India’s Hostage Parliament

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New Delhi – The ongoing disruption of the “monsoon session” of the Indian parliament has showcased both the resilience of India’s democracy and the irresponsibility with which its custodians treat it.

Demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh over the allegedly improper allocation of coal-mining blocks to private companies, the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party has stalled parliament’s work for three of the session’s four weeks.

The repeated paralysis of parliament by slogan-shouting BJP members – violating every canon of legislative propriety and prompting the hapless speaker to adjourn each day’s meeting – has caused legislative business to grind to a halt.

The code of conduct that is imparted to all newly-elected MPs – including injunctions against speaking out of turn, shouting slogans, waving placards, and marching into the well of the house – has been completely ignored.

Equally striking is the impunity with which lawmakers flout the rules. Successive speakers have pleaded helplessness in the face of such determined obstructionism by the principal opposition party.

India’s parliamentary system is embedded in its British colonial history. Like the American revolutionaries of two centuries ago, Indian nationalists fought for “the rights of Englishmen,” which they thought the replication of the Houses of Parliament would both epitomize and guarantee.

Former Prime Minister Clement Attlee, a member of a British constitutional commission, recalled that when he suggested the United States’ presidential system as a model to Indian leaders, “they rejected it with great emphasis. I had the feeling that they thought I was offering them margarine instead of butter.”

Many of India’s veteran parliamentarians – several of whom had been educated in England and regarded British parliamentary traditions with admiration – reveled in their adherence to British convention and complimented themselves on the authenticity of their ways.

Indian MPs still thump their desks in approbation, rather than applauding by clapping their hands. When bills are put to a vote, an affirmative call is still “aye,” rather than “yes.”

Even the Communists embraced the system with great delight. An Anglophile Marxist MP of yesteryear, Hiren Mukherjee, used to assert proudly that British Prime Minister Anthony Eden had felt more at home during Question Hour in India’s parliament than he had in Australia’s.

But six decades of independence have wrought significant change, as exposure to British practices has faded and India’s natural boisterousness reasserted itself. Some of the state assemblies in India’s federal system have already witnessed scenes of unruly legislators fighting, overturning furniture, ripping out microphones, and flinging slippers.

While things have not yet degenerated that far in the national legislature, the practice of disrupting the house has become an established substitute for parliamentary procedure.

In 2010, an entire parliamentary session was lost when the BJP held it hostage to the party’s demand that government establish an investigative committee to inquire into an alleged act of corruption. This time, mercifully, at least one week’s worth of business could be conducted before the troublemaking began.

There was a time when parliamentary misbehavior was dealt with firmly. I, and many of my generation, recall the photograph of the burly Socialist MP, Raj Narain, a former wrestler, being carried out of the house by four attendants for shouting out of turn and disobeying the speaker’s orders to return to his seat.

But, over the years, standards have been allowed to slide, with adjournments being preferred over expulsions. Last year, five MPs in the Rajya Sabha (the upper house) were suspended for charging the presiding officer’s desk, wrenching his microphone, and tearing up his papers.

But, after a few months and some muted apologies, they were quietly reinstated. Perhaps this makes sense, reflecting a desire to allow the opposition its space in a system where party-line voting determines most outcomes, but it does little to enhance the parliament’s prestige.

Opposition parties, recognizing that the outcome of most votes is a foregone conclusion, treat parliament not as a solemn deliberative body, but as a theater to demonstrate their power to disrupt.

The well of the House – supposedly sacrosanct – becomes a stage for opposition MPs to crowd and jostle, waving placards and chanting slogans until the speaker, after several futile attempts to restore order, adjourns in despair.

The result is that the vast majority of the public has lost respect for the “temple of democracy,” as the parliament is known. The daily adjournments have also taken place on many occasions in the presence of bemused visiting members of other countries’ legislatures, which does India’s international reputation little good.

Pluralist democracy is India’s greatest strength, but its current manner of operation is the source of its major weaknesses. The disrepute into which the political process has fallen, and the widespread cynicism about the motives of India’s politicians, can be traced directly to the flawed workings of the parliamentary system.

India’s many challenges require political arrangements that permit leaders to concentrate on governance and take decisive action, whereas its parliamentary system increasingly promotes drift, indecision, and a narrow focus on survival in power.

And now the cavalier attitude reflected in the opposition’s frequent disruption of the parliament risks discrediting parliamentary democracy itself. That is one thing India cannot afford. But its politicians must recognize that for themselves.

Shashi Tharoor
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Shashi Tharoor, a former UN under-secretary general and former Indian Minister of State for Human Resource Development and Minister of State for External Affairs, is currently a Member of Parliament for the Indian National Congress.

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