Personally, I would much rather return to the decorum of yesteryear. But it seems such aimlessly wishful thinking to do so. That was an era of Inner Temple barristers and Oxbridge graduates who had learned political propriety from their Edwardian peers and were determined to show their erstwhile colonial masters that they were quite as adept as the Brits at Westminster's ways - and, therefore, deserved to be free. Members would come armed with Erskine May and even Communists like Hiren Mukherjee and Bhupesh Gupta would show off their rich research into British Parliamentary practice by citing David Lindsay Keir and Sir Ivor Jennings. Precedents from the House of Commons' Mr. Speaker's rulings would be invoked to score points of order and the proceedings were all very prim and propah. The Yamuna was deemed to flow as smoothly as the Thames.
This was already beginning to change a quarter century ago when I was first elected to the Lok Sabha in 1991. We had disruption but even George Fernandes could be brought to order in a couple of days. Question Hour and Zero Hour gave backbenchers an opportunity for participation. And because debates were not squeezed between bouts of shouting, there was time enough for everyone interested to have their say.
Then came several changes with the best of intentions. Television was brought into the premises. Later, TV crews were allowed, indeed encouraged, to flood the courtyard outside Parliament. It was assumed that being on camera would bring out the best in parliamentary behavior. In fact, it brought out the worst. For the cameras in the House encouraged demonstration in preference to debate. And the ready availability of TV at the doorstep meant the chief disrupters could close down the House, then rush out to the cameras and have their full say with millions watching and no one interrupting or rebutting. Parliamentary reporting from the Press gallery turned into the dullest item in the following day's papers. Where the Inder Malhotras and Prem Bhatias of half a century ago had made their names by reporting from the gallery, now the only time the gallery is full is when there is chaos in the House. The minute a normal, civilized debate begins, the Press galleries empty even faster than the backbenches.
And the masses love it. There can be few proceedings more boring than the legislative process. Apart from those who are speaking and those waiting to speak, Members retire almost en masse to Central Hall for coffee and gossip. The Press, for its part, quits the gallery to quietly swallow subsidized samosas and look elsewhere for scandal. To the extent reporters watch the proceedings at all, it is from the TV sets installed in the pressroom outside. I got more front-page coverage on being accused (falsely) by Sadhvi Uma Bharti for an "obscene gesture" than from all the reams of learned oratory that has poured out of my lungs in the last quarter century. "Bytes" and "breaking news" have destroyed more Parliamentary propriety than the Members themselves.
I repeat: the masses love it. No Member has been rejected by the electorate because he is a habitual disrupter. Indeed, I discovered I was something of a hero in Mayiladuturai because the Tamil papers had (wrongly) reported that I had moved in to punch in the nose a Member who had called me a "Pakistani agent". I had merely turned viciously on him to demand he apologize, but my constituents embellished the story of my physically menacing him to the point where I thought I might even win the next election! That is why I congratulate Rashtrapati Bhavan's Hindi translator who has rendered the President's Independence-eve description of Parliament as an "arena of combat" into "akhara", a wrestling-pit. Our people actually want to see Parliament as an akhara and reward the disruptionists with re-election. And our backbenchers, deprived of the opportunity of participating in meaningful debate because so little time is allotted for discussion, find themselves participating most meaningfully in the proceedings when they are in the Well of the House.
I think the Pratap Bhanu Mehtas need to recognize these ground sociological realities. Till the nineteenth century, boxing in England was an unregulated sport, a free for all, in which any limb could be used and any part of the anatomy could be targeted. Along came the Marquess of Queensbury and codified the rules of boxing. We thought the Queensbury Rules for Parliamentary practice could be easily transposed from London to Delhi. We are being proved wrong. There has to be an authentically vernacular idiom in which the Indian Parliament needs to be conducted. It may borrow something from foreign practice but until the Rules for the Akhara of Parliament are formulated, chaos will continue to rule.
That is not a pretty prospect, but it is only if the Rules of Business are recast to take into account the vernacularization of Indian Parliamentary practice that a semblance of order will descend on the House. We have to throw away the present book and hold a fresh convention of parliamentary leaders to rewrite the text so that when a "point of order" is raised, it does not become a prelude to disorder.
(Mani Shankar Aiyar is a Congress MP in the Rajya Sabha.)
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