This Article is From Aug 12, 2015

Disrupting Parliament: How Much Is Enough?

For the last few weeks, the country has been treated to visuals of Parliament being disrupted on a daily basis. The House convenes, opposition members rush to the well of the House, the Speaker/Chairman/Deputy Chairman make an attempt to appeal to these protesting members, and then the House adjourns - only for the scene to be repeated as if on a perpetual loop. 

The Congress has clearly decided that the BJP is only reaping what it chose to sow while it was in opposition. Parliament lost entire sessions while the UPA was in office, almost always to protests designed to force the resignation of a scandal-tarnished minister. Opposition leaders at the time took pride in declaring that sessions could have been saved if these targeted ministers had been jettisoned earlier. Social media, especially Twitter, is proving to be a great source of ready quotes available to show how the same tactics were justified by people like Sushma Swaraj-ji when she was heading the opposition onslaught. Similarly, tweets by Shivraj Singh Chauhan, Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh, taking great pride in the BJP holding up the GST bill, are being circulated by social media supporters of opposition parties as justification for their actions today. 

Clearly, what goes around comes around.

Being the leader of a party recently voted in to opposition, I find myself asking to what extent do these tactics of disruption impress our voters? Do people watch these proceedings and silently applaud their representatives? Are the silent majority put off by what they see on their TV screens, or are they just not bothered one way or the other? Does the amount of money wasted on these sessions resonate anywhere?

I've spent time on both sides of the aisle in Parliament. I've been a minister for a few years, and I've been in the opposition too. I've never trooped in to the well, and to the best of my recollection I've never shouted down another member. I remember that as a Minister of State, I was always nervous about handling question hour on behalf of my Ministry. I distinctly remember the mixed emotions when Parliament was adjourned without Question Hour. There was the relief at having dodged the proverbial bullet, but there was also the acute sense of disappointment that all the preparatory work including briefing sessions with the officers was all for naught. 

A few months ago, we had the first session of the newly elected J&K assembly. It was unfamiliar territory for me, having spent my first term as a state legislator firmly entrenched as the leader of the treasury benches. Within a few days of the session starting, well-meaning journalists started to tell me how my party wasn't reconciled to a term in opposition, how we were a weak opposition party. What yardstick did they use for this profound judgement? A simple one - the fact that we were allowing the government to have its say in the House without any sort of disruption or noise. I thought of explaining to them how it was just wrong to try and shout down a government only recently formed. As far as they were concerned, no noise meant no opposition. 

So is the Congress right in spearheading the disruption of Parliament? Would the media, especially the TV channels, spend as much time discussing the victories scored with good arguments as they do discussing the constant stream of adjournments? I wish I had the correct answer to these questions because it would allow me to craft the perfect strategy as an opposition leader. I certainly do not see disruptive parties punished at the hustings. The NDA, especially the BJP, happily laid session after session to waste only to be rewarded with a majority all of their own in the General Election. 

In Jammu and Kashmir, the PDP spent a not inconsiderable amount of time in the state legislature disrupting proceedings, including having their President fling a mic off the Speaker's table, only to be rewarded with enough seats to head a Government in the state.

If voters aren't going to punish leaders and parties responsible for disrupting the business of the legislature, if well-informed opinion-makers are going to applaud adjournments, if the amount of money an MP or MLA takes home at the end of the day doesn't change, whether we do no work or twelve hours' worth that day, then where is the reason to change an established pattern?

Excuse me if I shed no tears for those who today suddenly wake up to sign a petition because the GST bill is held up, and they want to protest against the protests in Parliament. Either all disruption is bad, or it isn't. You can't suddenly wake up to the damage of the UPA's protests, all the while having remained completely silent to the NDA's protests. Outrage can't be selective based only on the type of legislation that is held up.

I'm still not convinced that there isn't a law of diminishing returns that will kick in at some point when further protests will only serve to alienate the very people these protests were designed to impress. The challenge is in deciding when enough is enough. The Monsoon session is a washout, no two ways about it. What will happen to the Winter Session? Will that be frozen out too? We lost this session to the demand for three resignations - no resignations, no session. It is abundantly clear that the PM has no intention whatsoever to eject these three people, regardless of how much working time Parliament loses. Logically, it would follow that the Winter Session will have to be disrupted as well, because otherwise why disrupt the Monsoon Session? But doesn't that risk pushing it to the point where the voter says "Enough is enough" and decides to punish rather than reward the ones doing the disrupting?

It's an impossibly difficult situation to judge, much like trying to catch the point at which a stock market bottoms out or hits its highest point. All I know is that I'm glad I'm not in Mrs Gandhi's position where I have to take that call.  

(Omar Abdullah is National Conference leader and former Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir)

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