Majority arrogance imperils system

Diversifying Agriculture

By Inderjit
(Published on 1 March 1988)

Arrogance of majority power is beginning to imperil our Parliamentary democracy even as we celebrate the 40th year of Independence appropriately with refreshing gusto. Tuesday last week saw a grave frontal assault on the system which, as we all know, provides for rule by discussion and debate and through compromise and consensus. The Chairman of the Rajya Sabha, Dr. Shanker Dayal Sharma, was brazenly and repeatedly defied by some Ministers — notably Mr. Chidambaram and Mr. Bhajan Lal — and interrupted and harangued by other members of the ruling party. The leader of the Telugu Desam Party, Mr. P. Upendra, was prevented from making his “special mention” on a subject permitted by the Chairman — violation of the ceiling on expenses by the controversial governor of Andhra Pradesh, MsKumudben Joshi. Undoubtedly, there are times when the Government must assert its majority to push through its decision. Nevertheless, Parliamentary democracy basically provides that the Opposition must have its say even as the Government has its way. In this case, Mr. Upendra had the Chairman firmly on his side.
What followed was no less painful. On Wednesday, the Government again trampled upon time-honoured conventions. Postal and telecommunication rates were hiked by Rs. 549 crores through a ministerial fiat, announced by the Minister of State for Defence, Mr. Santosh Mohan Dev, on behalf of Mr. Vasant Sathe. The Government announcement came against the backdrop of a walkout by the entire Opposition in the Lok Sabha a day earlier following the imposition of Rs.2,220 crores of new taxes through an increase in the administered prices of coal, sugar, imported edible oil, steel and petrol. Both the levies not only go against the fundamental concept of parliamentary democracy but defy the rulings given by the Chairman and the Speaker of the Lok Sabha. In 1986, the then Chairman, Mr. Hidayatullah, ruled such hikes as improper even if these were legally in order. Postal and communication rates have normally formed part of the general budget — and so also any increase in the prices of steel and petroleum products. Heavens would not have fallen if the Government had waited a little and made the increase a part of the budget.
Taxation by executive order makes a mockery of the basic scheme of parliamentary democracy that there shall be no taxation without prior approval and representation. It undermines both the sovereignty of the people and the power of Parliament. It needs to be emphasized that the democratic struggle in Britain and elsewhere is the history of the people’s fight against a sovereign’s arbitrary right to impose taxes and spend moneys at will. Not many may remember that the American War of Independence was sparked off on the fundamental issue that there be no taxation without representation. (America, then a colony, reacted violently when Britain arbitrarily imposed an additional levy on tea resulting in what is historically known as the Boston Tea Party). Thus, a free people and their chosen leaders in a democracy have the inalienable right to represent their viewpoint to the elected government of the day on the floor of Parliament before the latter imposes any levy. They have also the fundamental right to satisfy themselves through their elected representatives that the moneys raised have been spent well.
Clearly, the Treasury benches were badly advised and even showed ignorance of the Constitution. True, they had reason to feel peeved over the conduct of the question hour in the Rajya Sabha on Tuesday. The entire hour was taken up by questions on investigation into the assets of the Bachchan brothers to the exclusion of 19 other questions listed for oral answers that day. Dr. Sharma, as some Ministers later argued in the Central Hall, could have moved on to the next question after some time on his own, as generally happens. Equally, nothing prevented the Congress-I members themselves from requesting the Chairman to take up other questions. Curiously, even MPs who had questions listed in their names kept quiet. Some Congress-I MPs see a “strange coincidence” in the two happenings — questions on the Bachchan brothers for a whole hour and a “special mention” soon thereafter on a subject concerning a controversial Congress-I Governor. However, the Chairman cannot be faulted because the question on the Bachchans was listed for the opening day. Questions tabled by MPs are balloted by the Secretariat. Which question gets the first place is a matter of luck, not design.
The Chairman cannot also be faulted on allowing the “special mention”. The Treasury benches,virtually led by Mr. P. Chidambaram, Minister of State for Home, mainly quoted Articles 202 (3) and 203 (1) from the State List of the Constitution to argue that the emoluments and allowances of a Governor could be discussed only in the State Assembly. But Mr. Chidambaram overlooked three facts of life. First, the emoluments and allowances of the Governors form part of the Union List (75) and are, therefore, within Parliaments’ jurisdiction. Second, as pointed out by Mr. Upendra, the salaries and allowances of the Governor are governed by an Act of Parliament and, accordingly, the ceiling on their expenditure is fixed by the Union Home Ministry. Third, Parliament has in the past discussed the conduct of Governors as in the notorious case of Mr. RamLal, also of Andhra Pradesh. Actually, Dr. Sharma’s ruling limited Mr. Upendra’s mention only to the question of expenditure and barred him from going into the conduct of the Governor. Now, Mr. Chidambaram’s stand has given a carte blanche to the Andhra Pradesh Assembly not only to discuss the conduct of MsKumudben Joshi but even adopt a resolution!
