John Bercow, the Speaker of the House of Commons is a person with immense authority when presiding over its sittings. As The Economist recently wrote, "the Speaker can summon the prime minister to explain himself and silence the mightiest office-holder with a glance."
Ever since the Lok Sabha, and then the Rajya Sabha, got their own television channels to live telecast house proceedings, we know that Meira Kumar has not been able to restore quiet if member schose to defy her, which they do as a routine. Her repeated baith jao, baith jao falls on deaf ears. She smiles, does not give a withering look.
She is, of course, not the only one whose entreaties go unheeded. One saw Purno Sangma flay his arms ceaselessly - beseeching quiet, some order, and some purpose for TV was not around then. Newspapers reported ‘rumbustious scenes’, some ‘disorder’ and ‘din’ which we could not imagine our leaders were even capable of. Television though shows it all, unmasking the law-makers.
The successive Vice Presidents as the Chairmen of the Rajya Sabha have been equally in a quandary when it comes to getting the House to work as per the agenda, and complete some business. Hamid Ansari would vouch for the discomfort of presiding over a body which behaves like an unruly kindergarten class. They must be at pains to suffix ‘honourable’ to the members’ names when calling for them.
Now that Ms Kumar is not going to be the President as was feebly suggested, and Hamid Ansari seems likely to be in the same uncomfortable - but coveted as the vice president’s job goes with it - seat for the next five-year term, they may as well take a leaf out of John Bercow’s book.
Apart from the demeanour, his dress, the way he travelled, The Economist did not enlighten us much about this campaign but the surmise is that he worked trying to tell the voters’ that a Parliament that provokes anti-politics anger is not a useful Parliament. Or else, he would not be on the stump in his own constituency. The presumption is that he told the house what kind of law-making body he thought was best suited to the country.
If Ms Kumar and Mr Ansari cannot get their respective Houses to work in an orderly fashion, more for law-making than for scoring points, walking into the well et al – there are many a trick the honourable MPs have up their sleeves to disrupt the proceedings – they must now take to the road. They should visit the constituencies of such MPs and talk about how they mess up the proceedings.
They have, after all, a responsibility to conduct the proceedings and getting the MPs to act responsibly is their work. It calls for courage, even ability to distance themselves from those whose behaviour is unbecoming and hold them to account. If required, they should shame the members in their own bailiwicks. It is a tall order, indeed. But the bitter dose of medicine has to be administered.
This Ms Kumar can undertake as and when the parliament is not in session; so can Mr Ansari. They should, for the country needs to see some reform even if limited to business-like conduct of the two Houses. It cannot be that members make sure that business does not get done because they want to storm the well or shout down each other.
Their limiting themselves to exhortations to members have made no difference at all and the members are likely, when the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha meet again for the monsoon session, to behave much the same disruptive way. Like Bercow, the presiding officers should campaign for the Parliament with passion. After all, the Westminster parliamentary system is a model the country preferred. Its conduct is also something Indian MPs should prefer. Tell the voters unceasingly till the MPs change their ways.
An occasional heckle from the backbenches is understandable. An occasional expression of rage, a verbal confrontation, a joust is all in the game, but methodical disruption is destroying the voters’ confidence in the very parliament they elect. That it does not deliver for a variety of reasons has been articulated by Team Anna often enough; there is a strengthening suspicion that ‘Parliament is not ours’ among the people. They have, it would seem, strayed too far from the brief of the voters.
The country would happily approve of the expenses incurred by the Lok Sabha Speaker and the Rajya Sabha Chairman for it would be money well spent. It would, anyhow, be cheaper than convening a session and wasting enormous sums on the sessions where nothing worthwhile gets done. It is too precious an institution to be lost.