Din, Chaos, & Shrinking Civility In Parliament: Why Lawmakers Must Find A Way Out

Young minds keen on deeper knowledge on the functioning and processes of Indian democracy would have imbibed wrong lessons watching Parliament at work this monsoon session. Venerable people’s representatives, many among them genarians, wagging accusing fingers at each other and indulging in shouting matches would not have been a pretty sight for them. They must have found walkouts and adjournments utterly confusing. The ‘temple of democracy’, they would have discovered, is not their usual temple where order, decorum and meditativeness prevail , and time is dedicated entirely to the purpose of the visit.

According to PRS legislative research, an organisation which collates detailed data on the functioning Parliament, Lok Sabha functioned for only 43 per cent of its scheduled time and Rajya Sabha 55 percent in the session. It follows the trend from 2019, the year of constitution of the 17th Lok Sabha. While legislative activity remained high, with 23 bills being passed in the lower house, debates on most of them lasted less than one hour. It was a tumultuous session marked by uproar over the Manipur issue and the opposition’s no-trust motion against the government.

The pictures from Parliament beamed into our homes paint a disturbing picture. It’s gradually losing relevance as a platform for healthy debate over issues concerning people. Gone are the days of debates featuring learned politicians throwing enlightening insight into matters of importance to the country. You wouldn’t find someone like Jawaharlal Nehru appreciating a young Atal Behari Vajpayee making a strong contrarian view. Or all parliamentarians listening in rapt attention to points being made in a house debate.

Those were days of politics of idealism; the unpleasant reality of the brute power of numbers didn’t show up much. No matter where parliamentarians stood ideologically, they all acknowledged the value of Parliament as a forum to express views and present public opinion. Civility, decency and mutual respect guided interpersonal equations. That, of course, was a long, long time ago. The gradual decline of the aura of Parliament has been evident for many decades now. It has perhaps been faster with the emergence of clearly delineated ideological blocks.

Ideology has played its part. One can cite the ascendance of the combative RSS-BJP worldview and its tussle with the Congress’s as the primary driver of the changing standards. Before the emergence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi as a political colossus, politics was hugely influenced by the Nehruvian approach and attitude. Even leaders of the BJP such as Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani practised politics of the same mould to a large extent. Modi heralded a clean break from that. He represented an ideology sharply different from that of Nehru. The challenge to the latter had to be forceful and its assertion emphatic. Any argument had to be confronted with a stronger counter argument. Compromise or adjustment would have been corrosive. Some of the bitterness and acrimony in political debate in our times can be attributed to this. But the truth is, the decline started much earlier. The Congress is more culpable in chocking the voice of the opposition in Parliament and getting its way through the power of numbers rather than that of persuasion. When the BJP adopts the same approach, it can only blame itself for setting the trend.

Let’s be under no illusion that Parliament was ever a perfectly democratic place. It never was. Parties issued whips to make their members adhere to their respective position on issues up for voting. The members could hardly follow their heart and cross-vote. Any debate had to go along the party’s position on the matter. Deviation from it could invite punitive action in the form of suspension from the party. And ultimately, every party had to ensure its numbers in each house counted.

In a large democracy with mind-boggling diversity a degree of bitterness and acrimony is normal. But what is worrisome is the loss of civility and sense of decency. And also the loss of valuable time to legislate, which is funded by the honest tax-payer. All parties are equally guilty of it. The proceedings are televised and they go across the country live. It has not stopped many parliamentarians going overboard with their choice of language and general conduct in the houses. Viewers observant enough don’t miss the fact the chaos is often orchestrated both by the treasury benches and the opposition to obfuscate issues uncomfortable to them.

If this continues, those who wish to learn the ways of our democracy by watching Parliament in action may soon disengage from it. Right now all institutions of democracy face a crisis of credibility. Parliament must not face it too All political parties must introspect hard.

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