Monday, 30th October 2017

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WINTER WOES

The decline of Parliament is a collective failure

By Manini Chatterjee
  • Published 20.11.17
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If the noxious smog smothering north India has robbed Delhi of its once splendid winters, the Union government's disdain towards democratic niceties and necessities threatens to deny Parliament - or at least curtail - its customary winter session this November.

Of the three sessions - budget, monsoon, and winter - that Parliament has to hold each year, the last one is the shortest but that does not take away from its importance. The session usually lasts around three weeks starting the third week of November. Notice for a session has to be given two weeks in advance after the cabinet committee on parliamentary affairs clears the dates.

We are already in the third week of the month and there is no intimation of the schedule. This has given enough ammunition to the Opposition, and the Congress in particular, to lambaste the Modi regime for disrespecting India's "glorious democratic tradition".

The Congress first held a press conference on November 13 demanding to know the fate of the winter session and then followed it up with a statement seeking to draw a larger meaning from its indefinite delay.

The government's informal excuse that parliamentarians would be preoccupied with the Gujarat election campaign was also dismissed as shocking. True, Parliament sessions have been rescheduled on other occasions in light of state elections. But since there has been an extraordinarily long run-up to the Gujarat polls, making Parliament hostage to its schedule does have a ring of political expediency.

The government is well aware that any session that takes place now will be - to use the most favourite adjective to describe parliamentary proceedings - "stormy". Buoyed by public sentiment belatedly turning against last year's demonetization exercise and compounded by the goods and services tax blues, the Opposition is in a more combative mood than at any time in the last three years.

But the government's real concern could lie elsewhere. It may have succeeded in gagging the media with its threats of multi-crore law suits, but it will be far more difficult to prevent Opposition members from raising the issue of Jay Shah's business fortunes on the floor of Parliament. Or the opaqueness of the Rafale fighter jet deal with France. Or the largesse received by certain Gujarat-based business houses known to have close links with the leading lights of the regime. Such distractions ahead of the Gujarat elections are best avoided. And the best way to avoid them is to put off the Parliament session till the Gujarat campaign is done and dusted - and then meet for just a few days to dispense with indispensable business.

But it is not just about this particular winter session. As the Congress statement pointed out, "[T]he current delay is symptomatic of the fears of a government that despite the fact that it enjoys a rich majority in Parliament, is afraid of engaging with voices of informed dissent and experienced debate that put its ill-thought policy decisions to deliberation and closer scrutiny."

The Modi government's attitude towards Parliament, his critics argue, is a continuation of the "Gujarat model" of governance. During his three terms as chief minister, Narendra Modi had very little time for the state legislature. The assembly met briefly once in six months only to meet the constitutional requirement; it seldom witnessed debates; and the chief minister never addressed the legislature be it during the motion of thanks to the governor's address or to answer questions concerning the ministries he held.

But while Modi's impatience with debate and discussion is no secret (some would even regard it as a virtue that allows the prime minister to bypass procedure to get 'things done'), to blame the prime minister or the Gujarat model for the sidelining of Parliament would be myopic and misplaced.

The sad truth is that we have witnessed a steady erosion in the importance of legislatures, be it the Houses of Parliament or the state assemblies, for several decades now. And the pace of the fall is quickening.

Although all politicians, starting with the prime minister, extol Parliament as the "temple of democracy", it is one piety that has experienced a secular decline. In theory, Parliament is the centrepiece of democracy: if government is accountable to Parliament, Parliament is accountable to the people of the country. It is the job of Parliament not just to pass laws, but also to question all government policy, scrutinize all government initiatives and expenditure, and bring to light the trials faced by the people in every corner of the country that the members of the House represent so that they may be addressed, the problems alleviated.

In reality, though, close trackers of parliamentary functioning routinely come out with statistics to show how Parliament is meeting far less often than before, that the hallowed question hour, which was meant to keep ministers on their toes, is often dispensed with and is losing its importance by the day, that bills are increasingly passed without discussion, and that noise is invariably drowning out reasoned debate.

It is easy to blame - as most of us do - the "declining calibre" of the political class for the ills that beset Parliament. There is a tendency to be nostalgic about an earlier era when men and women of 'erudition' entered Parliament, and parliamentary decorum was sacrosanct.

But the raucousness that took over, especially with the dawn of the coalition era in the 1990s, is also a reflection of the changing political dynamics in the country, the emergence of subaltern castes and classes and their leaders who speak in a different idiom from the lawyerly pedantry of an earlier generation.

The 1990s also saw the advent of economic reforms or the LPG - liberalization-privatization-globalization - offensive and a key feature of the new ethos was to denigrate public institutions in favour of private enterprise. Parliament too became its casualty. The middle classes and elites the world over tend to harbour a cultivated antipathy towards politicians and political institutions. This impetus got fresh ammunition since the reforms era began and was reflected in the media's coverage of Parliament.

Long debates on subjects such as coal mining or the plight of textile workers or the impact of pesticides on farm productivity - some of which still take place in Parliament - were ignored; intricate discussions on important bills were deemed too boring. Instead, the media were happy to highlight the 'pandemonium' during zero hour and members who made the most noise and shed the least light got more publicity - on television certainly, but often too in print.

The irony is that the middle class - and the media that cater to it - has acquired a fascination for the election process. After Bollywood and cricket, elections have become the most popular spectacle for viewers, resulting in extensive coverage of election campaigns and candidates.

But the end result of election - the functioning of MPs and MLAs in the legislatures to which they are elected - holds little interest. What is forgotten is elections not only lead to the formation of a government but also to an Opposition which must keep a watch on that government; and that members of parliament or assemblies, whichever party they belong to, must take up the grievances of the people who elect them.

This growing lack of interest in the functioning of legislatures and the growing preference for shallow TV studio debates and 'think tank' discussions over parliamentary discourse are key reasons that our elected representatives manage to avoid scrutiny, and the government in turn avoids being answerable to them. It is so much easier for an MP to make a mark by appearing on TV or putting out a series of tweets than doing real homework that benefits his constituency or deepens our understanding of a complex issue.

Regardless of the fate of the winter session this year, the smog that has descended over our most cherished democratic institution will lift only when we recognize that Parliament represents us all, concerns us all and denigrating it diminishes us as a people and a republic.

manini.chatterjee@abp.in