The quintessential democrat that he was, Mahatma Gandhi philosophically fine-tuned and politically mentored a long-drawn freedom struggle for attaining India’s independence from British colonialism. He assiduously believed in the moral guidepost that ‘the highest form of freedom carries with it the greatest measure of discipline and humility’. Such a Gandhian elucidation of ideals in real terms should have been interpreted as a lasting hint by all stakeholders of democracy in free India. Instead, today’s politicians are vying with each other to subvert the very institutions of parliamentary democracy without any moral compunction. Those elected to represent people in the legislatures and articulate their hopes and aspirations seem to be working overtime to make them dysfunctional.
This has been tragically demonstrated in the just ended monsoon session of Parliament, which has been washed out. Unfortunately, instead of leading to serious introspection, this has only led to a meaningless blame game. With the Congress continuing to disrupt both the Houses demanding the resignation of Sushma Swaraj and two BJP chief ministers, finance minister Arun Jaitley ripped into its top leadership for its “stubbornness” and alleged that they wanted India’s growth story to suffer by obstructing the GST Bill’s passage. Citing a meeting called by Speaker Sumitra Mahajan on Monday to break the logjam, Jaitley said the Congress was the only party that opposed any debate and insisted that the House would not run while most Opposition parties were for it to function.
The Congress leadership in turn has hit back, claiming it was the BJP that had started the use of parliamentary disruptions during the UPA regime and Jaitley himself had defended it as “legitimate” tool of parliamentary discourse when he was the Leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha. “If parliamentary accountability is subverted and a debate is intended to be used merely to put a lid on parliamentary accountability, it is then a legitimate tactic for the Opposition to expose the government through parliamentary instruments available at its command,” he had argued.
Whatever the inadequacies of representative democracy, persistent and prolonged protests and disruptions only hamper the overall quality of national response to public challenges. Such tactics amount to subversion of the people’s mandate by denying the elected government an opportunity to govern as per the agenda on which it rode to power. They also deprive the Opposition from discharging its duty of holding the government accountable to the House of the people.
It was perhaps in this context that our Father of the Nation had enunciated another valid prescription for the Indian political domain he once morally commanded. “The true source of rights is duty, if we all discharge our duties, rights will not be far to seek.” It is a tragedy that the Indian political class seems to have forgotten that it is their duty to serve the people through the instruments of parliamentary democracy and stalling their functioning amounts to a refusal to perform that duty.
In their seminal work, Parliaments in the Modern World, American constitutional experts Gary Copeland and Samuel C Patterson have noted how elected parliamentary institutions in the US and European democracies like the Congress, the House of Commons and the Bundestag are bereft of frequent disruptions and the elected representatives use the tolls of discussion and debate to discharge their constitutional obligations. They have also noted that these practices and conventions are integrally linked to changes in governance ideology, party structures, electoral systems and character of membership. This makes these representative bodies responsive and answerable.
Unfortunately, India has failed to evolve this parliamentary culture. Instead of evolving the conventions of healthy democratic debate and discussions, Indian politicians seemed to have adopted The Grammar of Anarchy against which the father of the Indian Constitution, B R Ambedkar, had warned at the inception of the republic.
The unruly behaviour of our law-makers in the Central and state legislatures has already started eroding people’s faith in parliamentary democracy. The Confederation of Indian Industry has started an online signature campaign asking MPs to end the continuing logjam in Parliament. It has been supported by 15,000 people, including top industrialists, who have urged “all political parties to have a collaborative and consultative process in the Parliament and allow the Parliament to function, to debate and legislate”.
Civil society has also taken up the issue and demanded that ‘no-work-no-pay’ rule applicable to all public servants should be enforced against members of Parliament and state legislatures.
Paralysing the working of Parliament is costing the taxpayer dearly—it costs the exchequer around `250,0000 per hour—when it is in session. If a regular workday in Parliament is around eight hours, it means that roughly `20 million is going down the drain when no business is transacted.
But the real cost of paralysing the working of Parliament cannot be measures in terms of money alone. It also leads to policy paralysis in the largest democracy and affects India’s image in the world. The rub is that disruption of parliamentary proceedings is more the outcome of petty point-scoring rather than motivated by principles or concern over policy.