Parliament disruptions: What has become of the Rajya Sabha, laments JD(U) MP Harivansh

Nearly two-and-a-half years ago, in June 2014, I received the honour to serve as a Member of the the Rajya Sabha, courtesy the Janata Dal (U) and its leader Nitish Kumar.

I often see photographs of former Members and Chairmen, including of Dr S Radhakrishnan, Dr Zakir Husain, R Venkatraman and others on the walls of the hallowed corridors. I try to identify the faces of Bhupesh Gupta, Chandrashekhar, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Pilu Modi, Era Seziyan and many more whose enlightened, informed and excellent interventions and debates left a sharp influence and probed our conscience during my younger days. The ideological debates in Parliament inspired many of us to dream for the country and to stand for the values that had shaped independent India.

These photos on the walls of the Rajya Sabha, from where emanates the power of democracy, often haunt me. It has been particularly difficult these last few days to get past those photos.Till 1 December (15th day since the commencement of the Winter Session) no business has been allowed to occur in the House except on the first day when a good debate took place in the Rajya Sabha over demonetisation. Regular disruptions, chaos and high-pitched slogan shouting have resulted in complete pandemonium in the House. The continuous ruckus usually leads to the suspension of the House proceedings and, sadly, it has become a regular feature. I ask myself: is this the only alternative left to us to address the genuine grievances of the public, the states and the nation?

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I have witnessed the Chairman and Deputy Chairman trying their best to run the House smoothly and peacefully; yet a sense of helplessness persists — I must acknowledge the efforts of the Deputy Chairman, Prof PJ Kurien. He is often on his toes, pleading with members to exercise calm and allow the House to function. However, members in the well pay no heed to his words. I have great sympathy and respect for Prof Kurien and envy his patience, calmness, wit, humour, and above all, his commitment to run the House. The unabated slogan shouting disrupts normal activity and he is often forced to adjourn the House. I introspect at such moments, recalling that this is the Upper House of distinguished leaders and statesmen and valuable contributors to society. In the Constituent Assembly debates, the Rajya Sabha was envisioned as a House for reflective and evaluative reasoning detached from the ordinary, mundane and routine engagements of everyday life.

N Gopalswami Ayyangar termed it as a House which may rein in the, “passion of the moment” as reflective moment. Several members of the Constituent Assembly favoured a second chamber, as they believed that erudite members of this Rajya Sabha would be above the narrow and parochial political boundaries of the Lok Sabha. These members of the Rajya Sabha would be able to view legislations more dispassionately, and thus enhance the efficacy of the overall process of law making. I am also reminded of Lok Nath Mishra who described this House as “a sobering House, a reviewing House, a House standing for quality and the members will be exercising their right to be heard on the merits of what they say, for their sobriety and knowledge of special problems; quantity, that is, their number, is not much of moment”.

M Ananthasayanam Ayyangar found this House to be a platform of reflective consideration: “the genius people who may have full play, and it can make place for people who may not be able to win popular mandate.”

Dr Radhakrishnan stressed the significance of the RS and stated, “There is a general impression that this House cannot make or unmake governments and, therefore, it is a superfluous body. But there are functions which a revising chamber can fulfil fruitfully. We are for the first time starting, under the new parliamentary system, with a Second Chamber in the Centre, and we should try to do everything in our power to justify to the public of this country that a Second Chamber is essential to prevent hasty legislation. We should discuss with dispassion and detachment proposals put before us.”

Its late chairman Krishan Kant in his foreword to the book Emergence of Second Chamber in India had foreseen the possibility of a stalemate that our current parliamentary system is facing. He wrote, “the majority-minority party equation in the Council of States (Rajya Sabha) changes at a much slower pace than in the Lok Sabha. There may be occasions when a party enjoying a majority in both the Houses is reduced to a minority during an election in the Lower House, but remains a majority in the Rajya Sabha. Some experts argue that this position is an anomaly because it derogates from the theory of mandate, which holds that popular mandate, at any given time, gives to the winning majority an untrammeled right to initiate legislations germane to that mandate. The need to carry the opposition majority in the Upper House is, by inference, an anomalous provision. There is the added danger, that the Opposition in the Upper House can use its majority to embarrass the government of the day.”

Our great leaders in the past assured that during stalemates, senior leaders of the political parties will engage in consensus building. Have we failed? Again I quote N Gopalaswami Ayyangar. While moving the motion for a second chamber (RS), he said in the Constituent Assembly: “After all, the question for us to consider is whether it performs any useful function. The most that we expect the second chamber to do is perhaps to hold dignified debates on important issues and to delay legislations which might be the outcome of passions of the moment until the passions have subsided and calm consideration could be bestowed on the measures which will be before the legislature; and we shall take care to provide in the Constitution that whatever on any important matter, particularly matters relating to finance, there is a conflict between the House of the People and the Council of States, it is the view of the House of the People that shall prevail. Therefore, what we may really achieve by the existence of this second chamber is only an instrument by which we delay action which might be hastily conceived and we also give an opportunity, perhaps to seasoned people who may not be in the thickest of the political fray, but who might be willing to participate in the debate with an amount of learning and importance which we do not ordinarily associate with a House of People."

