Opposition MPs Suspended: Under BJP, Parliamentary Standards Are in Free Fall
The present crisis in Parliament is the culmination of a number of failures, not just of one incident.
"The disruption we have started in this session will be taken to the people till we are able to restore fairness and some degree of accountability," the Opposition MP said. “If parliamentary accountability is subverted and a debate is intended to be used merely to put a lid on parliamentary accountability, it is then a legitimate tactic for the Opposition to expose the government through the parliamentary instruments available at its command.”
Challenged about him and his colleagues failing to do the work they were sent to Parliament for, he was indignant. “Disrupting does not mean not doing work. What we are doing is, in fact, very important work.” Asked whether Parliament should not be used to debate rather than disrupt, the Opposition MP replied: “Sometimes, disruptions bring greater gains to the country.”
No, these are not lines from one of the dozen Rajya Sabha MPs suspended this week for the rest of the Winter Session of Parliament, whose expulsion from proceedings that they had not disrupted has plunged Parliament into crisis.
They were instead spoken by the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) own late Arun Jaitley, during the chaotic 2011-13 period, when the BJP paralysed session after session clamouring for ministerial resignations, for a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) on telecoms spectrum allocations, and for probes into various alleged misdemeanours of the UPA Government.
'We Will Not Keep Quiet': BJP's Words in 2014
It is ironic that it is now a BJP government that claims to be outraged over disruptions, a BJP Parliamentary Affairs Minister who moved the arguably invalid resolution to suspend the members, and a Vice-President elected on the BJP ticket who refuses to withdraw this undemocratic expulsion. The last-named, the irrepressible Venkaiah Naidu, was a famous defender of disruptions. In 2014, when asked about BJP legislators resorting to such unparliamentary tactics, he replied unapologetically: “Let us invent new tactics so that the principle of accountability is not sacrificed. We will not keep quiet. We will take the fight to the people."
This was the language used, with eloquence and often legalese, by the BJP leadership, when, for the ten years of UPA rule, they disrupted Parliament with impunity. As much as 68% of the time of the Fifteenth Lok Sabha was lost to BJP-led disruptions. It was hardly surprising that, reduced to helpless fury by a government that bulldozes legislation through without consultation or debate, the UPA members decided to emulate their predecessors in Opposition.
Poachers Have Become Gamekeepers
It is sad that our national politics has witnessed such a breakdown in the relationship of trust that, in any democracy, ought to exist between the government and the Opposition. Those of us who attended missionary schools learned the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The new Golden Rule of Indian politics has become: do unto them what they did unto you.
In a startling turnaround, the poachers have now become the gamekeepers. The very politicians who had argued the case for disruption – who had used sophistry and morality to obstruct the work of parliament for years in the cause of the higher principle of accountability – suddenly decided that on this issue, where you stand depends on where you sit. Now that they are sitting on the Treasury benches, disruption is wasteful, even ‘anti-national’.
I am sorry, but it won’t wash. Of course, two wrongs don’t make a right. But it was the BJP who had set the standards of parliamentary conduct they are now deploring.
Sushma Swaraj, asked about the losses to the national exchequer from the disruption of Parliament, which was costing taxpayers crores of rupees, had replied, "When Parliament ends this way, there is criticism – we are told that there is a loss since the Parliament wasn't allowed to function. By losing Rs. 10-20 crore from loss of Parliament proceedings, if we can build pressure on the government, then that is acceptable.” L.K. Advani declared that sometimes, blocking legislative action “yields results”. It still does – but for the other side.
Parliament Has Been Reduced to a Notice Board
Before I entered politics, I had been invited by then-Speaker Somnath Chatterjee to a Round Table of eminent citizens (Narayana Murthy and Shyam Benegal among them) to discuss the functioning of Parliament. We had all called for strict enforcement of the rules to ensure higher standards of decorum and debate, and been disabused by the Speaker of our illusions. Disruptions, he said, occurred because an outnumbered opposition saw them as part of their democratic rights; to thwart them by invoking the rule book would be condemned by all parties, including the ruling party, as undemocratic. So, suspending, let alone expelling, MPs was not an option he could easily exercise.
Whatever the merits of this method of parliamentary protest – and personally it is not something I have ever cared for – it has become part of the convention of Indian parliamentary practice. Speaker Meira Kumar, whose decency and gentility were shamefully abused by a belligerent BJP, still averred that it would be wrong to expel unruly Opposition members without an all-party consensus on doing so. So, the shock when Speaker Sumitra Mahajan expelled 25 of the Congress’ 44 members for five days in 2015, invoking rule 374A, which has only been used three times in the entire 67-year history of independent India, was palpable.
She did not do it again, but now, Mr Naidu has gone much farther, in expelling 12 MPs for an entire session in which they had not misbehaved, because of their behaviour in a session that had already been adjourned and the House prorogued.
Parliamentary standards have been in free fall for a generation. The election of MPs has little to do with their parliamentary skills. Most MPs have limited interest in legislation and prefer to disrupt the proceedings rather than debate the principles. Meanwhile, the BJP government refuses to reach out to the Opposition and is content to ride roughshod over it to pass its Bills. It uses Parliament as a noticeboard and a rubber-stamp, and its contempt for the legislature is barely concealed.
PM Modi's Gujarat Assembly Model
Unlike Jawaharlal Nehru, who attended Parliament daily, Prime Minister Modi barely deigns to grace the House with his presence. He has made more speeches in parliaments abroad than in the Lok Sabha of which he is a member. The present crisis is the culmination of a number of failures, not just of one incident.
I am all in favour of creating new standards of acceptable parliamentary conduct, but only by consensus with all parties. Expelling your Opposition is not democracy. But Mr Modi knows that: he has done precisely that, repeatedly, in the Gujarat Assembly, passing laws with almost the entire Opposition suspended from the House.
In his 2014 election campaign, Mr Modi had boasted that he would apply the Gujarat Model to the rest of India. We must not now allow him to apply the Gujarat Assembly model to the national Parliament.
(Former UN under-secretary-general, Shashi Tharoor is a Congress MP and an author. He can be reached @ShashiTharoor. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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