Parliament boycott serves a purpose

By Inder Jit

(Released on 7 March 1989)

Every dark and threatening cloud has a silver lining. The unprecedented boycott of Parliament by the Opposition last week has served a timely purpose. It has brought the ruling Congress-I down to earth and made it concede that the Government and the Opposition are an integral part of the system — like the two wheels of a chariot. Acknowledgement of this basic truth was reflected in the Prime Minister’s decision to clarify matters and make amends: “If anything I have said has hurt members of the Opposition, I am sorry for that.” Equally significant was the appeal the following day by the veteran Congress-I MP, of Prof. N.G. Ranga: “Sir, in a democracy like ours, we should have the Opposition as well as the ruling party in the House. Something constructive has got to be done.” This plea was promptly supported by Mr. A. Charles, who said: “Sir, we all share the feelings of Prof. Ranga. Kindly intervene…” As the Speaker graciously responded: “You are my masters…. I am at your disposal,” Mr. B.R. Bhagat, a former Speaker, chipped in: “Why don’t you call a meeting of both sides and settle the issue.”
Fortunately, the Opposition showed good sense and ended the boycott without waiting for mediation by the Speaker. As an Opposition leader explained: “It would have suited us tactically to end the boycott only after an intervention and appeal by the Speaker, as we were not satisfied by the Prime Minister’s grudging regret. But we felt we should return in the larger public interest and voice the people’s grievances.” Happily, their decision evoked the right response from the Congress-I benches and their friends. Even a normally staid Mr. SulaimanSait, leader of the Muslim League, broke into verse. Said he: “Jo hum hi nahongay to kyarunge mehfil, kisedekhkar-aapsharmayegay. (What fun will the party be if I am not there, who will you then look at and blush!) The irrepressible and popular Mr. BalkaviBairagi, who regales the House time and again with delightful poetry appropriate to each occasion, soon followed: “Wo udharudas, hum idharudas, udasiantootin Mubarak ho aapko.” (They were sad on their side, we were sad on ours. The sadness has ended. Congratulations!)
That Parliament’s worse-ever crisis has blown over is undoubtedly a matter of considerable satisfaction. (The sight of empty Opposition benches in free India’s Parliament for the first time when the General Budget was presented was, indeed, most disturbing and distressing.) That the ruling party has been brought down to terra firma and made to realize that the Opposition cannot be wished away is equally gratifying. But there is need for members of both Houses to recognize one other basic truth about the Westminster system which the founding fathers of our Constitution willfully adopted. Parliamentary democracy is essentially a civilized form of Government. It provides not only for a Government by discussion, debate and consensus, but also for a peaceful struggle for power. The system has to function in accordance with time-honoured rules and conventions in which even the arch political opponent, the Leader of the Opposition, is addressed politely as “the Right Honourable Leader of the Opposition” or as an “honourable friend”. It cannot survive coarseness, uncivilized conduct and willful obstruction.
Most Congress-I men continue 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, even shout down Opposition leaders and prevent them from seeking clarification from the Prime Minister through the permissible device of an interruption or a question at the end. But parliamentary democracy is not rule by a brute majority as Nehru made clear repeatedly both as the Prime Minister and as the Leader of the House. Indeed, as the Leader of the House, he rose above party considerations on several occasions and expressed himself in the best interest of healthy parliamentary functioning. Once, he even ticked off one of his Ministers and gallantly came to the rescue of the Opposition. The Opposition wanted some information but the Minister stalled on the convenient plea: “This cannot be given in public interest.” A visibly agitated Nehru soon intervened and asserted: “Mr. Speaker Sir, I see no public interest involved. The Minister should give the required information.”
