Last Monday, I attended a cosy dinner in Delhi hosted by a visitor from Mumbai. The guests included two ministers, two ex-ministers, and four MPs from the Congress and two regional parties — a fairly representative slice of the English-speaking minusculity of the political class. Since it was the evening before the Monsoon Session, the conversation invariably veered towards the likely happenings in Parliament. That the Congress and its allies would disrupt proceedings was taken as read. The point of disagreement was on the extent of disruption. Would there be a light drizzle that would clear away after a week or so? Alternatively, would the entire session be completely washed out?
The likely answer, it was suggested, lay in the course of back channel negotiations. The Opposition, or so it was felt by some, was testing the Narendra Modi government’s resolve. But this was only a small part of the Congress design. The Prime Minister, it was felt, wouldn’t oblige those who wanted external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj’s head to roll. As for the two chief ministers in the eye of the storm, it was conceded that their fate couldn’t be decided by Parliament since it would violate every known federal principle and lead to the regional parties directing their fire against Congress hotheads.
The real objective of the Opposition, it so transpired from the good-natured banter of political rivals, was to dent the image of the Prime Minister and bring him down a notch or two. For the pragmatists in the Opposition camp, cutting Mr Modi down to size would signal the return of “normal” politics — by which is meant transactional politics — and bring to an end the frenzy of purposefulness that marked the first year of the National Democratic Alliance government.
If all political wisdom could be secured by interacting with the more clubbable members of India’s political elite, this column would have been all about the contrived drama of politics. It would have stressed that disruption of proceedings by trooping into the well of the House has become an Indian parliamentary convention, taking the place of adjournment motions and other procedural techniques available to the Opposition to both harass and embarrass the treasury benches.
At best, it would have stressed the fact that when an institution modelled on Westminster is imported into the dusty plains of Hindustan, a process of hybridisation and distortion is almost inevitable. If Indian English has acquired a momentum of its own, quite unrelated to the one deified in Fowler’s Modern English Usage, there is no earthly reason why the traditions of India’s Parliament should correspond to the procedures outlined in the weighty tome by Erskine and May.
It is for political scientists to study the paradox of growing citizen participation in the democratic process and the corresponding dysfunctionality of our legislatures, particularly Parliament. With Parliament increasingly becoming a hindrance to both law-making and governance — not because it demands executive accountability but because its tone is anti-discursive — it is pertinent to ask when (not if) an exasperated citizenry will press for a presidential system that disavows purposeless chatter and puerile disruption.
However, before we rush to throw the baby out with the bath water, it is pertinent to keep in mind the actual political developments that have led to parliamentary paralysis. If we keep in mind the fact that organised disruption as a political strategy originated in 2004 — earlier, walkouts were the general norm, although there were some well-publicised instances of hooliganism inside the legislatures — it would seem that the real fault lay not with MPs but with the leaders.
The Bharatiya Janata Party lost the 2004 election. However, rather than face up to reality and wait five years for another throw of the dice, it began its innings in the Opposition benches by introducing the culture of disruption. There is an uncharitable view that the first disruption was triggered by an astrological prediction that the newly-formed United Progressive Alliance would die prematurely. But even if this is discounted as idle chatter, there was some validity in the Congress-Left assertion that the BJP had failed to reconcile itself to the election defeat. In any event, it was the BJP’s cussedness between 2004 and 2009 that was a factor in its second consecutive election defeat in 2009. The disruptions persisted between 2009 and 2014 and it is my belief that had the BJP faltered over selecting Mr Modi as the new face, the outcome of the 2014 general election wouldn’t have been as conclusive.
The Congress, it would seem, is on the verge of committing a similar blunder. The belief that the party doesn’t have to re-examine its fundamentals, including addressing the leadership issue, and has to be uncompromising in its opposition to the Modi government seems to be driving the party into adventurism. The argument that the Congress is merely repaying the BJP with the same coin is valid if politics is viewed as a street brawl. But it fails to take into account the fact that every government is allowed a generous honeymoon by the electorate.
Whether this honeymoon has abruptly ended following media campaigns on the Vyapam scam and the shenanigans of Lalit Modi is an open question. However, even if the initial excitement over Mr Modi’s government has somewhat subdued, there is absolutely no evidence to indicate that the Congress is reclaiming its lost adherents. This may explain why the disruptionist course being pursued by the Congress in Parliament has greater support among its Rajya Sabha members rather than its Lok Sabha MPs.
Will this reality ensure that the drizzle isn’t converted into a total washout of Parliament? Leaders, particularly those who inherited a position on account of family links, are more susceptible than others to becoming victims of an echo chamber politics. I fear that this is what is driving the Congress at present. And just as the more sober BJP voices were disregarded between 2004 and 2014, there are not enough people to stick their necks out and tell the leadership that it has erred.
The writer is a senior journalist