Can we save parliament?

By Inder Jit

(Released on 23 December 1983)

Parliament continues to decline — and so also public standards. Both the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha have touched a new low during the current session. Things went wrong in the past. Practice and procedures were violated in the two Houses and rules broken. One could, however, count upon the checks and balances provided in the system to correct matters. The Speaker, representing the dignity and freedom of the House, invariably asserted his authority to ensure smooth functioning of the Lok Sabha. Likewise, the Chairman in the Rajya Sabha was expected to ensure that the system, based on Government by consultation and debate, functioned equally smoothly. The Leader of the House, who is expected to function as the foremost champion of the rights of the House as a whole, set the tone by his presence, commitment to the system, and timely intervention as during Nehru’s time. All this has alas become an old story, causing anguish among veteran parliamentarians. Said one ruefully: “Parliament is being destroyed, blow by blow from within. No one seems to care.”

Nothing symbolizes the slide down of Parliament and public standards more than three happenings during the past five weeks or so. First, the Speaker, Mr. Bal Ram Jhakhar’s decision on the spate of adjournment motions on the opening day of the Lok Sabha, which united the Opposition as seldom before and eventually led to a walk out by almost all the members. Second, the Morarji bombshell on the eve of the visit of the Soviet President, r. Brezhnev, an issue to which I referred in an earlier column in a different context. Third, the sensational and unprecedented walk-out by the Chairman of the Rajya Sabha, Mr. Hidayatullah, from the House last week and his virtual threat to quit Vice Presidentship. The Vice President is the ex-officio Chairman of the Rajya Sabha which, curiously, continues to be confused with the House of Lords in Britain and is erroneously described as the House of Elders or the Upper House. It is neither. The Rajya Sabha is the Council of the States and represents the States in our federal polity, as is clear from the basis of the election and the Constitution.

Who is to blame? The Treasury benches, which enjoy an overwhelming majority in the Lok Sabha, accuse the Opposition and its “frustration, destructiveness and agitational approach” for the rows and pandemoniums. The Opposition blames the Speaker and the Treasury benches, especially the latter’s “arrogance of the brute majority” and “contempt for the basic postulates of the parliamentary system.” The Speaker and the Chairman, for their part, blame both the Opposition and the Treasury benches, ignoring their own contribution towards the worsening malady. The Press blames all the four. Some Parliamentary experts equally blame the Leaders of the two Houses. Who seem either oblivious of their key role or prefer not to be bothered. The truth, however, is that all the seven, including the Press, must share responsibility for the decline. The Press may do not more than report its proceedings. But it has over the years often encouraged rowdyism and sensationalism at the zero hour and on other occasions by playing up those who least deserve the headlines.

The parliamentary system essentially provides for a continuous but peaceful and civilized struggle for power. Both the Government and the Opposition have to play an equally vital role, especially in a system in which the Government, as at present, enjoys a majority in the Lok Sabha which bears no relation to the popular will. (It needs to be remembered by the present ruling party that it received no more than 43.6 per cent of the votes cast in the January poll. The Opposition is expected to spotlight the failures of the Government, keep the Treasury benches on its toes in the best interest of the common weal and offer an effective alternative. Churchill even encouraged the Commons during World War II to highlight the weaknesses of his Government with one exception, namely, sensitive issues relating to national security. He wanted the MPs to take these up by all means with the Government, but confidentially. Significantly, however, he promised to take the nation into confidence in this regard once the war was over.

In fact, some parliamentary experts even describe the recognition of the Opposition in Britain as His or Her Majesty’s Opposition and provision of a salary and other facilities for the Leader of the Opposition as “one of the great political inventions of our times”. Explains a top expert: “This helped to move the struggle for power from the streets into the Chamber and from violence to peaceful means in accordance with the agreed rules of the game”. The Opposition in India is, no doubt, divided. Parliament has, once again, only Opposition groups. An Opposition party is required to have a minimum strength of 50 members. Nevertheless, the Opposition has its rights. On the very first day of the session, it found itself barred from raising through adjournment motions issues mainly agitating the nation, namely price rise and communal riots, when the Speaker admitted an adjournment motion relating to a railway accident some three weeks earlier. Under the rules, the House can take up only one adjournment on any day.

