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Parliament Has Become Dysfunctional. What Will a Common Voter Make of All This?

Only genuine respect for the “other” opinion from both sides will pave the way out of this logjam.

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What happened on 18 December 2023 is truly unprecedented in India's parliamentary history.

At one stroke, 33 Lok Sabha and 44 Rajya Sabha Members of Parliament (MPs) were suspended for disrupting proceedings, the highest so far in a single day. In all, with more suspensions on Tuesday, a total of 141 Opposition MPs have been suspended in the ongoing Winter Session of Parliament.

The inglorious record set by the current NDA (National Democratic Alliance) regime led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi breaks a 34-year-old record held by the Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress government which had suspended 63 Lok Sabha MPs from Parliament in 1989.
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Discussion and Debate Are Being Sacrificed at the Altar

It is, thus, no surprise that Opposition leaders have slammed this move as the death of democracy. Some have called it the metaphorical use of a bulldozer inside the Parliament. Some have called it super autocracy and the choking of the people's voice. All sorts of adjectives have been used to decry this unprecedented decision.

On the face of it, the move does appear draconian. After all, the Opposition MPs were exercising their rights by demanding a statement from Union Home Minister Amit Shah on the serious security lapse of 13 December when two young protesters jumped into the well of the House from the visitor’s gallery.

It was both a huge relief and a miracle that the protesters were not bent upon physically harming the MPs. To that extent, Opposition MPs do have a right to demand answers. So, why wouldn’t they raise a chorus that the current regime is behaving in a particularly authoritarian manner?

The easy part is blaming the regime. The difficult part is analysing why the Parliament is becoming increasingly dysfunctional – a chaotic arena where members routinely hurl abuses at each other. It is becoming a parliament where crucial bills that impact the lives of hundreds of millions of Indian citizens are passed in pandemonium without any substantive or meaningful debate.

Take the case of the new Telecom Bill that was introduced in the Lok Sabha even as the chair suspended opposition MPs. The author lacks the expertise to comment on specific provisions of the Bill. But surely there could have been some debate since this will affect more than a billion Indians.

This is increasingly becoming the norm. Opposition members are yelling and floating paper missiles, and the ruling coalition members are screaming back, with “voice votes” making new and important laws a reality. The primary function of the Parliament is to discuss, debate, and make or change laws. If that primary function is sacrificed at the altar of divisive rhetoric, what exactly then is the purpose of the Parliament?

And what does an ordinary Indian voter who doesn’t belong to warring camps make of all this? Does she bristle with anger at the “arrogance” of the Modi-Shah duo who don’t brook any “dissent”? Does she throw up her hands in disgust at how Opposition leaders make it impossible for the House to function by repeatedly indulging in slogan-shouting matches?

As an ordinary Indian whose support is not ideologically committed to the NDA or the I.N.D.I.A (Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance), the author strongly feels that millions like him are baffled and bewildered.

Quite a few analysts and India watchers have often marvelled at, and even applauded, the “functional anarchy” that is India. But seriously, what has been going on inside our Parliament is taking anarchy too far. And no matter whom you blame, this circus is damaging Indian democracy.

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Is There Any Way Out?

The “emasculation” of MPs has been a work in progress for long. Unlike her father Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi had no patience for the cuts and thrusts of parliamentary discourse. Her son Rajiv Gandhi too was not very fond of dissent and criticism. It was in the fading months of his regime that the then-Speaker Balram Jhakar suspended 63 Opposition MPs in March 1989 (incidentally his son Sunil Jhakar is president of the Punjab BJP).

Another decision of the Rajiv regime that became famous was the “anti-defection” law, which seriously emasculated the independence of MPs. That law compels MPs to follow the party whip; unlike in democracies like the United States and the United Kingdom where MPs have the right to vote against a government bill if they don’t agree with their party.

Simultaneously, the occasional lurches into chaos and pandemonium started becoming more frequent in this century. Parliament was often paralysed when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was prime minister till 2004.

The BJP took its “revenge” by repeatedly disrupting Parliament during the UPA (United Progressive Alliance) era. Late BJP leaders Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley publicly justified the repeated disruption of Parliament. In a manner of speaking, all the parties are collectively complicit.

Is there any way out?

Only magnanimity and genuine respect for the “other” opinion from both sides will pave the way out of this logjam. For instance, if the Modi regime had been more patient and held more debates, the three farm reform laws (which the author is convinced were good for farmers) would not have ended up in disaster.

Similarly, if Rahul Gandhi and other Opposition leaders do not habitually label the BJP as “fascist” and Modi as Hitler, they might focus more on genuine debate. All this is possible. After all, MPs are seasoned adults, not squabbling kids or teenagers. Surely leaders of all parties can sit together for a few days and arrive at a consensus on the dos and don'ts of parliamentary behaviour and discourse?

Alas, we live in such deeply polarised times that even such simple common-sense solutions will remain elusive. At the end of the day, it is for the Indian voter to deliver a verdict. Will they punish the Modi regime for authoritarianism? Or will they punish the Opposition for its antics?

Your crystal ball gazing would be as good as mine.

(Sutanu Guru is the Executive Director of the CVoter Foundation. This is an opinion article and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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