When a tactic is employed indiscriminately, it begins to carry diminishing returns. Like the bandhs in West Bengal, the organized stalling of Parliament has begun to exasperate a citizenry that, ironically, long ceased to have exacting expectations from its elected representatives.
On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Independence in 1997, Speaker P.A. Sangma had urged all parties to accept some basic norms of parliamentary conduct, including refraining from trooping into the well of the House. Some 15 years later, the menace of organized disruption continues to be a recurrent problem. Yet, the Bharatiya Janata Party is by no means alone in using disruption as a show of displeasure at the government. The Congress, presently feigning righteous indignation over the fate of parliamentary democracy, was equally boisterous in its conduct during the period it was in Opposition. Its disruption over issues such as ‘coffin-gate’, the Tehelka sting and even the war in Iraq were met by the very same arguments it is using against the BJP over its demand for the resignation of the prime minister following the comptroller and auditor general’s report on the allotment of coal blocks.
The paradox of a country unequivocally committed to competitive democracy — witness the steadily rising turnout at elections — and yet suffering from a dysfunctional legislature may well prompt renewed calls for a presidential system of government. However, since the idea of an all-powerful president is associated with the pipe dreams of Indira Gandhi’s draconian Emergency, it is unlikely that this type of systemic change will find favour in today’s India. There is a certain glamour (and lots of privileges) attached to membership of the highest law-making body of the land that is certain to dissuade the political class from exploring alternatives to the Westminster style of government. After all, it will be argued, that disruptions have rarely accounted for even 20 per cent of the working hours of the Lok Sabha.
A more meaningful approach to the issues confronting the parliamentary system could be centred on the role of the Opposition. While the role of the Treasury benches is clearly defined to include endorsing the law-making proposals of the government, there is some confusion over what exactly the Opposition is supposed to do, apart from opposing.
In Westminster, the Opposition has been conferred the privilege of asking the government to account for its conduct on almost a daily basis. The weekly prime minister’s Question Hour is the occasion for both the occupant of 10 Downing Street and the leader of Opposition to cross swords in a civilized way. The prime minister is obliged to answer insolent questions from any MP on any aspect of government — from the quality of health services in Cumbria to the conduct of a junior minister caught with his pants down in Clapham Common. By subjecting all ministers to relentless interrogation, the British system has institutionalized the principle of accountability.
The biggest failure of the Indian parliamentary system is the relative non-exposure of the prime minister to the process of interrogation. Although Jawaharlal Nehru loved the verbal duels in Parliament and made it a point to intervene in all sorts of debates, his successors have not been so welcoming of the experience. These days, the presence of the prime minister on routine days is a rarity and Opposition demands invariably centre on asking for his presence and intervention.
The prime minister, Manmohan Singh, for example, held charge of the coal ministry during most of the first United Progressive Alliance government’s tenure. Yet, the parliamentary business relating to that ministry was invariably left to a lowly minister of state. Indeed, apart from grand, ceremonial debates — such as a confidence vote or the recent debate on the Assam troubles — the prime minister’s presence in either of the two Houses is increasingly coming to be treated as a privilege to Parliament. The opportunities for the Opposition to embarrass the head of the government and hold him accountable for acts of commission and omission are rare.
The situation may have been remedied had the Opposition discovered other outlets within the parameters of the parliamentary system to make their voices both heard and counted. Since the main business of scrutiny is done through parliamentary committees, there is an institutionalized accommodation of the Opposition, particularly its senior members. However, recent events suggest that in moments of crisis, the committee system is being wilfully subverted by the government itself.
Corruption has been the theme song of the three years of the UPA-II government. Thanks to a hyper- active and even interventionist CAG, issues such as the misdeeds over the allotment of the 2-G spectrum, the management of the Commonwealth Games and the disbursement of coal blocks have come to be at the centre of political controversy. In normal circumstances, a CAG report is sent to the Public Accounts Committee, headed by an Opposition member, for scrutiny. The PAC is the appropriate place for MPs to assess whether or not the CAG’s assessment of mind-boggling losses to the exchequer is valid. However, of late, far from using CAG reports to curb the rampant misuse of discretionary powers and innovative forms of insider trading, the government has gone into a denial mode.
The manner in which the Congress and its southern ally filibustered and disrupted the PAC and then junked its report demonstrated a deep contempt for the parliamentary process. Likewise, the Joint Parliamentary Committee on the 2-G issue has been needlessly trivialized by demanding that the ailing Atal Behari Vajpayee and George Fernandes appear as witnesses. The prime minister’s deposition before any committee has, of course, been ruled out.
The subversion of the committee system has had two consequences. First, the derailment of the normal parliamentary process has given the judiciary the space to intervene and even make pronouncements on matters of policy. Second, it has destroyed the already fragile ground rules that determine the relationship between the government and the Opposition. An Opposition that has been deprived of the opportunity to secure official redress has been driven to using lung power as the only means of being counted.
As things stand, the remaining 17 months of the present Lok Sabha seem set to produce a stalemate. A beleaguered Congress, confronted by an erosion of support and dysfunctional governance, has decided that it will not yield and would rather brazen it out. The UPA chairperson, Sonia Gandhi, has chosen to emulate her mother-in-law’s combativeness — a strategy that Rajiv Gandhi also tried to unsuccessfully pursue after he was dogged by the Bofors controversy. On its part, the Opposition has calculated that the UPA experiment is on its last legs and that every assembly election between now and May 2014 will see the government becoming even more vulnerable. It is in no mood for normalcy to prevail, although it is unlikely that the present disruption will extend to the winter session of Parliament. The Opposition harbours memories of 1989 when the combination of mass mobilization and a parliamentary boycott made life hell for Rajiv Gandhi in his final year in power. Although a change of guard at the top no longer seems a remote possibility, there is every possibility that the frontal conflict between the government and the Opposition will also encourage other pillars of the Establishment to muscle their way into the limelight. A fresh election that produces a decisive verdict seems to be the only way to bring the system back to normalcy. A fractured verdict, on the other hand, could have dangerous consequences.