Monday, May 21, 2012

Parliament: First years were glorious, then the warnings came true

Parliament's shastipoorti passed with no more than token celebrations – daylong sessions, a commemorative stamp and coin, some classical music, and that was it. It is no small achievement that democracy has survived in reasonable strength in our feudal and fractured society. But the threats we face are not small either which perhaps made muted celebrations more appropriate. After all, how exuberant can we get when honourable members of Parliament have to compete with dishonourable ones in both houses.

In their ceremonial speeches, MPs expressed pride in the legacy of 60 years. This was of course fully justified. But that pride was earned almost exclusively during the first quarter century of independence. That was when great parliamentarians like H. V. Kamath and Nath Pai, Inderjit Gupta and A. K. Gopalan graced the benches, not to mention senior leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru, G. B. Pant and Shyama Prasad Mukherjee. The standards of debate and dignity they maintained made India something of a marvel. Wit, too, reigned supreme. Piloo Modi would send a note across to “I.G.” and Indira Gandhi would send her reply addressed to “P.M.”.

Ironically, it was during the Indira years that pride began giving way to shame. Sanjay Gandhi, pampered as a son and feared as a politician, changed the goal posts with immunity. For the first time, India saw a public figure doing what he jolly well pleased in public life, with neither the Constitution, nor Parliament, nor the courts able to check him. He brought street culture into Parliament by introducing the tactic of shouting down opponents. That set a trend which continues to this day.

Perhaps our early mentors saw the possibility of rowdy elements capturing the system. Ambedkar had warned: However good a constitution, it was sure to turn out to be bad if those who were called to work it happened to be a bad lot. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan was sharper when he said: Our opportunities are great, but let me warn you that when power outstrips ability, we will fall on evil days.

What actually happened was worse. Not only did power outstrip ability; money outstripped power, and criminality outstripped money. The catastrophic impact of this fall in standards was there for the whole world to see. In 2005 eleven MPs were caught accepting cash for raising questions in Parliament. In 2008 three MPs displayed bundles of currency notes in the Lok Sabha claiming an attempt to bribe them.

A Parliament that has been reduced to this amoral level can have no claim on the legacy of the 1950s and 1960s. All that today's Parliament can claim is credit for forefeiting its heritage. Criticism of Parliament has become loud and widespread in recent years. MPs repeatedly proclaim that they are elected representatives of the people, but as a class they hardly command the respect of the people. This is because the “elected representatives” are less concerned with issues affecting the people and more with their own salary and allowances, their vast local area development funds, their travel privileges, red beacons on their cars and other ways of squeezing and browbeating the people.

And there is a serious issue of conflict of interests, too. The real work of Parliament is done at committee level. Parliamentary committees are powerful entities because their decisions often translate into policies. So what happens when Vijay Kingfisher Mallya is on the Parliamentary Committee on Civil Aviation? Will such committees protect citizens' interests as they are supposed to do, or end up protecting vested interests?

Some 128 members of the Lok Sabha are from the business class. Several high-end business leaders get into the Rajya Sabha. The problem inherent in this reality has been highlighted in a private member's bill seeking to stop the conflict of interests in the work of MPs. The bill “looks at the very root of corruption”, but will it have half a chance of getting passed? That question raises another, more vexing one: How do we get out of the evil days that Dr Radhakrishnan warned us about?