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Parliament Then and Now: How Vajpayee’s Statesmanship Made All the Difference

As India pays homage to the former PM on his 99th birth anniversary, it is commemorated as 'Good Governance Day'.

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(This article was originally published on 20 December and is being reposted on the occasion of former prime minister of India Atal Bihari Vajpayee's birth anniversary)

As India pays homage to former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee on his 99th birth anniversary, it is commemorated as 'Good Governance Day’ to promote accountability in government and create awareness about democracy among the people.

President Droupadi Murmu, Vice-President Jagdeep Dhankhar, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi paid tribute to Vajpayee at his memorial 'Sadaiv Atal' in the national capital. Other bigwigs of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) followed suit.

The spirit of the BJP leaders, workers, and followers all over the country is sky-high.

As the year 2023 draws to a close, they are supremely confident that 2024 will prove to be the best year for their party and the ideological Parivar it is part of.
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In January, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will triumphantly inaugurate the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya. If all goes well, within a few months thereafter, he will be sworn in for the third time with – and this is what the party has already started predicting – a bigger majority in the 17th Lok Sabha than in 2019.

Vajpayee, if alive, would be both happy and sad. Happy on two counts. One, the construction of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya would mark the denouement of what he had said in Parliament on 6 December 2000, the eighth anniversary of the demolition of the Babri Masjid – that the Ram Mandir movement was an expression of the national sentiment (Rashtriya Bhavana Ka Prakatikaran). Two, being the founder of the party himself in 1980, a renewed mandate for the BJP in the parliamentary elections for the third successive term would surely please him.

Nevertheless, looking down on the state of democracy in India, especially the recent happenings in Parliament, would have upset him.
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He would have strongly objected to the conduct of the government in the aftermath of the grave security lapse in Parliament on 13 December, the disgracefully biased behaviour of the two presiding officers of the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha, the mass suspension of 141 MPs belonging to opposition parties, and the passage of important bills in the near-total absence of non-BJP parties, something that happened only during Indira Gandhi’s draconian Emergency.

All these events went against his lifelong commitment to the basic principles of parliamentary democracy.

Vajpayee would have also strongly rebuked the mimicking of the Chairman of the Rajya Sabha (who is also the Vice President of India) by an Opposition MP in front of other protesting MPs within Parliament building complex. And he would have gently advised Rahul Gandhi, who videographed the mimicry on his phone, "No, young man. You have many good qualities, but this is unbecoming of you. Show some maturity. What I am telling you is exactly what your great grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru, whom I greatly admired, would have told you.”

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Vajpayee, Ram Temple, and the Temple of Democracy

Vajpayee, like LK Advani, his idealistic deputy in party and government, was a democrat to the core. Parliament for him was a sacred place. As someone who had the privilege of working closely with him, I can unhesitatingly affirm that his devotion to this Temple of Democracy was greater than his commitment to the construction of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya.

He was convinced that strengthening the system of democracy in India by rejuvenating economic and social democracy – and, for this purpose, protecting the institutions of democratic governance so caringly built after India’s hard-won independence – was far more consequential for the future of the nation than pursuing an issue, howsoever legitimate, in a confrontational and socially divisive manner.

He undoubtedly wanted the Ram Temple to be built, but he disapproved of the demolition of the Babri Masjid by unruly kar sevaks on 6 December 1992. Which is why, Vajpayee would have been aghast at the ongoing demolition, brick by brick, of the Temple of Democracy.
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What is happening to democracy in India is that its form is intact but its substance is withering. A grand new building has been constructed for Parliament. The 'Sengol’, a historical sceptre, was ceremonially installed in the building at the time of its inauguration in May this year. The 'Sengol’ is a symbol of 'Dharmic’ or righteous governance. But where is ‘Dharma’, where is virtue, in the functioning of democracy?

At the G20 summit, and in all the programmes leading up to it, PM Modi repeatedly reminded the world that India is the 'Mother of Democracy’. But the rest of the world is less and less enamoured of the democratic practice in India.

