For better or worse?

Parliament:New Beginning

By Poonam I Kaushish

There are institutions and moments which rise above politics and touches what lies beneath. Parliament is one such, the temple of democracy. Two Houses, Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha, it’s  heart and mind to debate, where peoples’ voice is heard through their representatives and Government called to account.

Monday, first day of the 18th Lok Sabha reflected new members and new ambitions whereby Prime Minister Modi’s BJP-led NDA sat on Treasury Benches for its third consecutive term and across the aisle an energized Opposition swollen in ranks and buoyed by its better-than-expected performance

Yet, if one expected bonhomie as old and new members intermingled, their solemn duty to not only represent their constituents but also contribute to maintaining the highest standard of lawmaking one was disappointed. Sharp political rhetoric, cacophony of petty foggers, one-upmanship, acrimony, war of statements underscored nothing has changed: Its politics as usual, trust deficit and bitter deep divide between Opposition and Modi Sarkar.

It started with Opposition taking strong umbrage over appointment of BJP seven-times MP Bhartuhari Mahtab as pro-term Speaker instead of Congress MP Kodikunnil Suresh elected for eight times to swear in new MPs. To show there annoyance it withdrew three MPs assigned to assist Mahtab.

Although many in Opposition say Parties should “reserve” their energy to take on the Government on “matters on which they can send strong messages” and “play as a check on Treasury Benches,” Congress wants the Deputy Speaker’s post as per convention.

All eyes are on Wednesday, the day the Speaker will be anointed. Whether by consensus or a contest it matters little, as once selected he will have to find ways to erase bitterness, confrontations and face-offs between Treasury Benches-Opposition, open channels of communication that allow the House to function to its fullest ability.  He would need to carve out time for both sides to raise issues, scrutinise and discuss legislation soberly without pandemonium.

Specially, as many members have made it a habit of rushing into the Well of the House. All spewing sheer contempt. Bringing things to such a pass that pursuit of power, pelf and patronage is replacing law making. Figures tell all. Parliament spends less than 10% time on legislative matters and most on trivialities.

It is a moot point whether the Speaker will be able to ensure Parliament functions through debate, discussion and consensus? Or will it be held hostage by pandemonium? More so as the challenges confronting the nation have increased manifold. The country is today in the throes of unemployment, skyrocketing prices, NEET exams, increasing social tensions etc which calls for reasoned debate.

The Speaker would have to recalibrate balance of power between the Government and Opposition. Discussions should be made more meaningful and focused through a strict time schedule. He would need to remain flexible and create a compact to ensure Parliament functions. Nothing less will befit the nerve centre of the world’s largest democracy.

As “the principal spokesperson of the House,” he represents its collective voice and serves as its sole representative to the outside world. According to Erskine May, “the House has no Constitutional existence without the Speaker.”

He is the final authority to decide conduct of business in the House and prior permission is required for members to ask a question or discuss any matter. As a result, he retains the power to expunge, in full or in part, remarks that might be considered unparliamentary or even critical of the ruling dispensation.

Last year, former Speaker Om Birla was accused of rank partisanship for ordering expunction of Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s remarks on the purported links between Prime Minister Modi and industrialist Gautam Adani. Also, some aver rules that empower the Speaker to suspend members for misconduct in the House are disproportionately used against Opposition members. And, a Congress leader was suspended for his remarks against Modi (later revoked) but a BJP MP who hurled communal slurs at a BSP member was let off only with a warning.

Alas, over the years Parties have used Speakership as a lollipop to reward or oblige Party workers. Surprisingly, although Lok Sabha Rules of Procedure are largely based on the Westminster model, the issue of an independent Speaker was overlooked. Under that model an MP resigns from his Party on election as Speaker. Moreover, the Speaker is re-elected unopposed to the House of Commons in subsequent elections. Sadly, few follow the premise that a Speaker is expected to be above Party politics, not a plaything of the Party.

As a former Lok Sabha Speaker confided, “We are elected on Party tickets with Party funds how can we claim independence? Moreover, even if we resign on becoming the Speaker, we would still have to go back to the same Party for sponsorship for the next election.”

Consequently, most Speakers have been Party members, especially after laying down Office or prior to it. From second Speaker Ayyangar who became Bihar Governor on expiry of his term to GS Dhillon and Manohar Joshi who switched roles from Ministers to Speakers, Balram Jhakar never concealed his identity as a Congressman, Rabi Ray lived up to his Janata Party’s expectation and Shivraj Patil who post Speakership, lost the re-election, but was nominated by Congress to Rajya Sabha and anointed Home Minister. Sadly, today eyebrows are not even raised.

At the heart of the matter, our jan sevaks need to show willingness and sincerity to lawmaking, priortise discussion over acrimony, debate over disruption. This will need accommodation and sagacity from both sides alongside commitment to showcase the best of our hallowed tradition of Parliamentary procedures, speeches and rebuttals.

Besides, given Parliament’s legatee of rich legacy our leaders should stand on tiptoe and look to the future, be more judicious in their decision making mindful of its long term positions be it the din of hoots and heckles, raised fists, chairs and mikes, stalling Parliament indefinitely, walking out of the Houses repeatedly.

What use is Parliament if it can’t house thoughtful civil debates and well-scrutinised laws that make things better for citizens. In 17th Lok Sabha barely 13% bills were sent to committees against 27% in 16th Lok Sabha. None wants a repeat of last five years criticized for hurried law-making, without due diligence, debate or discussion.

There is need to bolster Parliamentary process as its primary function of scrutinizing bills drafted by Government is suffering. Lawmakers will need to look at measures that carve out dedicated time for both sides to raise issues and have sufficient scope to scrutinise key legislation.

Our leaders need to realize Parliament is a bulwark of democracy, the repository of people will symbolising their supremacy in Parliamentary democracy through Government and Opposition. Both sides need and must find a way out and let a new dawn stream in. Remember, Parliament serves as the nerve centre of the world’s largest democracy, the primary vehicle for promise of democratic governance. That faith and respect needs to be restored and built by the new Speaker through a new chapter.

India is at a critical moment faced with a window to reap its demographic dividend. Our netagan must rise to the moment else history will not forgive them. They must make new Parliament in a meaningful way. As India democracy’s is precious but fragile. —— INFA