Parliament and the opposition

By Inder Jit

(Released on 15 January 1985)

All eyes are on the new Lok Sabha, which is due to assemble today for its first sitting. How will it fare? Will Parliament continue to slide downhill, as during Indira Gandhi’s time, and decline further? Or, will it recapture some of its lost glory and élan — and play its due role as during Nehru’s time widely acknowledged by experts as Parliament’s “golden period”. Incredibly enough, most people seem to feel that the Lok Sabha poll has raised a big question mark over Parliament. Some have even gone to the length of writing off Parliament arguing: “Rajiv Gandhi has won 400 seats. The Opposition is down to a bare hundred. Atal Behari Vajpayee, Chandra Shekhar, Bahuguna, Satyasadhan Chakraborty and other Opposition stalwarts have been defeated. You can now forget Parliament”. But in saying so these people seem to miss out on one basic fact of life. Quantity has never been a substitute for quality. You can have a large but ineffective Opposition. Equally, you can have a small but effective Opposition.
Parliamentary democracy provides for a Government by discussion, debate and consensus. The Opposition is an integral and vital part of the system and is hence known in Britain as Her Majesty’s “loyal” Opposition. But the prefix “loyal” does not detract from the Opposition’s basic responsibility. Its principal task is to keep Ministers and civil servants on their toes and ensure good government. Numbers are undoubtedly important. They are, however, not crucial. In fact, India’s first Lok Sabha faced a somewhat similar situation. The Congress Party, led by Nehru, bagged 364 seats. The Opposition totaled 119 members. Nevertheless, the Lok Sabha was effective, thanks to two factors. First, Nehru bent over backwards to encourage the Opposition and to set up healthy conventions. He also proved through word and deed that no democratic government should ever ride roughshod over the Opposition, however weak and divided. Second, the Opposition, which included some eminent public men, conducted itself with great responsibility.
Most Congress-I men seem to have a wholly erroneous understanding of parliamentary democracy. Over the years, they have come to believe that they can do what they please as the majority party. But parliamentary democracy is not rule by a brute majority. Indeed, Nehru sought to make this quite clear, recognizing the harsh reality that the Opposition, though small, represented a majority of those who had voted. As the Leader of the House, in addition to being the Prime Minister, he rose above party considerations time and again and expressed himself in the best interest of healthy parliamentary functioning. On one occasion, he even ticked off one of his Ministers and came to the rescue of the Opposition. The Opposition wanted some information but the Minister stalled on the plea: “This cannot be given in public interest”. A visibly agitated Nehru was soon up on his feet and intervened to state in so many words: “Mr. Speaker Sir, I see no public interest involved. The Minister should give the required information.”
There can be no two opinions that Mr. Atal Behari Vajpayee and some others among the Opposition leaders will be greatly missed. Many Parliament watchers, therefore, hope that the BJP’s plans to bring Mr. Vajpayee — and Mr. Chandra Shekhar — back into the Lok Sabha will succeed. Nevertheless, the Opposition still has several distinguished leaders on its side — leaders who could be counted upon to make Parliament both lively and effective, provided they take their job seriously. (Parliament calls for concentrated hard work and vigilance — and not just one “great” speech in a session!) Prominent among those who will continue to adorn the Lok Sabha are Mr. Jagjivan Ram, Mr. Charan Singh, Prof Madhu Dandvate, Mr. Indrajit Gupta, Mr. K.P. Unnikrishnan, Mr. Biju Patnaik, and Mr. G.M. Banatwala. The House will also have the benefit of the ability and long experience of Mr. H.M. Patel, who was a member of the Janata Government and held the portfolio of Finance initially and then of Home. In addition, the new members include Dr. Dutta Samant, metropolitan Bombay’s well known labour leader and stormy petrel.
Happily, for the new Lok Sabha, Mr. Rajiv Gandhi has made it known that he will do all within his power to make Parliament both effective and purposeful. He is clear that this will not be possible without the active cooperation of the Opposition. Accordingly, he has taken certain actions which have pleased even his critics and roused hopes. In the first place, Parliamentary Affairs has been made the full-time responsibility of one Cabinet Minister. Mr. H.K.L. Bhagat has been elevated to Cabinet rank; earlier he was number two to Mr. Buta Singh, who proved to be a highly successful Minister of Parliamentary Affairs. At the same time, he has been given two able Ministers of State — Mrs. Margaret Alva and Mr. Ghulam Nabi Azad. Secondly, Mr. Gandhi has made an unprecedented gesture to the Opposition as proof of his intent. He got Mr. Bhagat as the Minister of Parliamentary Affairs to call on top Opposition leaders in Parliament and seek their support and cooperation — apart from his decision to invite them individually for talks on major issues confronting the nation.
