Thrice a year, during the budget, monsoon and (now not running) winter sessions of the Parliament, almost everyone in the political arena, including politicians, analysts and commentators, bemoan frequent disruptions of the House. The judgement on who is responsible for this depends on which side of the political divide the adjudicator stands.
The treasury bench members direct all their rants at the Opposition parties, who in return heap it back on the government and the ruling party. Over the years, parliamentary reporters and analysts have recycled the data on the amount of money wasted on days when no business is conducted.
Status Quo Inside the House
Not a single session goes by when someone in either a professedly politically neutral position or while being aligned to a party, does not say something similar to what President Pranab Mukherjee and former Deputy Prime Minister and one-time BJP stalwart LK Advani have said over the past two days.
This is not a recent trend and despite the Narendra Modi regime’s sense of victimhood, it is not the first government that has failed to transact parliamentary business during a session. The UPA faced a similar challenge for a decade and prior to that the AB Vajpayee-led NDA found the situation no different.
Rules Are Not a Deterrent
Since at least 1997, Parliament has regularly debated the issue of disruption of its proceedings. In 2001, the then Lok Sabha speaker convened a one-day convention on ‘Discipline and Decorum in Parliament and Legislatures of States and Union Territories’, reporting that almost one-fourth of the time of the House was lost to disruptions.
The convention in November 2001 adopted a set of recommendations, including a 59-point code of conduct and punishments. Little follow-up was done despite the resolutions being adopted unanimously.
As a token gesture, a month after the convention, a new Rule 374A was added to the ‘Lok Sabha’s Rule Book’, providing for automatic suspension of a member who rushes to the well of the House and creates a ruckus. This insertion at the initiative of late Speaker GMC Balayogi gave the presiding officer more teeth. Since 2001, the rule has been used by several speakers, including Sumitra Mahajan who suspended 25 Congress MPs in August 2015. The rule was also used by her predecessor, Meira Kumar. Yet it has provided no solution to the malaise as suspension has been projected as an evidence of ‘good performance’.
We are thereby witnessing a farcical reversal of roles – the ruling party of the moment after losing power sits in Opposition benches and disrupts Parliament, while the party in power hurls the same accusations at the Opposition when they occupy the treasury benches.
The questions are: has this been an eternal malaise of the Indian parliamentary system? Is there any solution to the problem or do we have no alternative but the obnoxious anti-democratic suggestion – do away with Parliament because nothing but danda raj or an authoritarian system will work?
Zero Hour for Raising Issues
There was a time when Parliament was noted for meaningful debate. Of course, both Houses thundered at the anger of members on specific issues, but this was for a limited period.
In fact, when Zero Hour was conceived, it was essentially a members’ forum where issues that concerned the welfare of people were raised. Zero Hour is not a part of the parliamentary procedure but a convention in Rajya Sabha since the 1960s, that was introduced in Lok Sabha much later. Initially, Zero Hour lasted a few minutes but now extends uninterruptedly till the entire day’s proceedings become a bigger cipher!
Change Evident After Bofors
I remember a few sessions when I used to report the proceedings of Parliament in the early 1990s. PV Narasimha Rao was the Prime Minister and those were not in any way less turbulent times. Zero Hour was limited, though it would often yield the headline of the day.
Afternoons used to be spent in debates, but with time, attendance during the sessions dropped and the quorum bells had to be rung. This was a trend that first began in the late 1980s when the arena of politics began shifting outside Parliament after the Bofors scam came to the fore. Relations between government and Opposition touched a new low in 1989 when 63 members were suspended from Lok Sabha. Rajiv Gandhi was the Prime Minister then and the Opposition was unrelenting on the Bofors issue.
The advent of television changed the behaviour of our parliamentarians. This was a gradual process beginning with the president’s address in the late 1980s and then Question Hour and Zero Hour too began to be telecast. By the late 1990s there were separate Doordarshan-run channels for the two Houses but these were not telecast live. The feeds were available to private channels to plug in or to use as excerpts. The advent of Lok Sabha TV in 2006 followed by Rajya Sabha TV a few years later, provided a captive arena for parliamentarians.
Blame Lies with the Government
In these years, successive governments too undermined the institution of Parliament. For instance, for virtual waste of the current session, the government is as much responsible for derailing business as the Opposition. During the UPA’s tenure, it may be recalled, the government repeatedly stonewalled the issue of Lokpal Bill, including the time when Rajya Sabha Chairman and Vice President Hamid Ansari abruptly adjourned the Upper House sine die without a vote.
That TV cameras have enabled the two Houses to become a political arena where points can be scored has been proven time and again. Advani may have lost his cool but it must be borne in mind that he was the leader of the Opposition in 2008 when his party MPs flashed currency notes in the House to make a dramatic statement.
Both the government and the Opposition have used the wasted hours in Parliament as evidence to score points over each other and impress their electoral supporters. It is time that live TV coverage of Parliament is stopped because when expending energy and shouting themselves hoarse will not secure publicity, political parties will have to take their debates to other platforms. Parliament’s credibility is at stake and this will get further eroded if disruptions continue session after session. For reason to return to politics, it is important that MPs are denied coverage inside the House.
(The writer is an author and journalist based in Delhi. His most recent books are ‘Sikhs: The Untold Agony of 1984’ and ‘Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times’. He can be reached @NilanjanUdwin. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)