Railroading Parliament

Rarely has one seen a louder show of strength by a ruling party in either of the two houses of Parliament, the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha, the latter also called the House of elders. Elders in name only, it would appear after last week’s shenanigans in the chamber.

And the problem, believe it or not, is that the ruling party and the overwhelming majority it enjoys in the Lok Sabha and stands to gain the Rajya Sabha as time takes toll of many sitting opposition MPs. Then, why must the ruling party exhibit complexes which have lost their legitimacy from 2014 onwards. The Bhartiya Janata Party unused to unbridled power it now enjoys in Parliament often it seems, even after six years in power, can’t believe the windfall Indian voters managed for it.

No longer a party of saffron pioneers like A B Vajpayee or L K Advani or that irascible party MP from Rajasthan, Mr. Hukum Chand Kachhwai of a much earlier vintage when Hindi and cow protection were the two preoccupations. Yes, I am talking of the 60s and the 70s when Ram Janambhoomi too, wasn’t the issue it became. Hindi and cow were two issues that preoccupied the few seats the party occupied on the opposition benches.

Mr. Kachhwai the Rajasthan MP, was typical of the genre, ever too ready to take up the cause of Hindi. On one occasion just after the question hour the MP looked very upset and shaking with rage he yelled “Where’s the Hindi version of the Bill”. The house was brought to a standstill by his shouting and the counter-shouting it attracted from the treasury benches. The Speaker Mr. Sanjiva Reddy had deliberately adopted a pens down posture as the Kachhwai harangue went on. Kachhwai had the whole house to himself and he was obviously enjoying it. Then after many minutes the Speaker was on his legs again and demanding absolute silence be restored. You could hear a pin drop when Sanjiva Reddy, having silenced the house, intoned gravely, “Mr. Kachhwai it is your turn now to make as much noise as you like”. “Yes, Hon’ble Members no interruptions as long as he continues to make noise”. This brought the whole house down including Mr. Kachhwai.

I wonder if this kind of approach has ever commended itself to the BJP’s presiding officers who seem only to be adding to the noise with their non-stop interruptions, or while, ignoring the odd member who probably continues to believe in the rule-book whose number sadly is minimal. The presiding officers, with due respect to them, have done away with established procedures – like in the Lok Sabha the Speaker announced an end to the question-hour, one of the most animated periods of the day’s work. This when it has been a long-established practice to routinely have question hour, zero hour, short-notice questions all packed into the 11 am – 1 pm time slot. Adjournment motions, their acceptance by the chair, has become a rarity, if at all. The committee system of functioning of MPs also appears to have been given a goodbye. As was seen yet again in the Rajya Sabha bills were passed with less than cursory interest. The system of letting Parliamentary Committees or even enlarged once examining a proposed piece of legislation clause by clause, in their words fine tuning fresh legislation has been given the good-bye. By racing in with fresh legislation the government benches hardly gain anything except, a sense of elation perhaps over rail-roading a fresh bit of legislation. What did the government gain by the instant passage of that particular piece of legislation? Your guess is as good as mine. Similarly, the bills pertaining to agriculture were debated followed by the Deputy Chairman with almost a whip in hand to hasten the pace.

He refused calls for a division. Nothing particularly special but one that could have meant actual head-count while voting instead of the routine ballot. The government was comfortably placed; it had more than the required number of votes and yet in a show of arrogance the request for a division was turned down. What would the house have lost by paying due deference to form. Similarly, a reference of a particular piece of legislation to a committee of the house would not have altered the fate of the legislation but a committee review opened the possibility perhaps of fine tuning a particular provision.

A lot of the success of these bills depends on broad consensus. As has been pointed out by experts in the case of the APMC Bill (pertaining to pricing of the farmers produce) ultimately depends on trust; legitimate fears have little to do will the test of the legislation, than with the content. The fear is that in a fiscal crunch MSP will be rolled back or procurement curtailed. There is genuine uncertainty over what private procurement will mean. Will it mean greater corporate power over farmers, possibly unhealthy monopolies or duo politics? Will there be hoarders to deal with the State?

Let it not be said that betrayal of procedures in Parliament is not just about technicalities.