TALKING SHOPS BECOME SHOUTING SHOPS

By Malladi Rama Rao

“Parliament is a talking shop,” said socialist leader Raj Narain, who became the nemesis of Indira Gandhi, and made her take recourse to emergency for survival in the mid-seventies. He was given to display of tantrums on the floor of the House. So much so, he rarely walked out. Marshals used to scoop him up and carry him out on their shoulders. Raj Narain enjoyed every bit of the attention he got in those pre-television days.

These days, Speaker in the Lok Sabha and Chairman in the Rajya Sabha appear reluctant to invoke the grand old rule to discipline members, who, as if emulating Raj Narain, have turned the floor of Parliament into a zone of protests –– shouting and holding placards. In our parliamentary lexicon, both shouting and displaying placards are non-parliamentary acts. Yet, marshals are not summoned to clear the floor. Instead, the House has adjourned the moment some members walk into the well with banners in hand.

Two questions arise. One, of course, is why the presiding officers are unwilling to invoke the rule book. Two, what purpose the shouting from the well serves a member keen on articulating a public concern? There are no ready answers for both questions. One thing is clear though. Today, no political party is in a position to take the high moral ground. And presiding officers are a content delivering homilies before an unreceptive audience.

Long years ago, the BJP, even when it had two members, had a strict code of conduct; its MPs were forbidden from entering the well whatever be the provocation.

I witnessed L K Advani et al refusing the call of other opposition leaders to join them in the well during the days Parliament was rocked by Bofors scam. The “party with a difference” gave up this “difference” during the UPA era and led the charge against the Manmohan Singh government from the well of the House. Now it is the Congress party’s turn to pay back in full measure.

Surprisingly, more than the Congress it is the so-called allies of the BJP- namely the Telugu Desam Party (TDP), and the AIADMK, and the Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS) which have come to monopolise the well – as was seen during the second part of the Budget session – 2018, that opened on 5th March and was designed to last till 6th April.
A prospective ally, YSR Congress Party, (YSRCP), – a breakaway Congress in Andhra Pradesh was locked in a contest to share the honors with the TDP.

The two Telugu parties have a common issue – Special Category Status for Andhra Pradesh as promised by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh while piloting the Andhra Pradesh Reorganisation Law 2014 on the floor of Rajya Sabha. TDP wants to go down as the sole champion of the issue. So does the YSRCP.

In effect, a state-level one-upmanship game virtually paralyzed the proceedings of Parliament. Both gave notice of a “No Confidence Motion”. And claim to have mustered enough support to get the motion admitted. Under Lok Sabha rules, at least fifty members should stand up in support of the motion, when it is tabled. Speaker Sumitra Mahajan could not take headcount. Reason: “My vision is obstructed by placards”. She has a point. The chair could have got the well cleared by marshals. But this was not done. Result: the House had lost precious time

The Congress and other opposition parties, notably Trinamool Congress, are no less guilty of trooping into the well of the House, particularly in the Rajya Sabha. A Congress veteran was heard telling the chair (16 March) in so many words that they were following a precedent.

Should a Grand Old Party (GOP) under a youthful leader disrupt the proceedings just to settle scores? Are there no rules and conventions to put the government on the mat as the saying goes? Yes, it is futile to expect the Opposition to invoke the rule book to assert their rights when the Parliamentary Affairs Ministry is unwilling or unprepared to move a motion to censure an unruly member.

Over the years, the conference of presiding officers has grappled with the issue of disruptions and unanimously recommended that the unruly members should be shown no leniency. Only the Telangana Assembly has heeded this advisory. It has shown the door to two Congress members, who had hurled earphones at the podium when Governor E.S.L. Narasimhan was addressing the joint sitting of the State Legislature in early March. The missile had hit the Legislative Council Chairman K. Swamy Goud. By all accounts, expulsion is an extreme step. What impact it will have is to be seen.

To make Parliament function properly, the strategy adopted by Rabi Ray merits attention.

To this old guard socialist goes the credit of making the Zero Hour a noise-free hour. Before him, the zero hours was the monopoly of the front-ranking Opposition leaders with most of them speaking simultaneously and it was generally over in a few minutes. With Rabi Ray, the Zero Hour became a prolonged affair, sometimes of over two hours. It was because he allowed backbenchers to raise issues of their concern, of course, with advance notice to the Chair. The well was rarely crowded when he was in the chair. Whoever came into the well, was gently ticked off and asked to speak from his seat. The “aggrieved” members listened to him, and, he, in turn, ensured that they had their full say.
Ray used the same approach – “You talk, I listen”, to turn the demand for adjournment of the Question Hour into an impromptu debate. As the allotted one hour for the Question Hour ended, the adjournment motion used to yield place to regular zero hour to the relief of treasury benches without bruising the Opposition egos in any way.

The short point is that adjournment is not a solution to pull curtains down on the show in the well of the House. Members have come to make a point in whatever way possible. So why not compel them to speak.

It is absurd to talk about the principle of “Dies Non” – no work, no pay in respect of Parliamentarians seen indulging in unruly scenes on the floor of the House or whenever parliament is adjourned without transacting any business.

Lawmakers are not daily wage earners or government employees notwithstanding their perks like monthly salary and retirement benefits.

Most legislative work and scrutiny of government functioning take place beyond the pale of TV cameras in the committees. In fact, to quote Congress veteran, V N Gadgil, real parliamentary work is carried out in the committees in a bipartisan spirit and as a bipartisan team.

The Parliamentary Standing Committee system introduced during PV Narasimha Rao regime has made the government and its officers accountable to Parliament as never before. Well, the general public is unaware of this real side; they only see the flip-side on the idiot box. And our TV anchors lament that the Lok Sabha has let down democracy if the budget is passed without debate as happened on March 16, 2018. For them the fact that parliamentary committees closely scrutinize the budget is a non-news.

Ignorance is a bliss for the know-alls!

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Journalist, South Asian Analyst