The Opposition unanimously pleaded for admission of its adjournment motions on price rise and communal riots. Some members pointed out that the adjournment motion on the railway accident had become infructuous: both the Railway Minister and the Railway Board had changed. The mover of this motion even withdrew his notice in writing. But to no avail. The Speaker stuck to his guns – and the Opposition walked out. One looked in vain earlier for a Nehru to resolve the issue as the Leader of the House. But Mrs Gandhi was not there: she came to the House only for a few minutes to introduce the new Ministers. At one stage, Mr Jyotirmoy Bosu pertinently enquired as to the timing of the receipt of the adjournment motions. Curiously, however, the Speaker replied: “I am not supposed to divulge anything or to explain anything.” His reply, according to experts, overlooked two things. First, Parliament functions in the open, not secretly. The date and timing of all notices received is duly recorded. Second, the system is based on competition among MPs in securing priority — who gets in his notice first.

Public standards? Parliament and the country are still in the dark in regard to the truth about the sensational disclosure by the former Prime Minister, Mr Desai, that he had been instigated by a Soviet leader “to teach a lesson to Pakistan”. The External Affairs Minister, Mr Narasimha Rao, no doubt, stated in Parliament that there was “nothing whatsoever” in “all our records” to confirm what Mr Desai was reported to have said “in regard to his conversation with President Brezhnev”. But Mr Desai was referring to his talks with Mr Kosygin in New Delhi in March 1979 and not, with Mr Brezhnev. Surprisingly, no one in Parliament, not even MPs belonging to the Janata Party, have so far sought to get the record straight, ignoring their responsibility to “Satyamev Jayate” which glows in colour in a neon tube above the Speaker’s chair. Mr Desai still needs to be contacted by the Government and an authoritative statement made by the Prime Minister to put the matter beyond my doubt. The House owes this to itself — and to posterity.

Finally, Mr Hidayatullah and his walk out. The Chairman and the Speaker may have their own complaints against the members. But the harsh fact is that much of the present trouble stems mainly from non- observance of the rules and procedures — and lack of appreciation of the basic truth: violence to the rules of the game breeds counter violence. “What”, asks an Opposition leader, “are we supposed to do if our adjournment motions are repeatedly disallowed and questions not answered adequately?” More and more MPs today complain of evasiveness on the part of Ministers, virtually emasculating the question hour, which provides Parliament with some control over the executive. Not a little trouble has arisen from the feeling among the Opposition MPs that they are not getting adequate “protection” from the chair in performing their duty. The row in the Rajya Sabha erupted when Mr Dinesh Goswami complained that only three questions had been taken up during the entire hour. Time was when the Rajya Sabha used to complete its full list of twenty or more questions.

Time-honoured rules, practices and traditions need to be firmly upheld and followed if Parliament is to function effectively. The present trend of evolving ad hoc procedures influenced by our feudal style and background requires to be curbed. Ordinary questions are virtually becoming short-notice questions and calling attention notices half-hour discussions and more. Adjournment motions are being treated mainly as censure motions and generally disallowed. The zero hour, unheard of during Nehru’s time, is increasingly reducing Parliament to zero. Even senior MPs do not think twice before making defamatory statements. (Readers in India may be interested to learn that the British Speaker once held that “bastard”, a term used by one member against another, was not unparliamentary as it was also used as an expression of endearment!) Expunctions are becoming the order of the day. The Chairman of the Rajya Sabha expunged even his own remarks during the session! A Speaker in Canada was once removed from his office for expunging certain remarks on his own.

The Chair would do well to remember the golen rule: to speak the least. (Mr N.K.P. Salve may have exploded against “sermons” from the Chairman last week. But he and others have been complaining about it informally for some time.) In fact, it was almost touch and go when Mr Hidayatullah remarked the following on being persuaded to return to the House last Wednesday: “Mr Leader and honourable members have never heard me speak. If I could speak in this House, I could create pin-drop silence… I have been a very powerful debater in my time. If I were sitting on the Bench, I could silence most of you by repartee, by sarcasm and by correct facts. Unfortunately, I have never seen that kind of a thing in this House. What happens is a wrangle, what happens is a desire to get your name into the newspapers…” The recent incidents in Parliament reflect a malady which afflicts the two Houses — a malady which is getting worse with each passing session. The two Houses are not functioning as they should. Worse, the system is beginning to show signs of crumbling. The problem today is not one of strengthening Parliament, as during the first two decades. It is one of saving Parliament. — INFA