This is what our sagacious leaders, our Constitution makers thought of the role of the RS. It is the sacred duty of all members of this House to maintain and carry forward this distinguished legacy. When I see the Deputy Chairman helplessly pleading with members and then adjourning the House time and again, I stare at the Visitors Gallery asking myself how I would respond to public queries about these successive adjournments.

Our great leaders as the architects of the world’s largest democracy have taught us that dissent and disagreement are non-negotiable democratic values. But even with our differences and dissent, dialogue is essential without which, people’s faith in the system can easily erode.

I entered this House with a dream to debate issues pertinent to our country. Joblessness or the era of jobless growth is the biggest challenge that the country is facing today. Since globalisation itself faces serious contestations , I often ask myself whether our economic growth model has failed. I am eager to hear the enlightened debates/views of this House in the same spirit that I heard the debate on the GST Bill, in my view one of the best debates in RS so far – it debate was marked by eloquence, knowledge and full participation of members, above party lines and narrow partisan politics, keeping in view the interest and future of the country.

Today I feel agitated about several vital issues which need to be looked into earnestly and dispassionately. Many other members of the RS may share my views and sentiments. For instance, the most recent Indore-Patna rail accident must be discussed. It is important to note that approximately 3,000 railway bridges are more than 100 years old, 32 of these 3,000 have been classified as “distressed bridges” but their usage beyond their lifetime is not considered to be a serious issue. Indian railway tracks are hugely congested; some of the sections are running either at 100 percent or above of its carrying capacity. For example, in the Mughalsarai-Ghaziabad section, a train leaves the originating section every two minutes. This high density of train movement not only highlights the superhuman efforts of the railway employees but also underscores the pathetic situation of our railway infrastructure. The serious governance issues are not limited to railways alone but they have spread to the whole of our civil and defense transport and logistic infrastructure, urban development, defense preparedness, law and order, employment generation and to every other aspect of social, economic and cultural lives of our citizens. We have adopted this chalta hai or'jugaad approach and in the last few decades this attitude has landed us in a serious trap.

I am at a loss to comprehend why these questions do not emerge as the most pressing matters in our Parliamentary debates.

We must dig deep, find the causes and suggest remedial measures. It seems the whole infrastructure has collapsed. Even the precarious financial position of the railways (a major part of their finances is taken up by salaries and pensions) needs to be debated thoroughly.

The situation on our borders after the surgical strikes against Pakistan needs to be discussed. The attacks against our soldiers continue as unabated cross border terrorism poses grave threats to the country. I feel pained and anguished when I read about how China has encircled us, having established ports in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Burma. Tibet is yet to acquire autonomy, and with each passing day it appears that its distinct cultural, social, religious identity is being subsumed within the dominant Han Chinese racial and cultural practices. In recent times the Chinese army has decided to safeguard and operate the Gwadar port in Pakistan. China and Pakistan have also launched a direct rail and sea freight service between Kunming and Karachi.

Russia is also warming up to Pakistan and US President elect Donald Trump has assured Nawaz Sharif of his cooperation and support. China has extended its influence in Central and South East Asia.

These issues bother me and I am sure also agitate the minds of other members as well.

The modernisation of the army needs to be discussed; we must initiate large-scale and fundamental reforms to our administrative, police and bureaucratic framework. The working conditions of paramilitary forces need to be debated at length.

The tussle between the judiciary and executive has been on the rise in the recent past. It is a serious confrontation that may well precipitate a constitutional crisis.

I have been equally disturbed when I see or read how our defence personnel guarding our borders are attacked and media headlines scream “lessons not learnt from past mistakes”.

The issue of climate change needs to be addressed. Delhi’s pollution problem and air quality is a matter of grave concern.

The on-going developments at Nalanda University need to be discussed.

Representational image. PTI

Representational image. PTI

The jailbreak in Nabha, Punjab had been meticulously planned. It was a high security jail from where the Khalistan Liberation Force chief was able to escape. It is being alleged that there was a deal of Rs 50 lakh for making this jailbreak possible. There is an urgent need to discuss all these serious issues and find long lasting solutions.

