gfiles magazine

July 17, 2011

House of wax

MPs’ behaviour is fast reducing the value of the legislature in public perception


IF the media took hardly any notice of the latter half of Parliament’s Budget session, it was not because nothing of import was happening in the House but because far more interesting and dramatic developments were taking place outside. The issue of growing political and bureaucratic corruption was taken by the people into their own hands with their support to Anna Hazare’s demand for a different judicial body to look into corruption charges against holders of political and bureaucratic office.
However, whether fuelled by a genuine desire to eliminate corruption from the corridors of power or just to show the ruling dispensation in a bad light, Parliamentarians have been busy since charges of corruption surfaced in the Thal-Vaishet fertilizer project and the Hajira pipeline project in 1982.
The Opposition welcomed the opportunity to disfigure Rajiv’s image. The stalling of House proceedings, the JPC probe and, eventually, a CBI investigation yielded nothing.

In the eighth Lok Sabha, bedlam in the House occurred daily after Swedish radio reported a suspicion of kickbacks in the Bofors deal. At the time, Rajiv Gandhi had won an unprecedented majority in the December 1984 elections and enjoyed a clean image. The Opposition welcomed the opportunity to disfigure this image. Not a day passed without the Bofors deal figuring in the proceedings. The stalling of House proceedings, the Joint Parliamentary Committee probe and, eventually, a CBI investigation yielded nothing to either confirm or remove the suspicions. By then, the CBI had lost its credibility. The loss was not due to its inability to nab the culprits but because of a sustained campaign to portray it as amenable to pressure from political masters.
Parliament was devised as a forum to seek solutions to problems facing the country. The Opposition was to maintain vigilance over the functioning of the system and seek corrective processes when necessary. However, this objective was derailed when Parliamentarians sought to sustain and justify party interests rather than functioning as impartial arbiters.
Serious debate yielded place to noise and lung power over issues the Opposition believed would sully the image of the holders of office so that the tables could be turned in the next election. The purpose of strategy got reinvented to use the highest forum of debate for party interest and not application of minds to smoothen governance so that the administration would deliver on electoral promises.
The Opposition had no hesitation in seeking suspension of Question Hour, till then zealously guarded by the Opposition in previous Houses because it is the only hour when Parliamentarians can question Ministers and departments without party discipline standing in the way. It was the only time when MPs could highlight their constituents’ problems. Ministers had to do homework to face the barrage of embarrassing questions in two Houses. Many Ministers dreaded the hour, with the threat of privilege motions looming if they were caught deliberately covering up or misleading the House.
Even powerful ministers like TT Krishnamachari and, later, Morarji Desai faced many embarrassing moments during Question Hour. In 1963, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had to concede the demand to invite the Attorney General to the House when his Finance Minister, Desai, could not satisfy MPs over the issue of compulsory deposits that he had introduced. Jyotirmoy Bosu and Madhu Limaye were dreaded by all Ministers for their barrage of questions.
Now Ministers do not bother to prepare because Question Hour has itself got defamed after eight MPs were caught having accepted cash to raise issues of commercial interests of private firms. Starred and unstarred questions dwindled to one-tenth of the number that used to be listed in the Fourth Lok Sabha.
Question Hour and the subsequent Zero Hour would see full attendance in both Houses because it was the time when MPs had an upper hand over the Treasury benches. Calling Attention Notices on issues of urgent public interest were the highlights, drawing a full contingent in the press gallery. Calling Attention Notices are no longer used to raise issues. Instead, short representation of constituency problems take precedence over all issues as Parliamentarians want evidence to show their constituents that they raised their problems.
IT is difficult to pinpoint the stage when the main purpose of using the Parliamentary forum for raising issues of public importance and seeking answers from the government was transformed into a route for seeking advantage for the party rather than for the masses. The functioning of the administration has deteriorated steadily with the licence and permit Raj becoming the main source of corruption. Even then, fear of Parliamentary exposure acted as a check on corruption to a large extent. There was a need to account to Parliament over implementation of various welfare schemes.
Ramdev’s unsavoury past is of no import to the public —because he talks of an issue that intrigues the middle class, and his threat has embarrassed politicians.

But things began to change with Ministers taking it casually as they knew the Opposition would not allow functioning of Parliament due to their agitation over issues raised in the media. No one waited for confirmation of media reports. Everyone was in a rush to grab the credit for being the first to stand up in the House. Even Prime Minister Indira Gandhi did not hesitate to abstain from the monsoon session to visit the US in July 1982. She left the work of facing the no-confidence motion against her government to senior colleagues.
Even Parliamentary committees underwent a metamorphosis in their functioning from being impartial arbiter to serving party interests. The Parliamentary committee was an instrument devised to keep internal functioning above party interests by keeping its proceedings beyond media gaze so no member would be tempted to toe the party line. Now the chairman of the Public Accounts Committee sets out to prove (not investigate) the government’s guilt. He wants to do it not because he has verified information but because of the need of his party. The Treasury benches are determined to prove otherwise. Neither side abides by the ethics and discipline that appointment to a committee demands, not even in the case of Joint Parliamentary Committees. The probes are run along the lines of party interests and not to ferret out the truth, regardless of who gets affected by it.
THE issue of formation of a JPC that took the winter session of 2010 by storm showed how the game of politics between two sporting sides has been converted into a battle between two sworn enemies. The Opposition felt it could bring down the heavens over the government by getting a JPC to probe the 2G scam and the government was apparently afraid of facing it. Ultimately, the government conceded the demand –but after blunting the JPC’s capacity. The bigger tragedy is Parliament’s loss of humour, something that had always kept the relations between the two sides personable. The strain between them now is stark.
The loss of time owing to the preference for forcing adjournments rather than having meaningful debate has eroded Parliament’s value with Non-Government Organizations and their issue-based interests getting public attention. They are not bound by party discipline. Their failure to gauge the extent of the administrators’ ability to sidetrack them prevented effective results.
There is no amelioration of poverty, deprivation, social and economic disparity, and denial of justice. There is no end to the exploitation of the poor by the rich. Administrations remain insensitive to their needs. Even welfare schemes have been taken over by corruption with food for the poor finding its way into the shops of unscrupulous traders. Parliament does not offer any hope of a solution to their problems. The reach of NGOs is limited. But the administration is cowed down by gun-toting young men seeking justice for the poor. Forty years ago, the extremists’ bands were confined to a limited area in the Northeast. Now they are spread over nearly 159 districts in several states. They have different names in different states but the modus operandi is the same: terrorizing the rich and their guardians in the State administration. They are able to run a more efficient dispensing system for justice and attract support from the poor.
The momentum generated by the Anna Hazare threat has an element of danger – the urban middle class has also come to endorse a type of extremism. Hazare’s threat was not violent extremism but it was more potent because it forced the government to its knees. Now, even Baba Ramdev is determined to become a hero who rendered Parliament irrelevant. His unsavoury past and sudden rise as a yoga teacher and practitioner of Indian medicine is of no import to the public – because he talks of an issue that intrigues the middle class as his threat has put politicians in an embarrassing position. The growth of violent extremism across the country is not merely a law and order problem. It is not merely spreading and spawning bands of seekers of socioeconomic justice through violent means.
It is partly a consequence of Parliament’s failure to find solutions to problems. Parliamentarians seem to have zeroed in on those in office only for their corruption and not insensitivity, lack of compassion, inefficiency and inability to provide justice for the poor. The problems of the masses are not limited to political and bureaucratic corruption but are wider in range. By forcing adjournments, MPs are undermining their own importance and also their relevance in public perception.

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