Thursday, December 08, 2005

Lok Sabha in Session - Ashamed to be the Speaker

The Seat of People's Power

Pleading: with no one listening

Once more (see previous), the Hon. Speaker of the Lok Sabha, Mr. Somnath Chatterjee gave vent to his frustration, anger and exasperation, saying: “ I am ashamed to be the Speaker of this House.”

One more time, the People of India too have a reason to be ashamed at having elected as their representatives those who seem to be oblivious of their real responsibilities towards the People.

For the past several days, the People have been witness to an utterly unseemly competition between the ruling party and the Opposition as to who was more unruly than the other.

The immediate reason for the ugly scenes on the 7th December was the Opposition’s call for the resignation of Mrs. Sonia Gandhi as the Chairperson of the UPA Co-ordination Committee, after having succeeded in making the Government succumb to their pressure to remove Mr. Natwar Singh from the Union Cabinet and exposing the Congress Party itself to further attacks.

In the incident that happened on the 7th December, the Opposition clearly was at fault in disturbing the proceedings over an issue, which did not directly relate to the functioning of the Government but was purely political. The Prime Minister was absolutely right in terming the Opposition (BJP) behavior as “drama”, regardless of whether that drama was to divert the people’s attention from its internal troubles or to heighten the Congress Party’s embarrassment over the Volcker issue.

The Opposition has a right to raise an issue in the Parliament and also a right to be heard and the ruling party has the obligation to allow a debate on the issues raised. Equally, the ruling party too has the right to be heard and that right cannot be stifled by unruly behavior by the Opposition. The Opposition could even be justified and pardoned for pressing its demands (including rushing to the well, for example) in case the ruling party uses a ham-handed approach in ignoring the Opposition over an issue that relates to the policies or functioning of the Government. Such a ham-handed attitude has indeed been demonstrated by the ruling party in the past. But to disrupt the proceedings of the House over a matter that is purely political in nature cannot be easily excused.

The much larger issue involved and over which neither the Presiding Officers nor the political parties appear to be serious is about the norms of running the Parliament and enforcing the norms.

The Hon. Speaker of Lok Sabha, Mr. Somnath Chatterjee, dignified and respected that he is, has been less than forceful in enforcing discipline in the House. Being the Speaker, he is above the other representatives of the People in the House and has all the power that he needs to keep them from going haywire and keep them on a straight path. During many of the sittings, the Speaker has been seen to be getting on his feet perhaps as often as the members, only to exhort them to take their seats and behave. In the prevailing situation, the entire house is virtually held to ransom by vociferous, belligerent, gesticulating members who drown the voices of reason from the more serious but civil members. The Speaker could afford to be mild and to condescend if the members are conscious of and committed to observe the norms of behavior. If not, the Speaker can and should have the will to use the powers that the Chair gives him including calling to order or naming disorderly members, where gross transgressions take place, rather than adjournments that are sometimes tactically engineered by groups of members. The long rope that is given now to the members needs to be converted into a whip when clearly warranted.

Elevation of parliamentary standards

The country is half a decade into the 21st Century with a Parliamentary history of over 53 years. The present Parliament and the Parliaments prior to that have had the good fortune to have very many illustrious parliamentarians who could be lodestars to others and examples to follow as far as their conduct is concerned.

Sadly, the parliamentary standards have, instead of rising, continuously degenerated into mediocrity. Feeling proud about being the largest democracy in the world has no meaning if the functioning of a prime pillar of democracy does not inspire pride and confidence in the People. For, the largest democracy in the world should also be the beacon for other democracies in the world as far as the functioning of democracy is concerned. It is a pity that those who are the constituents of the system have shown a singular lack of vision about how they want the system to function now and a hundred years from now. Particularly as far as the Parliament is concerned, far from being a beacon, the system appears to be slipping to the bottom. This deterioration in standards has also percolated to the State Legislatures across the country.

The Lok Sabha does have detailed Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business. In particular, Rules 349 to 358 of Chapter XXVII elaborate the Rules to be observed by members in the House which need to be enforced in right earnest as a start. The present deterioration in levels of debate may be attributable to a significant extent on the laxity or indulgence of successive Presiding Officers with regard to indiscipline. What was actually required was to enforce the rules strictly in a way that would lead to expectations of consistently high standards of the members.

All those who are concerned about proper functioning of the Parliament need to urgently apply their minds, collective wisdom and vision (if any), to drastically change the prevailing situation.

Firstly, the existing rules must be applied more firmly by the Presiding Officers. By way of small administrative steps, they can also ensure that details of the performance of the people’s representatives are provided in a meaningful way at least on the Parliamentary websites. Secondly, a thorough review may be undertaken by the Central and State Legislatures alike, to identify what measures need to be adopted in order to ensure civilized debate, civilized actions, decency and decorum that will encourage members to conduct themselves in a mature, dignified and serious manner worthy of the august House. If there is no confidence in our own ability to lay down the new norms of conduct, recourse could be taken to help from external sources. After all, the present Government is trying to convince the people that the country needs external inputs even for selling groceries! Lastly, a considerable effort needs to be made to educate and inculcate into the minds of the honorable members as to what is expected of them. It should not be forgotten that the 500 plus members of the Lok Sabha and members in the State Legislatures come from vastly different regions, social strata and backgrounds within the country. The sheer magnitude of the social, cultural and behavioral differences, not meant in any disrespectful way but as a fact, implies that it would be futile to expect the same set of conduct from all just by perfunctory orientation and reading out of the rules to them. A well-devised plan has to be evolved to systematically educate the members to raise the level of conduct and debate to a common higher plateau in the first place and then raise the bar on a continuous basis till the country has the best-behaved Legislatures in the world.

It is indeed a tall order, considering the present situation. The million-dollar question is: who will take the lead to bell the cat.


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At December 09, 2005, Anonymous N.Ramani said...

the speaker must be strong. he should not try to please everyone.


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