Next year will be the one that marks the centenary of the Champaran Satyagrah, which gave a new direction to the anti-colonial struggle in India and an enduring political legacy to the world. It is the duty of the government and the opposition as well to discuss how the country should commemorate this momentous occasion and revisit the ideals of the satyagrah.

Being a witness to such anarchic scenes in the House, I recall my old friends who believed in the Naxal ideology and always had derogatory adjectives for our democratic system. Those days we would debate for hours to convince them about the democratic virtues of our Parliamentary debates.

This is clearly a question of governance and efficiency. This government was elected on the promise of providing an efficient and effective administration which is responsive to the aspirations of the country. But time and again whenever there have been attacks, there are headlines questioning the efficiency of the government. Responsibility must be fixed. This country has a great tradition of quality and moral leadership; resignations were tendered even for minor incidents by taking moral responsibility. Do our Ministers introspect their utterancess, roles, efficiency and governing capacity?

We are familiar with the axiom that time and tide wait for nobody. The world is changing at an unprecedented pace and there are multiple anxieties and insecurities. If such serious issues are not debated even at a time when the duration of the Parliament session has been gradually shortened since Independence, then what future do we promise to the younger generation? We owe something to our great leaders who sacrificed their lives for this country and gave us this House so that our democratic traditions can remain vibrant and inspire the future generations.
I have been asking myself why a silent member like me (and there are many silent members in all parties in RS who adhere to rules and procedures and completely respect the words and instructions of the Chair) remains unheard. How do we, who do not rush to the well of the House, navigate through this crisis, restore our faith in the great parliamentary traditions of this country?

There is a demand now that the Prime Minister should sit through the discussions on demonetisation. It was reminded by a senior Congress leader that when the 2G scam broke out in 2013, the same BJP wanted the then Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh to remain present in the House during the entire debate. There is a widely acknowledged saying that as you sow, so shall you reap. The BJP is facing the same past karmas. But it is my view that the Congress has been a party of great leaders which include Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel and many others known for their magnanimity and vision. They would not have appreciated the current discourse and disruptions. The Congress leaders often make us feel that they have the monopoly over Gandhi's legacy. Gandhi had once said that an eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind. It is a great opportunity for the Congress to offer a lesson on good parliamentary behavior to the BJP by allowing the House to run smoothly.

We must appreciate the PM’s position as the head of the government, while demanding his continuous presence in the House as we desire. It is possible that his presence is needed elsewhere than at the Parliament always. However, the PM should also find time at regular intervals to be present in the House when important issues are being debated. There should be a full-fledged debate on demonetisation with a particular focus on black money, benami properties, bullion and gold, real estate, drugs and even prohibition. It must be reiterated that there is a direct connection between the black money and the liquor and drug mafia. More than 40 committees have been constituted in the past to deal with the problem of black money but without success.

The Indian bicameral parliamentary system may find comparable legislative set up around the world and it would be quite informative to compare the functioning of the Indian parliament with the systems abroad. In the United Kingdom the members of parliament have a right to be heard without overwhelming background noise, and unparliamentary language is not allowed. In the British House of Commons, when grave disorder breaks out, the speaker has the power to suspend or to adjourn the sitting. That power was exercised very few times and was enforced last time in 2004. In the House of Lords, unworthy conduct by Members has hardly ever been reported. In the entire history of the United States Congress, 20 Members have been expelled: fifteen from the Senate and five from the House of Representatives. All these expulsions have been triggered by political reasons, treason charges or scandals, hardly for bad behaviour or disrupting the Congressional procedures. In the Australian Parliament the Speaker can direct a disorderly member to withdraw from the House for one hour. However, if a member fails to leave the Chamber immediately or continues to behave in a disorderly manner they may be named and the House can then suspend them.

I come from a party which draws from the legacy of Gandhi, Lohia, Jai Prakash and is presently headed by Nitish Kumar who has been in public life for the last four decades. He has held many distinguished posts at the centre and has been the Chief Minister of Bihar for the last 11 years (except the tenure of Jitan Ram Majhi for a brief period). There is intra-party democracy in the JD (U) and Kumar gives opportunities to all its members to raise people's concerns. It may be worth mentioning that, following his example, none of the members from JD (U) has indulged in creating ruckus or pandemonium in either of the two houses of the parliament.

I ask myself every day before I head to the Rajya Sabha about what I would do in the House. As an MP how do I repay the people for the privileges and facilities I enjoy if I am not able to raise their issues in the House? Is it not an unnecessary and unacceptable burden on the exchequer if we are not able to raise the problems of the people in the House? I can only hope that the great parliamentary traditions of this country are restored and as Members of this privileged House we recognise our responsibilities and accountability to the people of this great country.

(The author is a JD(U) member of Rajya Sabha. Views expressed here are personal)

Updated Date: Dec 07, 2016 17:51 PM

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