Why are people losing faith in elected representatives?
Posted February 9, 2010on:
Lok Sabha Speaker Meira Kumar did not exactly make a revelation when she said that the standard of the legislatures in the country had deteriorated and confrontation was taking the place of debate and discussion. Inaugurating the conference of the presiding officers of the legislatures — held in Bhopal after two decades — she stressed the need for self-assessment to find out why the aspirations of the people from the law-making bodies were not being fulfilled. The presiding officers of 36 legislatures participated.
The participants generally agreed that the people were losing faith in the elected representatives. Some thought the members indulged in unruly behaviour in the House to make headlines in the media while others thought the standard of the legislatures was declining as good people were not coming forward to contest elections. The gradual reduction in the number of sittings was also cited as one of the causes because it deprived many a member of an opportunity to have his or her say in the House. These, though, are not the only — even the most important — reasons.
Those who have covered legislatures (this writer has done it in several States) have seen that the decline of the law-making bodies has much to do with the behaviour of the presiding officer. The Speaker of the Assembly has, over the years, been behaving more like a retainer of the ruling party than even its leader; forget the fact that he is expected to be as objective as possible in conducting the proceedings of the House. This is true irrespective of the party in power.
If the Speaker is partisan, the virus easily spreads to the treasury benches. The questions, inconvenient to the ruling party members or influential supporters of the ruling party, are rejected, delayed or put in the unstarred category where supplementaries are not permissible. The calling attention notices are also similarly treated. Notices (generally submitted by the ruling party members) which allow a minister to harp on some government propaganda are given precedence over the notices which can put the government in the dock for its acts of omission and commission. Motions of adjournment, which are on a matter of urgent public importance, are delayed or even rejected if these are likely to embarrass the government. The motions on matters of urgent public importance under other rules of the conduct of business meet a similar cavalier attitude at the hands of the Speaker and his secretariat.
Under the protection of a partisan Speaker, the ministers resort to dilatory tactics instead of giving straight and honest answers to the members’ queries. In the “question book”, question after question is appended with this legend: “the information is being collected”. This seems an insult to the elected members in this age of fast communication and keeping in view the fact that the questions have to be submitted several days before these are expected to be taken up in the House.
This naturally breeds frustration among the opposition members who then indulge in what is not expected of them: shouting, throwing away the Assembly papers, creating ruckus, sitting on a dharna on the floor of the House or even surrounding the Speaker’s podium. The ruling party members, who are more in numbers, are only too happy to join the game. There is then perfect chaos in the House. Often the Speaker declares important legislations passed in the midst of this hullabaloo. Those sitting in the press gallery are only too happy to report the disruptions, but they don’t create it.
Even the veteran BJP leader, Atal Behari Vajpayee, had once felt so frustrated that he wanted to quit parliamentary life. He had himself made this confession at a conclave of parliamentarians held in Bhopal 18 years ago. He said that he had been connected with parliament since 1957 but now he sometimes found it impossible to sit in parliament because of what was happening there. The danger to India’s democracy, he had warned, was not from outside but from within, from the behaviour of the people’s elected representatives.
Vajpayee had appealed to the political parties to evolve a consensus on at least two points: the question hour in parliament or in legislatures shall not be touched and the customary address by the president or a governor shall not be disturbed. The governors discharge only their constitutional obligations by addressing the sessions even though they may be reading the address prepared by the government of the day. “We can abolish the practice of such addresses by changing the constitution. But so long as the provision is there, we should protect the dignity of the office of the president and the governor”. The question hour, he said, was the occasion when the opposition could put the government in the dock.
Vajpayee, and his party, could have set an example to ensure responsible behaviour from the BJP members where the party was in opposition and from the Speakers and treasury benches in the States ruled by the BJP. Nothing of the sort was done. Rather, what gave a hypocritical touch to Vajpayee’s pontification on parliamentary (and legislative) decorum (at the Bhopal conclave 18 years ago) was his defence of Lal Krishna Advani who would stand up and vociferously demand scrapping of the Question Hour because, Vajpayee said, other opposition members were doing it.