NDA MPs to forego salary: BJP complicit in Parliament's descent into irrelevance, attempts at virtue-signalling won't work

The decision by the NDA MPs to forego their salary for 23 wasted days in the Budget Session is a cosmetic attempt at gaining the moral high ground over an issue that has serious implications for India's Parliamentary democracy. The MPs of the ruling party are fooling no one through their token gesture. They are as complicit as Opposition lawmakers in undermining Parliament's role as an institution of legislation, supervision and accountability and eroding public's faith in it.

File image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Reuters

File image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Reuters

Now that the second part of the Budget Session—which ends on Friday—is headed for a total washout, the NDA is seeking to make some political capital out of a bad script.

Parliamentary Affairs Minister Ananth Kumar on Wednesday acknowledged that there has been a "criminal wastage of taxpayer's money" but he sought to lay the entire blame at Congress' doorstep, insisting that "we are ready to discuss everything, but the Opposition did not allow the Parliament to function". Such naiveté is amusing.

According to Kumar, the House was rendered dysfunctional due to Congress' "negative politics" which reflects an "intolerance for people's mandate towards Modi government". He claimed that the decision to "return the money back to the people" was taken in consultation with the prime minister, party president and other NDA constituents because "the money is given to us to serve the people. Since no issues of public interest were discussed and no legislative business could be transacted, we are returning it".

Pious words, but the minister's stance will find few takers. For instance, one of BJP's own MPs is not buying it.

Subramanian Swamy has declared that he won't forego his salary because he has been regularly attending Parliament.

 

The trouble with Kumar's position is that instead of reflecting "concern for the people", it smacks of virtue-signalling, an attempt to shame the Opposition as well as indifference towards an institution that Narendra Modi has called 'temple of democracy'.

There can be debates—as we shall presently explore—over whether the current Westminster model of parliamentary democracy is working for India where political maneuvering has gradually trumped performance.

The Congress-led Opposition's cynicism towards parliamentary proceedings stems from an insecurity due to BJP's brute majority and growing national footprint, and therefore the Congress in particular has been more interested in political survival than anything else: Holding the government accountable in Parliament, for example.

However, it is incumbent on the government to walk the extra mile and ensure that the 'temple' isn't desecrated due to myopic politicking.

The Modi government was given a mandate to run the country and ensure that the institutions work, not hide behind excuses for failing to do so. It is too easy to blame a party that has been shown the door by voters for non-performance.

As the ruling coalition, it is NDA's responsibility to carry the Opposition along and ensure that the House remains functional. However, as the Congress has sought to turn the Parliament into an arena for political grandstanding, the BJP has been happy to play along.

The BJP purportedly feels that the washed out session puts it in a poor light. The numbers are damning. On Wednesday, the Rajya Sabha witnessed an unprecedented 11 adjournments in a single day over repeated sloganeering and protests, leading Vice-President Venkaiah Naidu to call it "murder of democracy". Since 5 March, when the second part of the Budget Session took off, all transactions have remained suspended.

In the Winter Session last year, 34 working hours were lost in the Upper House while 15 working hours were wasted in the Lower House, causing a loss of Rs 73.5 crore to the exchequer. This was, mind you, a "successful session" where 22 bills found way of passage. As the report in Financial Express points out, during last year's Monsoon Session, both Houses of the Parliament lost 55 hours each, pegging the loss at Rs 82.5 crore.

It gets worse. The Budget Session is now being called the worst parliamentary session in a decade, with the washout draining away Rs 190 crore of public funds, and that is a conservative estimate without taking into account the indirect losses suffered due to lack of House proceedings.

Little wonder that the BJP now sees merit in foregoing salaries (not that it will cause the MPs any financial distress) and fishing for a little credibility.

Suspended in a state of permanent dysfunction, both Houses are in danger of becoming irrelevant. As The Indian Express notes in a report, "The total time spent on a substantive motion like the no-trust motion has been all of 16 minutes over eight days."

The inability of Parliament to tide over these challenges permanently damages its credibility as the premier institution of representative democracy in India. As professors Devesh Kapur and Pratap Bhanu Mehta write in their paper  entitled The Indian Parliament as an Institution of Accountability, a structural change in Indian politics has reduced incentives for lawmakers to exhibit good parliamentary behaviour.

According to them, "Indian politics has become a lot more fractious and fragmented. In such an environment, the imperatives of electoral and party politics give politicians great incentives to delay important legislation just for the sake of delay. The delay in legislation does not mean that there is better qualitative improvement in legislation. It simply means that Parliament is more an Oppositional space rather than a forum for genuine debate."

While this may be great for politics, it isn't for democracy. There is now a fatigue and general disinterest among the wider public regarding parliamentary proceedings where important functions such as lawmaking, policy-making, debates have been replaced by theatrics. With China leading the way in showing that a country's growth need not be hampered, and in fact, can be fostered in an autocratic political system, a cynicism towards representative democracy is slowly finding favour among the wider public. A recent PEW Research survey, for instance, finds that half or more in India back autocratic and military rule.

Chart showing that half or more in India back autocratic and military rule

Congress MP Shashi Tharoor posits that there is only one way to break this deadlock: India should gradually move to the US presidential form of government from the British parliamentary system that may suit a small island but is unsuitable for a country as vast as India.

Tharoor opines that "we have legislators who are not interested in law-making but seek election to Parliament only in order to get into government. Parliamentary vulnerability to legislative majorities has also produced governments obliged to focus more on politics than on policy or performance, just to stay in power".

Which means politicians are forced to stay in permanent election mode instead of concentrating on governance.

There is much food for thought in this debate. In the short term though, the cynicism spreads. It cannot be good for democracy.


Updated Date: Apr 05, 2018 19:02 PM

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