Is India Ready For Gandhigiri

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The lowest common denominator in India’s Parliament, lung power, now predominates, as does physical violence and money power. How does one turn this around? The gracious Gandhigiri exercised by our parliamentarians of yore seems to be the only way forward, the only way to salvage our politics and our nation. BY R.C. RAJAMANI

It is difficult and futile to separate politics from parliament. Parliament is a natural adjunct of politics. After all parliamentary democracy has evolved from politics. So, some verbal violence with overtones of party politics on the hallowed floor of parliament is inescapable.

But, India’s parliament and state legislative assemblies have witnessed unseemly physical violence too in recent decades. Verbal violence, on the other hand, is the order of the day. Had Mahatma Gandhi, the apostle of peace, been alive today, he would have wondered if India had not got its freedom before it was ready or mature enough to enjoy parliamentary democracy which entails a great responsibility on the part of the people and their representatives.

TURMOIL, TURBULENCE

Against this dismal backdrop, some have argued what India’s parliament needs today is a heavy dose of Gandhigiri, a term that has come into vogue in recent times. It roughly means adherence to Gandhian ideals which include non-violence and truth. The term has come into popular use after the success of the 2006 Hindi film Lage Raho Munnabhai.

It is not that our parliament never witnessed Gandhigiri. It was very much there in the first decade or so after India began practising parliamentary democracy. The purpose of this piece is to see how it has gradually worn thin and to stress the imperative of a quick return to Gandhigiri.

The immediate provocation for this was the washout of the July-August monsoon session. It poured trouble, turmoil and turbulence from day one to the last day on August 13 when it mercifully ended, but in anger and acrimony. Little was salvaged at the end out of all that chaos, with the government and the opposition giving neither hope nor indication of reconciliation for future sessions.

It was nearly ‘no business four weeks’ with the Opposition Congress remaining unyielding in its demand for the resignations of External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje and her Madhya Pradesh counterpart Shivraj Singh Chouhan over the Lalitgate and Vyapam scams respectively. Things came to such a sorry pass that the Speaker Sumitra Mahajan, suspended 25 Congress MPs for five sittings for their ‘unruly, undemocratic’ behaviour.

The debate on the Lalit Modi issue on the penultimate day in the Lok Sabha, was also marred by constant slogan shouting, highly personalized attacks and frequent disruptions as the Congress and BJP members turned it into a no-holds barred showdown.

Things were worse in the Rajya Sabha which did not even discuss the issue, though some members gave notices for a debate. The Congress declared that there would be no discussion without resignations of the ministers concerned. There was no real cut and thrust but total lack of decorum and grace in the debate. Sound and fury submerged reasoned argument. And the tragic irony was that most members were smug, having made a wise crack or two at the cost of their opponents. Crude personal remarks do not make a debate.

It was estimated that the Lok Sabha’s productivity was 48 per cent while that of the Rajya Sabha, a measly nine per cent. Question hour functioned for 52 per cent of its scheduled time in the Lok Sabha, and a tragic one per cent in the Rajya Sabha, which is supposed to be the house of the elders and hence of sober heads.

Eight of the nine planned bills were introduced but only one of the 12 planned bills could be passed. The Rajya Sabha lost over 82 hours due to interruptions, the Lok Sabha lost over 34 hours. In the end, government’s efforts to pass the GST Bill and the Land Bill were frustrated.

PIONEERS OF GANDHIGIRI

It is not that we do not have serious minded members with proven debating skills. The truth is such members are being swamped by those with lung power, who do not believe in the logic of orderly discussion. The serious minded members may not add up to more than 100 to 150.

There were parliamentary giants in the initial years. Among them were Acharya Kriplani, H.V. Kamath, T A Pai, Jyotirmoy Basu, Joachim Alva, A K Gopalan, N G Ranga, Minoo Masani, Piloo Modi, Indrajit Gupta and others. Of course, there was Jawaharlal Nehru, G.B. Pant and Shyama Prasad Mukherjee as well. They maintained high standards of debate and dignity. Wit and delightful repartees marked debates. Courtesy and culture were pronounced in relations between members.

It is said that Indira Gandhi and Piloo Modi, who were bitter political rivals and unremitting in their criticism of each other, enjoyed rare personal rapport. When the House was conducting business, Modi would send a note to Indira Gandhi addressed to ‘I.G.’ She would mark ‘P.M.’ in her return note.

Subhash C. Kashyap, former secretary general of Lok Sabha and a known authority on parliamentary practice, recalled a few more instances in a newspaper article a few years ago. “There were times when our Parliament could legitimately boast of having some very outstanding and accomplished parliamentarians who could do honour to any parliament in the world,” he wrote.

Once when a member drew the attention of the venerable socialist Acharya Kripalani, to the fact that he was running down the Congress Party which had attracted his own wife to its side, the sharp witted Acharya retorted: “All these years I thought Congressmen were stupid fools. I never knew they were gangsters too who ran away with others’ wives.”The whole house roared with laughter.

