreign Minister added: “Because the government has been silent on the issue we have decided to rake up the issue… I would like to strongly demand that the government announce right now a probe. If there is no announcement of a probe, then how can we let the House function?”
Were these Congress leaders defending the disruption of recent sessions of Parliament? No, perish the thought. These are verbatim quotes from BJP stalwarts (in the order quoted) Arun Jaitley, Sushma Swaraj, L.K. Advani, and Yashwant Sinha. Except they were spoken in 2011-13, as the BJP paralysed session after session with its clamour for resignations, for a Joint Parliamentary Committee on the telecom allocations, and for probes into assorted alleged misdemeanours of the UPA government.
In a final irony, Vice-President Venkaiah Naidu, in a speech on the importance of legislatures last week, has advocated the immediate suspension of legislators who invade the well of the House. An admirable sentiment, especially for a former Parliamentary Affairs Minister of the current dispensation. Except that just four years ago, the same Venkaiah Naidu, when asked about BJP legislators doing the same thing, and asked if these were not unparliamentary tactics, replied unapologetically: “Let us invent new tactics so that the principle of accountability is not sacrificed. We will not keep quiet. We will take the fight to the people.”
Turnabout, it is said, is fair play. These were the arguments used, with eloquence and even legalese, by the BJP leadership when, for the ten years of UPA rule, they disrupted Parliament with impunity. Sixty-eight per cent of the time of the previous Lok Sabha was lost to BJP-led disruptions. It was hardly surprising that – faced with the stubborn refusal of the government to accept that the conduct of their External Affairs Minister and two Chief Ministers warranted their resignations or at least a serious investigation – the UPA members decided to emulate their predecessors in Opposition.
Those of us who attended missionary schools learned the golden rule: “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. The new golden rule of Indian politics has become: “do unto them what they did unto you”.
In a startling turnaround, the poachers have now become the gamekeepers. The very politicians who had argued the case for disruption – who had used sophistry and morality to obstruct the work of Parliament for years in the cause of the higher principle of accountability – suddenly decided that on this issue, where you stand depends on where you sit. Now that they are sitting on the Treasury benches, disruption is wasteful, even anti-national.
I am sorry, but it won’t wash. Of course, two wrongs don’t make a right. But it was the BJP who had set the standards of parliamentary conduct they are now deploring. It was they who had declared “resignations first, discussions later”. (In a particularly cruel irony, Sushma Swaraj had tweeted this very principle, which has now come back to haunt her.)
Well before I entered politics, I had been invited by then-Speaker Somnath Chatterjee to a Round Table of eminent citizens (Narayana Murthy and Shyam Benegal among them) to discuss the functioning of Parliament. We had all called for strict enforcement of the rules to ensure higher standards of decorum and debate, and been disabused by the Speaker of our illusions. Disruptions, he said, occurred because an outnumbered Opposition saw them as part of their democratic rights; to thwart them by invoking the rule book would be condemned by all parties, including the ruling Congress, as undemocratic. So suspending, let alone expelling, MPs was not an option he could easily exercise.
Matters got worse under the next Speaker, Meira Kumar, whose decency and gentility were shamefully abused by a belligerent BJP. Still, she echoed the Somnath line: it would be wrong to expel unruly Opposition members without an all-party consensus on doing so. So disruption continued.
Whatever the merits of this method of parliamentary protest – and personally, it is not something I have ever cared for – it has become part of the convention of Indian parliamentary practice. So the shock when Speaker Sumitra Mahajan expelled 25 of the Congress’s 44 members for five days in 2015, invoking rule 374A which has only been used three times in the entire 67-year history of independent India, was palpable. Seven Opposition parties announced they were joining the Congress in boycotting the Lok Sabha in protest against this deplorable decision.
Certainly, let us create new standards of acceptable parliamentary conduct, but by consensus with all parties. Expelling your Opposition is not democracy. But Mr Modi knows that: he has done exactly the same thing, repeatedly, in the Gujarat Assembly, passing laws with almost the entire Opposition suspended from the House.
In his 2014 election campaign, Mr Modi had boasted that he would apply the Gujarat Model to the rest of India. There was less talk of this in 2017. We just have to ensure he doesn’t start with Parliament.
This article was originally published in The Print.