Year after year for over 25 years, session after session, parties on both sides of the aisle have created what Dr Ambedkar referred to in his November 25, 1949 Constituent Assembly speech as ‘grammar of anarchy’. He had clearly alluded to the political methods of satyagraha, dharna and non-cooperation used during the national movement and hoped that in independent democratic India, there would be little space for them.
Tragically, the methods of schematic disruption have developed a binary acceptance over the years. While the government of the day blames the Opposition, the agitating Opposition blames the government for disallowing them the space due to them by scuttling discussion on questions raised by them, leaving no option but to agitate.
Questioning the strategy of the NDA to paralyse the parliament during the UPA II, Shekhar Gupta had asked if tomorrow the NDA was in power would it expect the UPA also to disrupt Parliament (The Indian Express, October 27, 2010). Obviously, his comment did not elicit a response from the concerned quarters. However, Sushma Swaraj’s revelation to Neena Vyas of The Hindu on August 11, 2011, that if their parliamentary party did not disrupt, they were seen by the party units as colluding and if they did, they were criticised for disrupting Parliament, clearly brings out that all the parties have unfortunately begun to look at disruptions and forced adjournments as legitimate tools of parliamentary strategy.
Tragically, the methods of schematic disruption have developed a binary acceptance over the years. While the government of the day blames the opposition, the agitating opposition blames the government for disallowing them the space due to them by scuttling discussion on questions raised by them, leaving no option but to agitate
She had admitted that the party’s state units were not convinced even when told that forcing adjournments for a day or two was alright, doing it day after day would send negative signals. However, the budget session of 2018, which is still on, shows how the strategy can boomerang.
Assessments of parliamentary performance by Social Watch India since the beginning of the millennium (the publication stopped after 2013 as FCRA rules clamped down on foreign grants to the voluntary sector), has reinforced the conclusion that parliamentary culture in India changed significantly since the 1990s. Thus, the Congress during 1998-2004 as well as since 2014 and the BJP during 2004-14, have followed similar methods to put across their point. Obviously, the parties suffer from ‘paying back in the same coin’ syndrome, making disruption the leitmotif of parliamentary engagement. More significantly, in bringing ‘street politics’ to the august precinct of the parliament, the parties in Opposition appear to be shying away from informed debate on critical issues, which was the norm between 1952 and 1975, when a debating Opposition could put the government on the defensive.
While the Opposition kept shouting slogans and raising a din demanding a discussion on the PNB scam, the Lok Sabha passed the Finance Bill 2018 and a ₹89.29 lakh crore spending plan for the fiscal year 2018-19 beginning April 1, 2108 in just 25 minutes.
The role of the Opposition parties deserves scrutiny in this context. Indeed, the country needs to put to scrutiny whichever party has occupied the Opposition benches in the past couple of decades. It is reported that major Opposition parties had urged the Speaker before the proceedings of March 13 to prevent the government from using the guillotine to push through the Appropriation Bill and the Finance Bill. However, Speaker Sumitra Mahajan went through the proceedings.
Lok Sabha speaker Sumitra Mahajan not only showed alacrity in using a guillotine to pass the Finance Bill, an analysis of the current session of the Lok Sabha shows her avidity in no uncertain terms to adjourn the house at the drop of a hat. An analysis by The Indian Express (March 29, 2018) shows that over eight days, just 16 minutes were spent on the no-trust notice in the Lok Sabha. On March 16, the Telugu Desam Party, once a part of the NDA, and YSR Congress Party gave notices for a motion of no confidence against the government, which enjoys a comfortable majority in the house—BJP has 272 seats (plus the Speaker) and the NDA has 315 after the withdrawal of the TDP (16) in a house of 543. Yet, the party is surprisingly unwilling to allow the motion to be put to vote.
When Speaker Sumitra Mahajan adjourned the house on Wednesday, March 28, at 11 minutes past noon—the eighth consecutive day since the motion came up for discussion—she said, ‘Everybody is ready to discuss the no-confidence motion. They are also ready, this side is also ready, but we cannot proceed like this.’ The total time spent on the motion was 16 minutes in eight days.
Indeed, the disruptions were caused by the TDP and YSRCP that protested the Centre’s refusal to grant special status to Andhra Pradesh and by AIADMK and TRS protested with placards demanding constitution of the Cauvery management board and linking the MGNREGA to farm labour. Since it is mandatory to count a minimum of 50 members supporting the motion, the Speaker expressed an inability to do so supposedly due to the protests.
It is a different matter that on March 28, only the AIADMK members, 37 in all, were protesting; the rest remained seated. A detailed analysis indicates that between March 16 and 28, the Speaker took between one (twice), two (four times) and three (twice) minutes to adjourn the house.
Parliament, irrespective of the system of government combines representation and participation, two main attributes of representative democracy. It also represents democratic partisanship based on the mandate given by the electorate. Indian parliamentary democracy increasingly faces the question as to what happens when partisanship ceases to be democratic and the treasury benches brazenly reinterpret the mandate arguing validity of the majority. But then politics does not really work in realm of validity, it works in the realm of legitimacy.
The author is Honorary Director, Centre for Public Affairs, Noida and former Ford Foundation Chair in Dalit Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia