Decorum is a more abstract concept than protocol. The latter can be stipulated. The former has to be felt, and has to emanate not from obedience to authority or structured convention but from the deep regard for a higher ideal. Parliament has seen tempers flare before. It has witnessed severe breakdowns of consensus, the precondition for lawmaking. But the stature of the presiding officer, the Speaker or anyone who assumes that chair, has been assiduously kept above it. The gravitas of the chair far exceeds its practical function. He or she is not merely a prefect or rule-keeper. It’s a sine qua non of the legislative space that, regardless of party affiliations, this figure is universally accepted as the very embodiment of its sanctity—this entails the concept of neutrality but is not exhausted by it. The utter polarisation of Parliament in recent days has resulted in charges of partisanship against the chair being levelled by both sides, in both the Houses, pointing to a serious weakening of the foundation.
All sides have found political capital in functioning within this total collapse of dialogue. It is seen to bring benefits. A former Congress MP from Telangana, hitherto in a deep sulk, was found engaged in animated conversation in the Parliament’s forecourt last week, barely suppressing his glee. So what brought the smile? The suspension of 25 MPs, he confided! Every Telugu channel had shown the protests. The ricocheting effect, he claimed, was felt down at the block levels—everyone in the villages now knows of Vyapam and Lalitgate. “We are happy.” The telegenic indignation was therefore just that, a display.
The simple binaries that get the visual media excited had now become a very useful tool to do politics. The live, raucous concerts of dissent in Parliament now exactly mirror the studio-recorded sparring on prime-time TV. Sharp divides, black hat-white hat, no middle ground of shared ideals where discussions can happen. So this bristling, maximalist posturing has neatly replaced the need for good debates—well-argued speech, logical refutation—in the House. In a sense, if you take the root meaning of the word ‘parliament’ (“to speak”), that role and function has been outsourced to TV.
Gone are the days when a politician’s worth and heft was decided by the quality of speeches in the House. Lok Sabha galleries would overflow when the likes of A B Vajpayee, Hiren Mukherjee, Somnath Chatterjee and before them, Madhu Limaye or even a Feroze Gandhi of yesteryear spoke—all opposition benchers for much of their careers. There had only been occasional flashes of that genteel past of late. Manmohan Singh and Sushma Swaraj engaged in poetic Urdu repartee. Pranab Mukherjee, Sharad Yadav rising in eloquent defence of Parliament when the Lokpal agitators shook its foundation. P Chidambaram’s witty barbs at Yashwant Sinha. When young Kerala MP P Rajeeve bid farewell to the Upper House this year, the tributes were universal—even Arun Jaitley spoke from the heart.
But mostly wit is not on the agenda. Lung power is. It’s no longer a searching question or skilful parry that wins the day. It’s huge laminated placards—V Hanumantha Rao’s invention—variously asking the PM to break his silence, Sushma Swaraj to quit, Vasundhara Raje to reign no more, or Shivraj Singh Chouhan to spare the youth of Madhya Pradesh. It’s almost as if Jantar Mantar has entered Parliament. As if the agitational politics, which peaked with Anna Hazare and cast doubt on the Parliament’s authority, has seeped into the institution itself in a directionless storm of rage. There were some salient images. Under the Gandhi statue outside Parliament, Sonia Gandhi, attired in a plain red-checked cotton sari (not quite crumpled as Mamata’s though), raised her fist in rhythm with the slogan she shouted—perhaps for the first time in her life. With her were a former PM and a defence minister, access to whom were rare even a year-and-a-half ago. This was no ‘blackout of democracy’; in fact, this was the democratisation of the political elites in full play.
A Rajya Sabha MP, all pumped up, pronounced confidently that the road to power ran through agitation. In a sense, that is legitimate enough. The Opposition’s role is to pin accountability and raise questions. But the Congress must know that there are no short cuts. If it wants to confront Shivraj Chouhan on the issue of Vyapam, it better revive itself in Madhya Pradesh and take him on in the assembly. Parliament is not the place where his ouster can be negotiated. In Rajasthan too, it has to devise politics on the ground to take on Vasundhara Raje. India’s prime legislative edifice cannot be subsumed entirely by agitation.
Similarly, the government too must find some way to make good on its mandate and restore Parliament to its chief function: lawmaking. Instead of working towards an accommodative space, it sought its own takeaways from the breakdown. If the Congress adopted the tone of righteous indignation, the Treasury benches sidestepped all questions of political morality and tried to make the Opposition appear cussed, petulant and stale. The Congress campaign—which appeared self-serving and vengeful to pro-government sectors of opinion—was affording them brownie points by default. Damagingly, it seemed to play along in the total sidelining of legislative business. Six crucial bills—including GST, Land Acquisition and the Real Estate Bill, the Modi government’s next big agenda—have gone abegging.
This was a pity, for the session had actually seen real progress on all those bills. Behind all the Sabha dramatics, members from all parties had worked hard within committees to comb through the issues meticulously and come up with reports, with well-argued dissent notes. The one on real estate is already tabled, GST and Land Bill are en route. The public battles had been used creatively, for leverage, to find a golden mean. On land, the government was to bring a few ‘classificatory amendments’, more or less retaining the UPA legislation. On GST, a sulking Congress was pushing for a more inclusive tax regime, and the government was working assiduously to get regional parties—particularly the AIADMK—on board to get it through without Congress support. Both sides trying to checkmate the other. The fate of GST depends not only on who wins in this, but the outcome of the Bihar elections.
The chief sufferer in these big battles, played at higher levels, is the humble MP. In a dysfunctional House, members cannot raise questions on pending railway lines, road links, unfinished overbridges, things their people send them to raise in the Lok Sabha. Nor do people at large get to know what exactly transpired between Narendra Modi and Nawaz Sharif at Ufa, or why ISIS flags are being flown in Srinagar, the terror strikes, inflation. Zero discussions means elusive answers—unless you switch on to the avalanche on the television.
The author is the Political Editor of The New Indian Express