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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2038

Democracy Without Parliament

By Tushar Charan - Syndicate Features

India’s position as the world’s largest democracy remains unchallenged only on demographic ground. The only nation to have more people than India is China and that country is anything but a democracy. Its Communist rulers will not allow even a whiff of democracy in the land of the Great Wall. But take away the population-based boast about the form of rule and India shows up as anything but a model democracy.

Democracy is not about people and freedom of speech alone. It is measured by certain criterion, one of which is having a functioning parliament that deliberates and debates on important issues before enacting laws. When was the last time that we had a parliamentary session dominated by informed and scintillating debates that preceded enactment of important legislation?

It is widely said that the BJP has a number of effective speakers, not just the prime minister. Most of the opposition leaders, particularly Rahul Gandhi (Congress), are not seen capable of matching the oratorical skills of Narendra Modi. In this imbalance of oratorical skills, the ruling party should have been always seen as itching for a debate in the House. Instead, what we have witnessed is the government blocking the chances of debate by blaming the opposition of ‘running away’ and willingly acquiescing in adjournments of proceedings.

The last (winter) parliamentary session of 2016 has followed the previous sessions of the year which were barren and unproductive with daily adjournments without transacting any worthwhile business. By the end of the year everyone’s—that is to say all except the parliamentarians—patience had reached its limit. President Pranab Mukherjee said in desperation ‘For God’s sake, do what you are elected for’. These may not be his exact words but it captures his and the nation’s anger and above all frustration.

Holding parliamentary sessions is an expensive business, running into crores of rupees. When each day of the session ends without doing any business, people and their President are bound to be very upset. People are asking why should the parliamentarians be paid if they do not work. It is also being asked why have parliament at all if the nation can run without it? And the country continues to be governed or misgoverned as in the past.

It needs to be recalled that the process of derailing parliamentary sessions started not in 2016 but earlier when the Congress was the ruling party. The last four of the five years of the Congress-led UPA II rule saw minimum of parliamentary work as the BJP-led NDA went on the offensive on the issue of corruption. Today the tables have been turned. It can be said that the BJP is getting a taste of its own medicine, though the party’s past conduct in disrupting parliament is generally overlooked.

The arguments used by the ruling party and the opposition during the UPA days are almost the same. Both sides accuse each other of ‘running away’ from debating the issues of contention. The BJP had stoutly defended its tactics of continuous disruption of parliament with the then leader of the opposition in the Rajya Sabha and the present finance minister, Arun Jaitley, famously defending disruption of parliament as a legitimate and necessary tool.

Today, Jaitley and his government are speaking the language that the ruling party had used during the UPA days. What was a good parliamentary practice then has become bad and vice versa.

This is perhaps the core of the problem. It ensures that the logjam in parliament continues at the expense of its main business of debating, discussing and then legislating. But clearly this sort of thing cannot be allowed to go on indefinitely. Ways have to be found to see that parliament functions normally, which is to say it is able to complete its listed business.

One way that everyone can see and would gladly recommend is ‘talks’. Democracy in India has also come to mean a sharp division between the ruling party and the opposition. It is like a high boundary wall that cannot be crossed. It disallows contact with the other party. But a two-way dialogue between the treasury and the opposition benches must be a constant factor.

There will and must always be difference of opinions among the ruling and the opposition parties. But what has happened here is that it has taken the shape of bitter antagonism which makes the differences between the opposite sides irreconcilable. The situation becomes worse when question of prestige and ego are thrown into a bad equation.

While the Congress led opposition has been criticised for being too rigid in pressing for the presence of the prime minister in the debate on ‘demonetisation’, the NDA government has shown itself equally adamant on rejecting the demand. There seems to be no attempt, not in public eye, by the BJP and its allies in the ruling NDA coalition to reach out to the opposition to break the impasse. It might not be incorrect to say that the ruling coalition, particularly the BJP does not have any leader who is capable of breaking the ice between it and the opposition with the likes of L K Advani side-lined and Sushma Swaraj hospitalized.

The Congress and other opposition parties might have shifted goal posts and thus placed themselves in a position to invite the charge of ‘running away’ from debate on ‘demonetisation’. But what about the BJP. Why did its floor managers oppose the demand for debate in the Lok Sabha under a clause that entails voting? Unlike in the Upper House, in the Lok Sabha, the treasury benches have the numerical majority, and therefore have no need to worry.

In fact, with the BJP members alone constituting more than half the number of Lok Sabha members, its fear of voting in the house is intriguing. Assume that it is because some of its allies might vote against the government in a debate on ‘demonetisation’. The government will not fall so the net effect will not be averse, as far as the government is concerned. The allies voting against the government may at best be an embarrassment.

But this embarrassment will not be greater than, say, what the ‘Marg Darshak’ of the party, L.K. Advani has said on the non-functioning of parliament. He has blamed both the speaker and the government. There have been, in fact, many instances of the ruling party being embarrassed by what the senior BJP leaders said in public.

So, the gridlock in parliament was caused because the ruling party was not willing to blink first for fear of loss of face? A party with 282 members in a house of 542 should learn to live with some temporary ups and downs. Not doing so can be interpreted as a sign of lack of confidence.

- Asian Tribune -

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