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'Rashtrapatni' Row: India's MPs Can Do Themselves a Favour & Respect Parliament

Perhaps what MPs need more than the new building is the restoration of the institution to its past glory.

Published
Opinion
4 min read
'Rashtrapatni' Row: India's MPs Can Do Themselves a Favour & Respect Parliament
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The ugly spat in the Lok Sabha on Thursday over the usage of the term “Rashtrapatni” to address President Droupadi Murmu, by Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, the leader of the Congress legislature party in the lower house, was eminently avoidable. For one, Chowdhury made the remarks outside the House and sought to make amends by describing it as a “slip of the tongue”, in addition to attributing it to a lack of proficiency in the Hindi language. Normally, the issue should have died down, after the usual point-scoring.

However, given the confrontational nature of the relationship between the government and the Opposition, the issue has now snowballed into yet another controversy between the two sides. In Parliament, it’s not unusual for both the government and the opposition benches to indulge in finger-pointing and point-scoring, but the issue is rarely allowed to get out of hand. It requires the cooperation of floor leaders and some deft handling by the Speaker of the House. None of this was on display in the Lok Sabha.

Snapshot
  • The ruckus caused in Parliament over the 'Rashtrapatni' remark was entirely avoidable.

  • It’s not unusual for both the government and the opposition benches to indulge in finger-pointing and point-scoring, but such events call for cooperation of floor leaders and some deft handling by the Speaker of the House. None of this was on display in the Lok Sabha.

  • There appears to be a complete lack of coordination or back-channel contacts between the treasury and opposition benches.

  • When UPA was in power, Pranab Mukherjee in his capacity as the Leader of the House would begin his day with a phone call to LK Advani, MM Joshi, Sushma Swaraj and other floor leaders.

  • Perhaps what parliamentarians need more than the new building is the restoration of the institution to its past glory.

  • MPs need to commit themselves to the very purpose it was set up for: debate, discussion and legislation.

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Total Breakdown of Civil Conduct

Opposition Benches were taken aback by both the tone and tenor of Union Minister Smriti Irani as she launched a scathing attack on Congress President Sonia Gandhi. Irani accused the Congress President “of sanctioning the humiliation of a woman” in addition to calling her “anti-woman, anti-Dalit and anti-Adivasi”. She demanded that Sonia Gandhi apologise for the remarks made by her colleague Chowdhury.

As soon as the House got adjourned, Sonia Gandhi walked up to where Rama Devi, a senior BJP MP, was standing and inquired about why she was being targeted even after her party colleague had apologised for his mistake. At this point, Smriti Irani, who had earlier launched a scathing attack on the Congress President, tried to interject, only to be told by Sonia Gandhi not to talk to her. What followed took senior parliamentarians and everybody else by surprise. Ruling party MPs got into a heated argument with Sonia Gandhi and she had to be escorted to safety by the Nationalist Congress Party’s (NCP) Supriya Sule and some Congress MPs.

Part of the reason for what happened on Thursday also appears to be a complete lack of coordination or back-channel contacts between the treasury and opposition benches. At the moment, both sides appear to be in an all-out confrontationist mode. In the past, the Parliamentary Affairs Minister would keep his lines of communication open with the Leader of the Opposition and other floor leaders, discussing issues that were likely to come up and the approach to be adopted.

When UPA was in power, Pranab Mukherjee in his capacity as the Leader of the House would begin his day with a phone call to LK Advani, MM Joshi, Sushma Swaraj and other floor leaders.

Similarly, both Pramod Mahajan and Kamal Nath in their capacity as parliamentary affairs ministers worked closely with the Opposition to defuse potential flashpoints in the House. No such conduct is being followed currently.

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Old Values are More Important Than a Swanky New Building

Opposition parties believe that outside Parliament, they are being targeted by government agencies, and inside, their voices are being throttled. They accuse the government of trying to ride roughshod over them by using its majority in both Houses of parliament. “We are neither being allowed to raise and debate issues like price rise, increase in GST rates, fuel prices,” says senior parliamentarian Shashi Tharoor. “There appear to be two sets of rules in play. Whenever we raise an issue the presiding say it will be taken up later, yet Smriti Irani was allowed to speak for ten minutes without the chair’s intervention,” says Jairam Ramesh.

In the midst of these conflicting claims, the image of parliamentarians is taking a serious beating. Developments like that of Thursday are eroding people’s faith in India’s institutions and their ability to take up critical issues. India’s parliament has a rich history of vibrant and scintillating debates. It can rightfully claim credit for passing and enacting some pathbreaking legislation. Parliamentarians like Jawaharlal Nehru, Feroze Gandhi, Madhu Limaye, Atal Behari Vajpayee, LK Advani, Indrajit Gupta, Somnath Chatterjee, etc, lit up the debates both by virtue of their oratory skills and the depth of their arguments.

Unfortunately, all this appears to be becoming a thing of the past.

Volume has replaced substance. Adjournments and bedlam are threatening to become the norm, and debates a rarity.

We are all set to get a spanking new parliament building by the end of the year. Perhaps what parliamentarians need more than the new building is the restoration of the institution to its past glory. For this, they need to commit themselves to the very purpose it was set up for: debate, discussion and legislation.

(The writer is a senior journalist. He can be reached @javedmansari . This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quintneither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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