The Congress-I has publicly accused the Chairman of not having consulted the Minister of Parliamentary Affairs before allowing the special mention. But the charge is unfair. The Chairman is not required to consult any Minister. It is up to the Ministers to check matters with the Chairman every morning at 10.15 a.m., the latter’s deadline for deciding on requests for the day. In this case, Dr. Sharma’s mind was crystal clear. As he asserted in the House: “So far as this question is concerned, my clear ruling, without any iota of doubt, is that the reference to that is completely constitutional, legal, democratic and fundamental.” Dr. Sharma should know what he is talking about. Not many are aware that he has a Doctorate in Law from Cambridge on the Interpretation of Legislative Powers in a Federal Constitution. He is also a Fellow from the Harvard Law School. In fact, Dr. Sharma seldom mentions that he even taught law at Cambridge for a year. Discreet efforts should have been made by the Government to convince the Chairman of its viewpoint in the Chamber and not through a disgraceful and ill-advised show of defiance on the floor of the House.
Sadly, the Treasury benches allowed the arrogance of majority power to run away with their good sense and parliamentary etiquette. Heavens, if I may repeat my favourite expression, would not have fallen if Mr. Upendra had been allowed to make his special mention, an effective device evolved by earlier Chairman to save the Rajya Sabha from the tumult and pandemonium of the zero hour in the Lok Sabha. Mr. Upendra proposed to do no more than bring to the notice of the Rajya Sabha, which is the Council of States of the Union and not just a Second Chamber, that the expenses of the Andhra Pradesh Governor had shot up from some Rs.21 laksh to Rs.49 lakhs. Further, that Ms. Kumudben Joshi’s own contribution to this extravagance was some 70 per cent. The matter would have more or less ended after the TDP leader had spoken as Ministers are not required under the Rules to respond to such submissions which are intended to be only “special mentions”. In fact, the Ministers are not even required to be in the House unlike in the case of Calling Attention Notices and Short Duration Discussions, wherein the date is fixed in consultation with the Minister.
Some prominent Congress-I MPs have not hesitated haughtily to assert: “Dr. Sharma has greatly embarrassed out party and its leader. He should not forget that he was elected by our majority vote!” the implication is clear. They would like the Chairman to function as a member of the Government, as is the wont of some Presiding Officers. But they forget that once a person is elected the Chairman (or the Speaker) he ceases to be a partyman and must, in all conscience, function impartially in the best national interest. Nehru’s view about the role of the Speaker and his prestige and authority deserves to be recalled. Speaking some 40 years ago on the occasion of the unveiling of a portrait of Speaker Vithalbhai Patel in the Lok Sabha, Nehru candidly observed: “The Speaker represents the House. He represents the dignity of the House, the freedom of the House and because the House represents the nation, in a particular way, the Speaker becomes the symbol of the nation’s freedom and liberty. Therefore, it is right that that should be an honoured position, a free position and should be occupied always by men of outstanding ability and impartiality.”
Now the last point: Mr. Gandhi’s role in the happenings of the Rajya Sabha’s black Tuesday? He was present in the House when the bedlam broke, having gone there to introduce the new Ministers. I gather he wanted to leave thereafter. But he was unable to do so as Dr. Sharma was mostly on his legs and he did not wish to appear discourteous to the Chair. Did he “instigate” the Ministers to defy the Chairman, as alleged by the Opposition, which expectedly wants to get the maximum political mileage out of the episode? Dr. Sharma, for his part, is clearly of the view that Mr. Gandhi “had nothing to do with it”. Still one fact remains. Mr. Gandhi should have intervened as the leader to restrain his ministerial colleagues and ensure the dignity of the Chair and the House. Happily, Dr.Sharma and Mr. Gandhi have since met, accompanied by their spouses. No scope has been left for any doubt or misunderstanding. This is welcome as far as it goes. Ultimately, the healthy functioning of our parliamentary democracy depends greatly on the leader, as shown by Nehru. The ruling party must resist the temptation of functioning as a brute majority. It is time to pause and ponder. — INFA