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Invisibilising the Opposition in Parliament Shows Contempt for Democracy

Let us examine only the latest developments in Parliament casting aside other issues contributing to a democratic downgrade.

The basic facts are well known. On 13 December, the anniversary of the horrific attack on Parliament by Pakistan-trained terrorists in 2001, two men jumped from the public gallery into the Lok Sabha chamber. They opened smoke canisters, causing panic and chaos for some time. They were reportedly shouting the slogan: "Tana shahi nahi chalegi (dictatorship won’t be accepted)." Some media reports say they were protesting against widespread youth unemployment in the country.

Apparently, six people were involved in the conspiracy. It came to light that the two received their entry passes from a BJP MP from Karnataka. An investigation is currently underway to get to the bottom of the conspiracy, in which, apparently, six people were involved.

It was certainly a serious breach of security, even though no harm was caused to MPs or anyone else. In contrast, nine persons, excluding all the five terrorists involved in the attack, were killed in the episode in 2001.
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The Opposition MPs rightly demanded a statement in the House by the Home Minister. They were not accusing the government of having any sinister hand in the incident. Had Amit Shah made a statement – even a brief statement with an assurance that Parliament would be taken into confidence upon the completion of the investigation – the matter would have ended then and there.

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Terror Attack on Parliament in 2001: How Did Vajpayee and Advani Behave?

It is worth recalling how Vajpayee addressed the nation on the evening of the 2001 terror attack on Parliament. Five days later, the then home minister LK Advani made a comprehensive statement in Parliament, in which he said: "Last week’s attack on Parliament is undoubtedly the most audacious, and also the most alarming, act of terrorism in the nearly two-decades-long history of Pakistan-sponsored terrorism in India. This time the terrorists and their mentors across the border had the temerity to try to wipe out the entire political leadership of India, as represented in our multi-party Parliament. …Pakistan (which is) itself a product of the indefensible Two-Nation Theory, itself a theocratic State with an extremely tenuous tradition of democracy, is unable to reconcile itself with the reality of a secular, democratic, self-confident, and steadily progressing India, whose standing in the international community is getting inexorably higher with the passage of time.”

Not a single opposition party accused the Vajpayee government of either hiding something or disrespecting Parliament in any way.

Home Minister Shah’s refusal to make a statement in Parliament was inexplicable, to say the least. This made opposition MPs persist in their demand for a statement by him. They shouted slogans and displayed placards. Some of them rushed to the well of the house and tried to stall its proceedings. Were they right in doing so? Not at all. The decorum of parliamentary practices must be maintained by all.

But is it right for Om Birla, Speaker of the Lok Sabha, and Jagdeep Dhankhar, Vice President and Chairman of the Rajya Sabha, to suspend 141 MPs – 95 from the Lower House and 46 from the Upper House? Not at all.

By denuding Parliament of the Opposition on flimsy grounds, and doing so unmistakably at the behest of the Executive, the presiding officers have shown not only disrespect but also utter contempt to Parliament.
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The government and the ruling party have predictably put all the blame on the Opposition MPs for this sordid development. But public memory is not so short as to forget that the MPs belonging to the BJP often used to indulge in slogan-shouting, rushing into the well of the house, and other obstructive practices when the party was in the opposition before 2014.

Senior BJP leader Arun Jaitley, who was the Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha when the Congress-led UPA was in power, once famously justified such obstructionism by saying that when Parliament “is used to ignore issues” then “obstruction of Parliament is in the favour of democracy”. He also claimed that there were “occasions when an obstruction in Parliament brings greater benefits to the country”.

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In 2024, India Will See a Presidential Prime Minister

As we come to the end of 2023, three things have become obvious as to what to expect in 2024. First, there is a complete breakdown of dialogue between the ruling party – especially the Prime Minister – and the Opposition. Dialogue, both formal and informal, is the oxygen of a multi-party democracy. But since today’s BJP – unlike the BJP in the era of Vajpayee and Advani – no longer believes in a multi-party democracy, it has done away with even the pretense of engagement and cooperation with other parties.