“When Dr. Ram Manohar Lohia was pleading for Stalin’s daughter Svetlana, that she be given asylum in India since she was married to an Indian, the charming lady member Tarkeshwari Sinha pointed out that when Dr. Lohia was not married how could he talk of conjugal sentiments? Dr. Lohia hit back: “Tarkeshwari, when did you give me any chance.

“Later, on one occasion, the heavy-weight member Piloo Mody, was accused of showing disrespect to the chair by speaking with his back to the Speaker. Mody defended himself by saying ‘Sir, I have neither front, nor back, I am round.’

Such wit and humour is the most effective instrument for managing tensions and keeping tempers cool. Of late, it has largely disappeared from the Houses of Parliament, bemoans Kashyap. In the early years, high quality and character marked the membership on both sides.

The Lok Sabha was having a heated debate in the wake of the Sino-Indian war of 1962. Members were agitated about the loss of Aksai Chin to the Chinese forces. Making light of the reverse, Prime Minister Nehru remarked, “not a single blade of grass grows there.” MahavirTyagi, a senior Congress leader, pointed to his bald head, quipped, “Nothing grows here. Does it mean it can be chopped off? Even a sad and dejected Nehru could not help enjoying the repartee.

Once in the days of provisional parliament while rejecting an amendment moved by Rajaji, Nehru said: “You see Rajaji, the majority is with me”. Rajaji retorted: “Yes, Jawaharlal, the majority is with you but the logic is with me”. Nehru laughed with the House and accepted Rajaji’s amendment.

WHEN STANDARDS FELL

The rot started from 1971 when the House saw many members elected on money power rather than for their qualities of head and heart. The days of ‘Aaya Rams and Gaya Rams” had also begun, particularly in state assemblies. Parliament also saw their presence, though on a much smaller scale. Defectors were rewarded and they enjoyed an open field. All this changed the character of parliament for the worse. Of course, defection has become a thing of the past with the enactment of the anti-defection law in the mid 1980s.

Dr. Ambedkar had warned in the early days that however good a Constitution may be, but it was sure to turn out bad if those who were called to work it happened to be a bad lot. Philosopher President Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan was more forthright when he said: “Our opportunities are great, but let me warn you that when power outstrips ability, we will fall on evil days.”

The ruinous result of the decline in the stock of the lawmakers came to be seen in many an unseemly episode witnessed on the floor of parliament in later years. In 2005, eleven MPs were caught receiving cash for raising questions in Parliament. In 2008, three MPs rained bundles of currency notes on the floor in the Lok Sabha, claiming these were bribes for them to vote in favour of the then government facing a trust vote.

Thus, pessimism towards parliamentary institutions and erosion in the esteem of parliamentary processes and the parliamentarians was inevitable. Sadly, little attempt has been made to evolve a programme to promote discipline, character and probity in public life of the lawmaker. Needless to stress that it was time Gandhigiri returned to our parliament to make it a true temple of democracy.

It was estimated that the Lok Sabha’s productivity was 48 per cent while that of the Rajya Sabha, a measly nine per cent. Question hour functioned for 52 per cent of its scheduled time in the Lok Sabha, and a tragic one per cent in the Rajya Sabha, which is supposed to be the house of the elders and hence of sober heads

Little attempt has been made to evolve a programme to promote discipline, character and probity in public life of the lawmaker. Needless to stress that it was time Gandhigiri returned to our parliament to make it a true temple of democracy

What India’s parliament needs today is a heavy dose of Gandhigiri, a term that has come into vogue in recent times. It roughly means adherence to Gandhian ideals which include non-violence and truth

THOSE WHO STOOD OUT

There were a number of members who caught the eye for their conduct in the 16th Lok Sabha. Of the BJP members notable were Kirti Azad, Nishikant Dubey and Anurag Thakur. Of the Congress members, those who stood out were Deepinder Hooda, Jyotiraditya Scindia and Shashi Tharoor; Harsimrat Kaur Badal of the Akalis; E.T. Mohammed Basheer Muslim League; P Karunakaran CPI; Bhartruhari Mahtab and Baijayant “Jay” Panda, both BJD; N K Premchandran RSP; Mohammad Salim and Anirudhan Sampath, both CPI-M; Supriya Sule of NCP; Saugata Roy and Dinesh Trivedi, both Trinamool Congress; and P Venugopal and T G Venkatesh Babu, both AIADMK.

The list is not exhaustive but only typical or representative. Some highly deserving members may have been inadvertently omitted. There has been alarming erosion of talent and calibre in the Rajya Sabha, that once boasted of serious minded, scholarly and diligent members. Such members in the present House who readily spring to mind are Sitaram Yechury, CPI-M, D Raja, CPI, Jairam Ramesh and Mani Shankar Aiyyar, both Congress and Tiruchi N Siva, DMK.

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