Outwardly, Parliament has appeared to get on with the job. Inwardly, however, its health has deteriorated. Not many realize that Parliament provides a forum for an open and honourable struggle for power. Various recognized conventions, rules and procedures essential for the smooth running of Parliament have been broken and defied. Infective and shouting has often taken the place of argument and reasoning. Parliamentary privilege has been repeatedly and wantonly abused to sling mud and character assassinate adversaries in the style of the market place. Often, the Opposition has appeared to be the villain of the piece. But it is more sinned against than sinning. True, they shout, create pandemonium and even walk out on occasions. But what are they to do when questions are not answered or truth brazenly suppressed, notwithstanding India’s motto of “Satyameva Jayate” which blazons in a neon tube above the Speaker’s chair. It needs to be remembered that Parliament’s greatest power lies in its ability to ask questions from the Government and, indeed, from the Prime Minister himself.
In sharp contrast to the sorry spectacle in India, the mother of Parliament continues to grow. New initiatives have been taken and ideas implemented without diluting Westminster’s strength in any way. Some eight years ago, the House of Commons, chronically dissatisfied with its procedures and anxious to adapt them to changing demands made upon it, set up a Select Committee on procedure to make recommendations for the more effective performance of its functions. The Committee, which sat between 1976 and 1978, carried out a broad and significant review of the way the Commons worked and held as many as sixty-eight meetings before finalizing its report. Expectedly, the Committee was divided on many details. But it was agreed on many major points, especially the following basic diagnosis: “the balance of advantage between Parliament and Government in the day to day working of the Constitution is now weighted in favour of the Government to a degree…. which is inimical to the proper working of parliamentary democracy.”
The Committee produced seventy-six recommendations with but one aim: “to enable the House as a whole to exercise effective control and stewardship over ministers and the expanding bureaucracy of the state for which they are answerable.” The incoming Government in 1979, headed by Mrs. Margaret Thatcher, accepted both the Procedure Committee’s order of priorities as well as the essentials of its recommendations, especially in regard to the appointment of permanent select committees. Equally significant was what Mr. St. John Steves, the Leader of the House, said in June 1979 while moving for the appointment of the select committees. He saw them as the means of enabling the Commons “to subject the executive to limitations and control; to protect the liberties of the individual citizen; to defend him against the arbitrary use of power; to focus the mind of the nation on the great issues of the day by the maintenance of continuous dialogue and discussion; and by remaining at the centre of the stage to impose parliamentary conventions or manners on the whole political system.”
There is no magic remedy which can restore health to Parliament overnight. The process has to be slow and long. Nevertheless, a meaningful beginning could be made in two ways: by taking a fresh look at the rules of procedure which have reduced Parliament to ineffectiveness and, more important, by adopting the committee system with such modifications as are necessitated by our requirements and traditions. Parliament has neither the time nor is it equipped to take an intensive look at various policies and programmes always. It should normally discuss only matters of general policy and leave the details to be thrashed out in parliamentary committees. But we have ill-advisedly discarded this healthy system. A good few committees were set up in Mavalankar’s time. However, these were scrapped and we have now highly-publicised informal Consultative Committees, which have been debunked as “so much trash” by none other than Mr. M.N. Kaul, who was Secretary of the Lok Sabha from 1946 to 1964, and by Mr. S.L. Shakdher, former Secretary-General.
Much will eventually depend upon Mr. Rajiv Gandhi and his approach to the Opposition in practice. (The Opposition can still claim to represent a majority of the voters. The Congress-I polled 49.16 per cent of the votes polled.) The signals from Mr. Gandhi so far are undoubtedly encouraging. He is also opposed to the “hulla groups” and will not permit his partymen to indulge in rowdyism. How the new members will conduct themselves is anybody’s guess. Fortunately, the Lok Sabha Secretariat, headed by Dr. Subhash Kashyap, has organized an orientation course for them — apart from producing ready recokoners on parliamentary procedures entitled: Abstracts Series. A close circuit TV has also been installed to keep members informed about the happenings on the floor. Ultimately, we need to be clear about the true nature of a healthy and purposeful democracy and of Parliament itself. Mr. Rajiv Gandhi has clearly a special responsibility. But the role of the Opposition is no less crucial. Parliament can become strong and effective only if both sides are willing to go by the rules of the game — and cooperate purposefully. — INFA