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PASS THE PEPPER, PLEASE

Very little can outstrip a pepper spray attack in Parliament in pure outrageousness. A matching outrage was L. Rajagopalís defence of his act: he was defending the people of Andhra Pradesh (against the onslaught of the Telangana statehood bill introduced by the Congress) as women defend themselves against molesters. Apart from the ridiculous, over-dramatic sentimentality of his claim, there was also an implicit belittling of womenís problems. But nothing better can be expected of an excuse so cheapening of all values, of all forms of dignity and responsibility that the Indian Parliament is supposed to stand for.

Scuffles, vandalism and disruptions have now become routine in Parliament; the pepper spray was a kind of finishing touch. No emerging economy as populous, vast and varied as India has run as a successful democracy for so long. Yet that democracy remains strangely half-developed. It remains attached to street politics instead of developing the political culture of the House. Stridency, physical obstruction, walk-outs and dharnas are regular features of Parliament sessions; blackmail, not debate, is dominant. Yet such behaviour by those who should be setting examples to the people who elected them is never punished effectively. Although 16 members of parliament have been suspended for five days this time ó tokenism could not get more shallow ó and they will lose their daily allowance, no MP has ever had his salary or perquisites touched for violent or disruptive behaviour in the House. The ugliest, most coercive and destructive features of street politics have been imported into Parliament and are flourishing there, because all Indian politicians seem to have forgotten what Parliament is all about. So have the people, who repeatedly vote ill-behaved politicians into power. But elections at regular intervals do not make a democracy; they are part of the democratic process of which Parliament is the heart and spirit.

It is supposed to be the place where various points of view meet in reasoned debate. Debate should be present at all levels of a democracy, as within and between political parties. This is the first premise. The Congress itself has violated this premise, leading to more outrageous violations in response. The Telangana statehood bill needed far more discussion, debate and efforts at political understanding and reconciliation, none of which the Congress attempted. All it wanted was to gain brownie points for being decisive by hurriedly forcing the statehood issue in its last session. It could well have been handled by the next government. If Mr Rajagopal smuggled in pepper spray, the Congress smuggled in the bill before its expected time to catch the MPs off-guard. One may be more outrageous ó and brainless ó than the other, but both follow the same principle. A principle that will ultimately destroy the foundations of parliamentary democracy.