There is something hubristic about the outcome of the stand-off between Anna Hazare and the government. It was just two years ago, when the United Progressive Alliance won the general elections and formed its second government. Shorn of the Left’s embrace, and buoyant over the handling of the global economic crisis, there were expectations that we were in some kind of a take-off stage. Today, we know better.
Actually, the Hazare stand-off represents the failure of the entire political class in the country, not just that of the UPA. And this crisis is manifested most by the functioning of the institution that has been shown up in the process— Parliament. Indeed, the government may have lost face and credibility, but so has Parliament. A measure of its irrelevance was the fact that while the nation was riveted by the drama taking place in Ramlila Maidan, a bipartisan effort was being made by our parliamentarians to award themselves a “lal batti”, or red light beacon, for their cars on the pretext that it will enable them to carry out visits to natural calamities and accident sites.
Doctors attending on Anna Hazare may say that he needs to be put on a drip, but actually, it is Parliament, not that old man in Ramlila Maidan who needs a life-support system. We are not talking about the criminals who populate the two Houses, or their increasingly plutocratic composition, but their very centrality to the political and governmental system of the country.
In his Tuesday letter, marking a conciliatory shift towards Mr Hazare, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, somewhat nostalgically perhaps, declared that “we will have to keep in mind Parliamentary supremacy and constitutional obligations in matters of legislation. As a Government we respect and are responsible to the Will of the Indian People as represented by Parliament.” The United Progressive Alliance’s attitude towards Parliament is, of course, well known in the short shrift it gave to the monsoon session of 2008 where, at one point, it was alleged that cash was distributed by supporters of the ruling party to win a crucial no-confidence motion vote.
A new low of sorts was reached when, in the winter session of 2010, relations between the government and Opposition broke down. The government insisted that the PAC was good enough to examine the 2G issue, while the Opposition demanded a JPC, even though the chair of the PAC was a leading light of the BJP. According to PRS Legislative Research figures, the Lok Sabha worked for just 7 hrs and 37 min, 5.5 per cent of the available time and the Rajya Sabha for 2 hrs and 44 min, a measly 2.4 per cent of the available time.
Actually, the budget session of Parliament this year began with promise. But in no time it got embroiled with the 2G issue and the demand for a JPC again. Then, it was cut short because of the state assembly elections in five states.
The figures from PRS Legislative Research on the current session of Parliament are striking. Half the monsoon session is over and the score goes this way: Bills listed for introduction, 32. Bills introduced, 7. Bills listed for passing, 35, bills passed, 2.
What did the Opposition achieve by disrupting Parliament? It achieved nothing. In taking a nihilist stance on the Lokpal-Jan Lokpal bill issue, the BJP has also been outflanked by the Anna Hazare movement, though they do not seem to realise it. For its part the government has managed to claw back into the game by doing what it should have done in the first place—appointing a heavyweight political negotiator, Pranab Mukherjee, to deal with Mr Hazare’s demands.
The issue is not merely Parliament’s sorry inability to get its act together, but the abdication of its constitutional responsibilities. According to the PRS, in the 15th Lok Sabha, only 13 per cent of the bills have been discussed for more than three hours. The majority, 48 per cent, were discussed for periods of 1-3 hours. Some 11 per cent of the legislation was discussed for between 30 minutes and an hour, while an astonishing 28 per cent of the legislation was given short shrift by being discussed for less than 30 minutes.
Now, of course, legislators will say that often a great deal of the work is done by the standing committees, and therefore there is no need for intense discussion on the issues in a particular legislation. But that would, in actual fact, be a travesty of the truth.
The problem, however, is that Parliament only stands at the head of an entire chain of devaluation of politics in the country—of the party, the government, the Cabinet and the Prime Minister. It affects the BJP as much as it does the Congress. After all, weren’t the leaders of the party humiliated by the RSS which decided to foist Nitin Gadkari as its head after the 2009 election debacle? Had the party run the government, it, too, would have met the same fate as the Congress.
The Congress party’s hollowing has a long history which goes back to Indira Gandhi’s times. It routinely selected Chief Ministers who have little authority and now a Prime Minister who was nominated to office by the party president, not freely chosen by the Congress parliamentary party. The party president, who should have been the prime minister, calls the real shots and has put in place a National Advisory Council of the unelected, and possibly unelectable, to oversee the Union Council of Ministers.
The real challenge, then, is to rework the politics of the country and to do this, it would be a good idea to start from that key institution— Parliament. The people who can take the lead in doing the needful are our Parliamentarians themselves. Though populated in increasing measure by the criminal and the venal, the institution has enough authority and history to begin the process of self-repair. But for this, there is need for bipartisanship and a generous dose of introspection.
Perhaps after the Anna storm has blown over, the politicians may like to reflect on just why and how some people calling themselves “civil society” managed to interpose themselves between the people and the elected house of the people (Lok Sabha) that is supposed to represent them.
The one lesson they may learn is that Parliament is a place for discussion, negotiation and compromise, not confrontation and empty theatrics. That it is not the formal law of the Constitution, or the Speaker’s handbook, that can make Parliament supreme, but those who uphold its spirit through genuine public service.
Mail Today September 2, 2011