Debate, yes; confrontation, no

S Madhusudhana Rao

Often, India is described as the largest functional democracy in the world. The tag has been stamped, and endorsed, by successive American presidents for whom it’s a catch phrase to heap praise on this country. Indeed, it is, when compared to other countries surrounding us. The real meaning of ‘functional’ sinks into our minds when we look at the chaos, bedlam and shouting matches that have become hallmarks of parliamentary sessions.

The first thought that crosses an observer’s mind is how can the lawmakers, irrespective of their political affiliations, representing a billion plus population, behave like unruly schoolchildren in a classroom? Individually, many of these honourable members of parliament are intellectuals in their own way but collectively their intellect goes for a toss when they are sharpening their knives to attack the ruling party.

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S. Madhusudhana Rao

One could argue, in defence of raucous debates and unruly behaviour of members, that it’s the sign of our vibrant democracy: Sound and fury, with few results at the end. Contrast it with the mother of all parliaments, Westminster, where members rarely give a free reign to their base emotions; if they have to lash out at the ruling party, the opposition takes euphemistic cover. It’s a question of decorum and decency, and the legacy of centuries-old system which we have adopted.

Six decades later, with minor modifications, the system, despite its inherent flaws and drawbacks, is proving resilient in a country that elects lawmakers largely on the basis of caste and creed rather than on merit. After having legitimized the political expediency to make the Indian Westminster model work as a ‘functional democracy’ it often faces a threat of becoming ‘dysfunctional.’  The last few months of UPA government’s tenure was marred by opposition protests in and outside of parliament. By that time scams of mega proportions had started rocking the Manmohan Singh government. For the main opposition party BJP, Congress-led coalition government was game.

A year later, with the reversal of roles, Congress is preparing to turn the tables on the saffron party at the monsoon session of parliament opening tomorrow (Tuesday). The ammunition is ready in the form of Sushma Swaraj-Vasundhara Raje-Lalit Modi links and the mysterious deaths and government jobs-college admissions scam in BJP-ruled Madhya Pradesh. Topping them is Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s silence despite opposition clamour to open his mouth and demands for the resignation of two chief ministers and one key union cabinet minister.

More significant is, for the first time after Congress’s ignominious defeat in Lok Sabha polls in 2014, the party without an official status of opposition in parliament, has found a gunner in Rahul Gandhi. The young Congress vice-president, fully charged after his political sabbatical, has already fired the first salvo saying the House will not be allowed to function (over the contentious Land Acquisition Bill).

Addressing farm leaders and his party men in Jaipur last week, Rahul hit out at the way the Modi government had resorted to ordinance method to introduce laws. Referring to the land acquisition laws the BJP government has been struggling to pass, Rahul thundered, “It lacked guts to enact through the parliament. The 56-inch-chest will be reduced to a 5.6-inch-chest; this will be done by the people of Hindustan. Not an inch of farmers’ land will get acquired. We will not let these (bills) get passed in the parliament.”

It’s a different matter whether Rahul is now talking street language or playing to the gallery to grab public and party leaders’ attention to prove he graduated to plunge into the rough and tumble of politics. But the message is clear: With just 44 seats in the Lok Sabha and 65 in the Rajya Sabha, Rahul is going to take on formidable BJP and its leader Modi in the monsoon session.

It will be good to see him speak up since a healthy democracy needs strong opposition. But it doesn’t mean adopting an obstructionist policy or denouncing everything what the government wants to do to fulfill an agenda or settling political scores on the floor of the House. On many occasions, BJP had done the same under the stewardship of LK Advani, creating a situation where it had become a tug of war between ruling Congress and opposition BJP. The result was an impasse and waste of time and taxpayers’ money. If such a situation returns, for whatever reason, the monsoon session will be a washout. While the elected representatives engage themselves in testing their vocal power, the people will remain mute witnesses to verbal duels in the House. We, the people, are losers.

There is nothing wrong in venting out one’s own or party’s views in parliamentary democracy. A healthy functioning of the system can be ensured only when different opinions are coalesced. That is possible only when the ruling class and its opponents allow respective members to express their opinions without indulging in slanging matches or personal attacks.

 As it is said, “your opinion is valuable, but I have the right to dissent,” is applicable to both sides in politics. Shunning the other view and suppressing dissent is not the spirit of democracy, nor is it in the best interest of upholding the values of an institution that is expected to represent the will of the people and fulfill their dreams of a prosperous nation. By stalling the legislative proceedings, be at the national or state level, nobody achieves anything except boosting one’s ego.

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