The defining moment of the just-concluded monsoon session of parliament, we will be told, was the passing of the rural employment guarantee bill. But should not the session be remembered for something else too, by the sour taste left in the mouth by a most unsavoury episode' The facts are incontrovertible. While the proceedings were on on a particular day in the Lok Sabha, the member elected from the Calcutta South constituency rushed to the speaker's podium. She was Mother Fury. Mouthing angry words not quite decipherable, she kept hurling crumbled sheafs of paper towards the presiding officer, maybe for twenty to twenty-five seconds continuously. The deputy speaker, who was presiding, sat benumbed. None of the 200-odd members present in the House bestirred himself either. The staff of the Lok Sabha too stood immobilized, perhaps because they did not receive any instruction from any quarter.
What the member of parliament representing Calcutta South did was, according to some jurists, a blatant assault on the presiding officer. It was sheer accident that she had only wads of paper in her hand which she pelted. One shudders to think what might have happened if she had in her hand a number of paperweights instead. Had she performed the charade outside the House, it would have been, according to many, tantamount to criminal behaviour for which the member could be formally charged in court and sentenced to a term of imprisonment.
But there was no sequel to the occurrence. The MP went scot free. On the day following the incident, the speaker made a brief statement condemning the MP's behaviour. That was about all. She was not suspended from the House. No charges were framed against her. A few noises were initially made by the left and they indicated their intention to move a motion of privilege against her. But nothing further has been heard about the matter.
The conduct of the member was, of course, outrageous. Even more outrageous, though, is the fact that she has remained unscathed. She has been able to establish the point: she is above the law and beyond the pale of the norms of parliamentary behaviour. From the look of things, she could have got away with murder. Some would say, she has as good as got away with murder.
The secret which allows her to be above all laws is easily unravelled. In a few months from now, there will be fresh assembly polls in West Bengal. The two leading parties in the country ' the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party ' are both determined to weaken the ruling Left Front in these elections, and, if possible, to dislodge it from power in the state. To achieve the purpose, it is essential, both the parties are firmly of the belief, to have this lady, the member of the Lok Sabha from Calcutta South, on their side. A tussle is on between the Congress and the BJP to win her favours and have her as their ally in the West Bengal polls. She is precious property; neither party is therefore prepared to alienate her on any ground. She might behave like a common criminal on the floor of the House, but both the Congress and the BJP will turn the other way. The BJP has actually kept mum on the episode in the Lok Sabha, and has persuaded its partner in the National Democratic Alliance, the Shiromani Akali Dal, the party to which the assaulted deputy speaker belongs, to keep mum. On its part, the Congress has issued a mild statement expressing sorrow at the occurrence of the incident; it has however been careful not to apportion any blame on anyone for what happened.
Once the two major parties made up their mind to overlook all her acts of omission and commission, the Lok Sabha was in no position to act against her. Thanks to the television camera, the whole world bears evidence of her gross misdemeanour. It might be anxious to know what retribution is going to visit her. We have to tell the world, sheepishly, that our parliamentary system is incapable of doling out punishment to her and this incapability is linearly linked to the arithmetic of competitive democracy.
Such, then, is what is described as 'exigency of circumstances'. The lady without question has breached parliamentary norms. There may be ample justification to label her behaviour as 'anti-social'. But the BJP will say, never mind, she is their anti-social. The Congress wants to wean her away from the BJP and therefore refuses to see any evil in her. Congressmen need her additionally to fight the left in West Bengal; accordingly everything has to be forgiven.
The position of the left is seemingly even more bizarre. They are keen to see that action is taken against the lady. But the Congress will not go along with them and they cannot go against the Congress on the issue, even though the latter, they are fully aware, is protecting the lady in the hope of humouring her to be their ally in the impending poll battle against them, the left, in West Bengal. In fact, not just on this issue, on practically all issues the left will not, bar the shouting, array themselves against the Congress; to do so would, in their reckoning, pave the return of the BJP at the Centre. The Congress will go to any length both to oust the left from power in West Bengal and to prevent it from coming to power in Kerala. The left, in contrast, will do anything to keep the Congress in power in New Delhi, which includes maintaining silence over the conduct of the MP from Calcutta South
Were it possible to treat the matter of this particular MP as an isolated affair, we could all have breathed a collective sigh of relief. But the matter is unlikely to end there. The lady has set a precedent. From now on just any member may misbehave, to the point of even assaulting, technically, the presiding officer of the House. Or he or she may assault, if not the presiding officer, any other member of the House. It would be difficult to proceed against the offending member; the precedent of non-action against the honourable member from Calcutta South will be quoted, convincingly, to thwart any proposed disciplinary measure.
Cynicism with regard to the ethereal virtues of parliamentary democracy cannot but grow in the aftermath of this unwholesome incident. Those who want to put an end to India's democratic experiment can henceforth cite this instance to argue that the parliamentary system is a sham and a fraud, it has no moral ground to stand upon.
What about the other point of view though' Maybe the manner in which the MP from Calcutta South has gone about reflects, with exactitude, contemporary social reality. The chaos she revels in, it could be argued, is the most genuine face of India, circa 2005.