Second, PM Modi wants to, and will become, stronger. I.N.D.I.A., the Opposition alliance, looks incapable of preventing this because it has failed to convince the people of India that it can offer a stable and better alternative to the Modi government.

It has so far not emerged as a cohesive force. It has so far not presented to the nation either an inspiring vision of socio-economic development or a credible agenda of good governance. That it does not have a capable prime ministerial candidate, acceptable to all the constituent parties of the alliance, further reduces its attractiveness in the eyes of the voters.

Thus, Modi will in all likelihood, win a third term not on the strength of the performance of his government but due to the all-too-evident frailties of the Congress and the rest of the Opposition.
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Third, even as Modi becomes stronger, India’s Parliament will become weaker and more irrelevant than now. Let us not expect the President of India, who is the head of Parliament as per the Constitution, to do anything to protect the legislative pillar of democracy.

This is because the office of Rashtrapati, the Custodian of the Constitution, has become more ceremonial than ever before. Let us not expect other Constitutional bodies to protect democracy, because each and every one of these institutions is decaying. Each and every one of them has become subservient to the all-powerful Executive.

As a result, the voice of the opposition in Parliament – irrespective of the number of non-BJP MPs in the next Lok Sabha – will be muzzled more ruthlessly than ever before. The mass suspension of 141 MPs is simply a trailer for the main movie yet to come.
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All this makes me wistfully remember Vajpayee again. In one of his speeches at a function in FICCI Bhavan in New Delhi, he shared his thoughts on how Indian democracy ought to function. He was in the opposition then. "Democracy is not simply a game of 51 percent versus 49 percent," he exhorted. "Those in the majority should not behave as if they have untrammelled power. The minority also represents the voice of the people. Furthermore, those in the majority today may become the minority tomorrow – and vice versa. Therefore, all of us in the political establishment should follow the letter and spirit of the Constitution."

The last word should go to Gautam Bhatia, an eminent constitutional law scholar, and a bold thought leader. In a brilliant and prescient paper published in November this year, he foresaw last week’s developments in the Indian Parliament. It is titled Presidential in all but the name: The centralising drift in legislative/executive relations in India.

Bhatia writes, "Formally, India remains a parliamentary system, at both the central and the state level. This parliamentary system is encoded into the Constitution, and elections are contested at a constituency level, often on a party ticket, for a seat in Parliament. And Legislature and Executive are expressly separated in the Constitution. In practice, however, we have seen that power is increasingly concentrated in the political executive. A number of things contribute to this."

"The Xth Schedule strengthens the party leadership over individual legislators. Executive-controlled Speakers enable executive control over the House, including over the Opposition, which – in any case – has no constitutionally guaranteed rights to fall back upon. Such Speakers can also remove the Upper House from the equation altogether, by classifying bills as money bills. We can therefore see that there is a centralisation of power in the political executive that resembles the President of a Presidential system but with none of the safeguards or veto points that characterise such systems," he adds.

Bhatia’s conclusion: “Indeed, the closest analogy might be the executive Presidents of the late-19th and mid-20th century Latin America, who governed without any significant constraint or check and balance. In the Indian context, it would be the Prime Minister who comes to occupy that role: formally, still a parliamentary system, but to all effects and purposes, and in terms of power, a Presidential system, albeit without the safeguards that either Presidentialism or Parliamentarianism have to offer. And as we have seen, much of this is enabled both by the Constitution’s own text and silences, which facilitate – or at least tolerate – a centralising drift within towards the Executive.”

Simplified, Bhatia’s warning means that, post 2024, India will most likely have a Presidential Prime Minister.

Not something Vajpayee would have applauded.

(The writer, who served as an aide to India’s former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, is the founder of the ‘Forum for a New South Asia – Powered by India-Pakistan-China Cooperation’. He tweets @SudheenKulkarni and welcomes comments at sudheenkulkarni@gmail.com. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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