Locked House:

The Indian Express

Locked House
Inder Malhotra : Tue Jun 18 2013,

<>Both the BJP and Congress are responsible for a dysfunctional Parliament 
For whichever other statement Prime Minister Manmohan Singh might be faulted, he is absolutely right in regretting that the "animosity" between the principal opposition party, the BJP, and the Congress, the core of the ruling United Progressive Alliance, has rendered the Indian Parliament — a role model for the third world during the Nehru era — overwhelmingly dysfunctional. He has, of course, put the entire blame on the saffron party's determination to be "obstructionist" all the way. This calls for a caveat because the ruling party is also to blame, which will be explained presently. 

It is surely arguable that at a time when every other institution has been eroded dangerously, why should only Parliament be expected to be a paragon of democratic virtue? But this is a dangerous school of thought because the inability of the country's apex legislature to discharge its responsibilities is wreaking havoc. Indian democracy has been virtually limited to reasonably free, fair and timely elections alone, for which the credit goes to the Election Commission, an unelected body. 

This has enabled almost the entire political class — with some honourable exceptions, no doubt — to concentrate on the sole objective of getting elected, by hook or by crook, and thereafter pursuing partisan and crass personal interests. Moreover, since a fair proportion of parliamentary and assembly seats have become family inheritance, and money power combined, among other things, with paid news prevails, the two have jointly muddied the waters even more. 

When Parliament and state assemblies ought to be ensuring that their members observe political ethics, they just do not function because they are disrupted almost daily. Strangely, even those with a small presence in the House have converted into a fine art the routine obstruction of its proceedings by barracking, shouting, rushing into the well of the House (which is, alas, not deep enough) and snatching documents from ministers and even the presiding officers. 

A brief word now on how there has been such staggering deterioration: even after 1959, when Jawaharlal Nehru's China policy deservedly came under fire and opposition parties said the harshest things, nobody ever refused to listen to the contrary point of view. Never was there any need to adjourn the House. 

The rot began during Indira Gandhi's watch for more reasons than one. During her shaky start, the recalcitrant sections of the opposition treated her churlishly and shabbily. There was no corrective action because the Congress party itself was ridden by differences until as late as 1969, when it split. Consequently, when she established her supremacy after the 1971 general elections, she treated Parliament with the same disdain that it had shown her for so long. 

Secondly, and this is of critical importance, corruption became a source of increasing clashes between the opposition and the treasury benches, and this soon became a cause for disruption of the two Houses. Corruption has always been a part of India's life. It was there during Nehru's reign also. However, by and large, he tried to counter it. For instance, as soon as the Mundhra scandal erupted he ordered a judicial inquiry that led to the then finance minister and several top officials losing their jobs. 

In Indira Gandhi's heyday, her corrupt cohorts convinced her that the attack on them was really an attack "on Madam". The government therefore started stonewalling every protest against corruption. Came the day when, for the first time, an entire session of Parliament was wasted. Currently, this happens often. 

Today, corruption has taken a quantum jump. Since the government is trying to brazen it out, all such scams and scandals, from the Commonwealth Games and 2G to "Coalgate", which took place when the prime minister was also coal minister, the BJP easily gets allies to obstruct all parliamentary work that it surely enjoys. 

The Congress's case that it is always willing to explain everything and discuss any issue in Parliament if only the BJP allows it is not without substance, but it is also flawed. For one thing, the Congress always objects to a discussion that can end in voting. It insists on every debate being under the rule that disallows voting. This rule needs to be discarded because it runs counter to the basic norms of democratic governance. Also, just look at what a sycophantic Congressman who headed the joint parliamentary committee on 2G has done to manipulate its report. 

However, all things considered, the undermining of parliamentary democracy in this country has already gone too far, and it is time to first stem and then reverse the trend. This requires candid and private talks between the rival sides, for which mutual trust is lacking. In any case, any such effort is inconceivable until after the next election. 

The write is a Delhi-based political commentator express@expressindia.com