House leaders need to rise above politics

The Lok Sabha speaker and Rajya Sabha chairman need to conduct proceedings in a non-partisan way. This isn’t the parliamentary democracy our forefathers dreamed of
Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express illustration | Sourav Roy)
Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express illustration | Sourav Roy)

On May 19, 2014, Narendra Modi bent his forehead while kneeling at the steps of the old parliament building before entering the Central Hall. It was here where Jawaharlal Nehru made his famous address on the eve of independence, ushering the dawn of democracy in India. That symbolic gesture was never meant to be an act of faith. Instead of democracy being nurtured in the haloed chambers of parliament, it was diminished and smothered. Under Modi, it is gasping for breath.

In June 2016, at a ‘parivartan’ rally in Allahabad, Modi laid down seven mantras for party workers: sevabhaav (service), santulan (balance), sanyam (restraint), samanwaya (cooperation), sakaratmak (positivity), sadbhavna (empathy) and samvad (dialogue). These mantras were stated to be breached in the governance of India.

All this was not meant to be. The government, the BJP and their affiliates command cooperation and seek obedience in both their parliamentary and public discourse without a sense of balance or restraint. Empathy and dialogue are enemy territory. That India has been transformed after 2014 and that the history of the era prior to Modi is a saga of failures of Congress rule is the extent of negativity and venom that this administration harbours.

Attempts to efface history, building monuments demonstrating cultural hegemony, targeting minorities by encouraging divisive agendas, misusing institutional power to break resistance to government programmes perceived to be unjust, and silencing people by the threat of prosecution are a part of a well-planned enterprise seeking legitimacy under the umbrella of the so-called Hindu faith. Giving a religious colour to all government and BJP initiatives makes for a State that seeks to function in a manner entirely inconsistent with our constitutional values—which are, and can be the only dharma of governance.

Recent events in parliament and their aftermath suggest that Modi’s India has breached this dharma and the government’s actions are entirely incompatible with our constitutional values. The symbol of our sovereignty—parliament—was intruded into by miscreants. A serious breach of security by different mindsets could have resulted in complete mayhem, threatening the lives of our public representatives. It was natural for the members of both the Houses of parliament to expect either the prime minister or the home minister to make a statement in both the Houses, not just to express their concerns but to assure the MPs that systems will be put in place to ensure that such a security breach is never repeated. The demand of the opposition for such a statement, though legitimate, was rejected.

Paying scant respect, in fact showing disdain, to such a demand led to the opposition’s insistence, which in turn impacted the functioning of both the Houses of parliament. The result: 146 suspensions, 100 from the Lok Sabha and 46 from the Rajya Sabha.

There was yet another incident in which a member of the Lok Sabha expressed angst at the manner in which the chairman of the Rajya Sabha had been conducting proceedings. The chairman took up the issue and gave it a caste bias, suggesting that such ‘mimicry’ was also a slur on the caste that he represented. This gave an unwarranted twist to an act which could not have been construed as an affront to the caste of the chairman.

This brings me to the real issue. The speaker of the Lok Sabha, though affiliated to a political party, represents the House, not the majority party in power. This also holds true of the chairman of the Rajya Sabha. In their respective capacities, they represent the will of their respective Houses and cannot be perceived to act in a partisan manner. If this constitutional position is not accepted then those occupying these offices are seen to be partisan towards the party in power. This is a matter of deep concern.

One, it vitiates the proceedings in the House and gives the proceedings a political colour. Two, it allows for accusations which in an ideal democracy should not be made against either the chairman of the Rajya Sabha or the speaker of the Lok Sabha. The proceedings in the House should never be conducted in a manner which suggests that the opposition is being bulldozed and its voice muzzled. The frequent directions from the chair which prevent the opposition protests from being broadcast to the public at large, the frequent shutting down of microphones of the opposition members when they are protesting, the manner in which members are reprimanded for their alleged conduct are matters which do not display the dignity with which proceedings ought to be conducted in the House.

It is a matter of history that, in the past, the MPs of the political party that is on the treasury benches today ensured the stalling of the Lok Sabha for an entire session. The BJP has no moral grounds to throttle the voice of the opposition, especially when their demand was legitimate.

Apart from this, the treasury benches have ensured that the opposition is not allowed to discuss matters of great import to the nation. If the opposition is to be denied the right to voice its concerns on matters of national interest, if the opposition is demeaned in the manner that we have seen in the recent past, if the members of the opposition are suspended, if the proceedings of the Committee of Privileges are conducted in a manner that is contrary to the basic principles of fair play, then the question that we must ask ourselves is whether this is the parliamentary democracy that our forefathers had dreamed of. The clear answer is a resounding ‘No’.

So where do we go from here? If the BJP is given another term in office, the level of intolerance will be several notches higher. Democracy will be stymied and what will be left of it will only be a shell. It is for the people of this country to change this narrative.

Kapil Sibal,

Senior lawyer and member of Rajya Sabha

(Views are personal)

(Tweets @KapilSibal)

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