Much of the trouble in Parliament arises from the desire of the Opposition to raise issues and initiate discussions. The “zero hour” symbolizes this urge, which has grown with the passage of time. Issues of urgent public importance were raised or sought to be raised by the Opposition after the question hour during Nehru’s time too. But it was never like what has been happening during the recent years when, on occasions, even the subject of an adjournment motion is not allowed to be mentioned. The whole exercise then never took more than ten to fifteen minutes — or at the most half an hour. In the past decade or so, the “zero hour” has not only taken the whole hour but at times has even spilled over into the post-lunch sitting. The crux of the matter thus is to find a practical solution to the problem in which results would be commensurate with the money spent. (Each minute of Parliament’s time, according to one authoritative calculation, costs the nation well over rupees one lakh). The Government will, no doubt, have its way ultimately. But the Opposition must at least have its say — and keep the Government on its toes.
Clearly, there is need for two things. First, Mr. Rajiv Gandhi needs to remember that he is not only the Prime Minister but also the Leader of the House. Second, our Parliament needs to take a good, fresh look at its procedures and adapt them to the changing demands as was done by Britain in 1976. The House of Commons then set up a Select Committee on Procedure to make recommendations for the more effective performance of its functions. Importantly, this Committee, which took two years to submit its report, carried out a broad and significant review of the way the Commons worked. It was divided on many details. But it was agreed on the basic diagnosis: “The balance of advantage between Parliament and the Government is weighted in favour of the Government to a degree, which is inimical to the proper working of democracy.” The Committee made 76 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.” What was true of Britain in 1976 is even more true of India today.
Simultaneously, we in India need to think of ways and means by which the Opposition can be enabled to raise issues and initiate discussions after making allowance for the fact that the Speaker in India continues to be a member of his party and it is not always easy for him to function independently. (“We have to fight elections. Who is going to help me except my party”, asserted a Speaker once.) The Opposition could be allotted a share of the hours for which Parliament meets and given full freedom to take up any matter during this time. The Lok Sabha, for instance, normally meets for 30 hours a week — from 11 am to 5 pm, from Monday to Friday. Sometimes it also meets from 11 am to 6 pm, namely for 35 hours in a week. These 35 hours could, for instance, be divided equitably between the Government and the Opposition. The Government could be allotted 20 hours and the Opposition 15 hours, including five taken up for question time daily from 11 am to 12 noon. This would give the Government four hours for official business every day and the Opposition two hours, in addition to the question hour.
Members of Parliament, who earn Rs.10,000 per month during the sessions, could surely be made to sit longer hours, in case the Government needed more time for its business. Contrary to a widespread impression, the Lok Sabha is having rather an easy time compared to the Commons, even though our Parliament has a lot more on its socialist plate. The Lok Sabha met for an average of 754.26 hours annually from 1952 to 1978 as against an average of 1,360 hours annually by the Commons, which meets daily from 2 pm until the day’s business is completed. (The Lok Sabha met for a maximum of 205 days in 1956 and a minimum of 100 days in 1975.) The problem, however, is not only that Parliament is not meeting long enough. Matters have been made worse by its timings: 11 am to 5 pm with one hour for lunch. This schedule takes up almost all the time of the Ministers and normal work in Government offices comes virtually to a halt. Many experts, therefore, feel that India should shed itscolonial legacy and, like the Commons, meet at 2 pm every afternoon and sit until the day’s business is done.
Ultimately, we must be clear about the true nature of a healthy democracy — and take steps to put vitality back in our Parliament. The Select Committee I have ventured to propose should also go into the powers of the Speaker and the question of switching over to the Committee system. Nehru together with Mavalankar armed the Speaker with arbitrary powers to enable him to guide the House effectively in its willy nilly coming to be used more and more to help the Government and less and less to protect the Opposition and enable it to discharge its responsibility to the nation. In 1986, Mr. Jakhar proposed establishment of Budget Committees to make Parliament more effective vis a vis the Government. Sadly, nothing has been done about it so far. The Commons continues to grow and function effectively even after 300 years. Our Parliament ceased to grow after Nehru, despite pious promises. What may happen in the next Lok Sabha is anybody’s guess. Let a good beginning be made here and now. — INFA