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Destruction of Decorum

Destruction of Decorum

Author: George Fernandes
Publication: The Statesman
Date: November 25, 2001

Introduction: Can Parliament be relevant if basic civility is flagrantly violated? Rules of conduct need to be enforced for the dignity and majesty of the institution to be salvaged.

Is India's Parliament which represents the collective will of a billion Indians becoming an irrelevant institution or is it degenerating into another state assembly of Bihar where rules are meant to be broken and the well of the House is treated as a wrestling ring?

It is now common knowledge that visitors to Parliament who watch the proceedings from the visitors' galleries go away in utter disgust at the way parliamentarians conduct themselves in the House. If the older generation displays its disgust, the school and college-going children who come to the sanctum of our democracy with great awe and greater expectations leave the precincts of the House with a wholly lopsided idea of what parliamentary democracy is all about. If they should come to believe that this is what our democracy is, then there can be no great future for our parliamentary system of governance.

When the proposal for live telecast of Parliament proceedings was first mooted some years ago, there were two differing views expressed by the members. One section felt that live telecast will contribute to better debates and sobriety in the House, with members upholding its dignity and decorum. The other section was of the view that live telecast will provide an incentive to perform to the galleries - not of the House, but in their distant constituencies, the target audience being those who elected the members.

Time has demonstrated that the skeptics were right. Televising Parliament proceedings has indeed contributed to making Parliament a place where debate is at a discount and slanging matches between ruling and opposition benches and often between two or more parties have become common. While members indulge in a demonstration of their lung power and block the proceedings to tell the folks back home what a valiant fight they are waging on their behalf, ministers, ever-eager to get a little more exposure on the idiot boxes across the country, indulge in long-winded replies to questions by members during Question Hour and while responding to debates.

Pretentious leaders and pretenders to the Prime Minister's chair think it is their duty to ask their flock to rush into the well of the House and, worse still, to surround the Chair of the Speaker of the House in pursuit of whatever public or private agendas they may have to put on display. That they themselves sit back in their seats and watch their flock perform indicates that either they are aware that what they have asked their members to do is wrong and hence are ashamed to participate in it, or they think that they are superior characters and cannot be part of a shouting brigade. That all this makes a mockery of the rules of conduct in the House and lowers its dignity is not their concern.

Is there no way to deal with those indulging in such wayward and irresponsible behaviour? Of course, there is. Just enforce the rules relating to the conduct of the members. The 1215 page book, Practice and Procedure of Parliament by MN Kaul and SL Shakdher, from whose pages several members quote copiously whenever any knotty question has to be dealt with, and by which they swear to make their point when in doubt or to reject the argument of the other side, has more than one chapter to deal with members who do not observe the rules when they are present in the House. These rules provide for suspension from the House for a specific period as well as for permanent expulsion.

Why successive presiding officers have chosen not to use these rules and thereby prevent members and their so-called leaders from making a mockery of the House and in the process lowering its dignity is an obvious question. The only equally obvious answer would be that in a nation where all laws and rules are thrown to the winds, it may be too much to expect that they will be observed in Parliament. If that would be the likely explanation, then it is all the more necessary that Parliamentarians who enjoy the sobriquet of 'law makers' better be ordered to obey the rules and laws that govern their conduct inside the House and outside. It is only then that they will acquire the moral authority to frame the laws of the land and enforce them. One reason the much-spoken of corruption in public life in our country keeps growing is the failure of our law makers to live by the laws they have framed.

Another factor which points in the direction of Parliament becoming irrelevant is the gradual reduction, over a period of time, of its working days. From a record sitting for 151 days in 1956, the Lok Sabha touched the nadir in 1999 when it sat for only 51 days. And when one looks at the time spent on blocking the work of the House over some trivial issues, which situation was not there till the Fourth Lok Sabha, it does not require much imagination to realise how our elected representatives also known as our law makers, have succeeded in making our Parliament irrelevant.

A point may be made here that following the setting up of the Standing Committees for each of the Ministries, and these Committees meeting at regular intervals, a reduction in the working days of Parliament was inevitable. Meetings of the Standing Committees cannot be a substitute for sittings of the House. The question Hour, Calling Attention Motions, Half-an-hour discussions are the members' prerogatives. Reduction in working days deprives the members of these effective tools of parliamentary action, and denies them opportunities to expose the government's wrong doings. On days of Standing Committee meetings, Parliament should meet from say 9.00 am to 1.00 pm, with the afternoon and evening being set aside for the Committees.

In the just concluded monsoon session, there has been some movement in the direction of enforcing discipline on the members of the House. Going by past experience, it is doubtful whether it will have any effect when the House meets for the winter session in November. Unless the rules of conduct are strictly enforced, the chances are that there will be further deterioration in members' behaviour, and we may reach a stage when there will be nothing left to retrieve. Only when the following three paragraphs from Practice and Procedure of Parliament are observed in practice, parliamentarians will learn what discipline and decorum is: "The House has the right to punish its members for their misconduct. It exercises its jurisdiction of scrutiny over its members for their conduct whether it takes place inside or outside the House. It has also the power to punish its members for disorderly conduct and other contempts, whether committed within the House or beyond its walls. In the case of misconduct or contempts committed by its members, the House can impose these punishments: admonition, reprimand, withdrawal from the House, suspension from the service of the House, imprisonment and expulsion from the House.

"If at any stage, the Chair is of the opinion that the conduct of a member is grossly disorderly, the member may be directed to withdraw immediately from the House. A member, who disregards the authority of the Chair or abuses the rules of the House by persistent and wilful obstruction of the business before the House, may be named by the Chair and later suspended from the service of the House on a motion moved by a member and adopted by the House. The purpose of 'expulsion' is to rid the House of persons who are unfit for its membership." It now lies in the hands of the Speaker of the House to enforce every rule in the book and restore to Parliament the majesty and dignity without which its authority, such as is left of it, will also be stripped from it.

(The author is Minister of Defence, Government of India.)

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