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Salvaging an Endangered Institution

One discerns a growing class and cultural gap between the Members of Parliament and members of the legislative assembly of the first three decades following independence and the "elected representatives" who have come to state legislatures and Parliament during the last two decades or so. There is a dire need to restore the moral credibility of Parliament, which has become an endangered institution today.


Salvaging an EndangeredInstitution

One discerns a growing class and cultural gap between theMembers of Parliament and members of the legislative assembly ofthe first three decades following independence and the “electedrepresentatives” who have come to state legislatures andParliament during the last two decades or so. There is a dire needto restore the moral credibility of Parliament, which has become

an endangered institution today.


mong the many uncharitable remarks made by Lenin, perhaps the most unfair was his description of bourgeois Parliament as a “pigsty”. Pigs are certainly better behaved, and – if they spoke our language – would have protested against being equated with parliamentarians. Judging by the submissive nature of their herd, one can even speculate that the pig family in India would have come out in New Delhi’s Parliament Street in a peaceful procession and voiced their protest without breaking the police cordon, and would have strictly adhered to the norms laid down by Rule 380 of the Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business in the Lok Sabha, by refraining from using words that were “defamatory or indecent or unparliamentary or undignified”.

Since the speaker, under the above rule, can expunge such words from the recorded proceedings of the Lok Sabha (following which they cannot be reported in newspapers), ordinary Indian citizens were deprived of the entertainment that they could have enjoyed by reading the uncensored reports of the proceedings of the Lok Sabha on Thursday, August 24, 2006. They had to remain content only with the pictures of the belligerent parliamentarians gesticulating against each other, and imagine the expletives that must have been used by them. As luck would have it, they were even denied the opportunity of watching a live telecast of those memorable scenes to be able to hear the choicest four-letter words that were exchanged between their elected representatives, as the telecast was abruptly stopped immediately after the speaker Somnath Chatterjee adjourned the House and walked out after failing to restore order. While the public missed a view of the ‘tamasha’ in Parliament, the main actors of the drama, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and the Janata Dal (United) – the JD (U) – managed to monopolise Parliament with their mutual recriminations over Bihar politics, accompanied by a body language and verbal rhetoric that carried the stink of street brawls. It looks as if the marshals may soon have to replace the honourable speaker in conducting the business of the Lok Sabha.

Cultural Gap

But beyond the immediate feelings of revulsion that have been generated by the events of “8/24” (if one may use that term

– since Indian journalists are fond of the Americanism that reverses the hitherto accepted order of the calendar), there are certain serious concerns looming behind the events of that day, and a number of important lessons to be learnt from them. They suggest not only a generation gap, but a growing class and cultural gap between the Members of Parliament (MPs) and members of the legislative assembly (MLAs) of the first three decades following independence on the one hand, and the “elected representatives” who have come to state legislatures and Parliament during the last two decades or so, on the other. I am sure serious studies must have been made of the changing socio-economic profile of MPs and MLAs over this period.

But purely at gut level, from my experiences as a newspaper reporter of parliamentary proceedings from the late 1960s to the end of the 1980s (with a gap of four years from 1973 to 1977), I may venture to offer my impressions of the transformation that had taken place.

I think there were two major watersheds in the history of the Lok Sabha. The first was in 1967, when the 15-year-old twothirds majority of the Congress came to an end. The newly elected opposition members who entered the fourth Lok Sabha came to embody formidable debating abilities and skills. I remember listening to old stalwarts among the communists like Hiren Mukherjee and Indrajit Gupta, as well as a new inductee, the maverick Jyotirmoy Bosu (elected as a CPI-M candidate), who introduced a bouncing spirit in the hitherto dry debates – without sacrificing his parliamentary duty of collecting data to support his arguments. I loved the raw Hindi outré comments made by the Socialist MPs – the battle-scarred veteran Rammanohar Lohia and his young disciple Madhu Limaye, whom I remember as a restless soul ardently searching for unity among the Left. At the other end of the pole was the Right, best represented by the eloquent Minoo Masani (known for his felicitous phrases) and Piloo Modi (reputed for his often outrageous sense of humour) of the Swatantra Party. Even the Jan Sangh (the precursor of today’s BJP)

  • never known for any intellectual flair
  • threw up good speakers (in the Rajya Sabha) like Bhai Mahavir and Sundersingh Bhandari. To be frank, compared to them, their party’s representative in the Lok Sabha, A B Vajpayee in those days ended up as a poor second. Although much is being made of his so-called oratory by today’s generation of media people, he had never been anything more than a tubthumper, and failed to make any significant mark on the proceedings of Parliament, which at that time were judged by the strict yardstick of argumentative oratorical powers supported by meticulous homework by the MPs. I would advise the Vajpayee fans among today’s Parliament reporters to visit the library in Parliament House, dig up the old records of the proceedings of the fourth Lok Sabha, and compare the speeches made by him with
  • Economic and Political Weekly September 9, 2006 those delivered by members of his peer group. But that apart, what marked the performance of the MPs of the fourth Lok Sabha – both of the ruling Congress and the opposition – was a common adherence to the basic norms of parliamentary debate, and a sense of awareness of the line between the responsible exercise of the Right to freedom of speech and unrestricted licence of speech within the walls of the House.

    This consensus began to erode with the Constitution of the seventh Lok Sabha in January 1980 – the second watershed in the history of Indian Parliament that inaugurated a process of devaluation of the old conventional parliamentary norms. It brought back to power (after the collapse of the brief tenure of the Janata experiment) the Indira Gandhi-led Congress with two-thirds majority. Watching from the reporters’ gallery, I could discern a new breed of MPs in the treasury benches. They were young, brash and vulgar – the handpicked poodles of Sanjay Gandhi, who were now being unleashed on the members of a dispirited opposition by a vengeful Indira Gandhi, still licking the wounds that she had suffered in the parliamentary elections three years ago. They earned the nomenclature “shouting brigade” – hitherto unknown in our parliamentary reporting – thanks to their ability to make good their failure in debating skills by sheer lung power. They started the trend of shouting down any member of the opposition who tried to argue a point. Well-argued debates and patient discussions gradually receded in the background to give way to “slanging” matches, often leading to physical confrontation in the well of the House – which has now become a common practice in the Lok Sabha.

    It would be interesting to examine the socio-economic composition of these trendsetting MPs who were elected to the 1980 seventh Lok Sabha. A survey carried out by a research institution at that time reveals significant changes in the educational levels and occupational background of the elected representatives over the preceding three decades. In the educational group analysis, it was found that the percentage of those holding doctoral degrees and similar high academic positions constituted 3.5 per cent of the members of the first Lok Sabha in 1952. It went down in the subsequent two Lok Sabhas. But it went up spectacularly in the fourth Lok Sabha to 6.3 per cent. This Lok Sabha, let us recall, came into being in 1967 following an election which brought together both the poor and the middle class intellectuals seeking a relief from the stranglehold of an oppressive Congress monopoly of power. It was not surprising that liberal and radical academics would join the electoral fray. Although they could not dislodge the Congress from power, their elected representatives in Parliament constituted a powerful articulate section of the opposition. But when we move over to the next decades, we find that in the succeeding three Lok Sabhas (1971, 1977 and 1980), their percentage had fluctuated between 1.5 and 1.7 (the latter in the 1980 Lok Sabha), indicating a gradual disengagement from active participation in electoral politics among these sections of the educated gentry.

    As for the changing occupational background of the MPs over the years, one striking feature that emerged from the survey was that the number of lawyers who constituted 35.6 per cent in the first Lok


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    Economic and Political Weekly September 9, 2006

    Sabha of 1952 continued to decline through the successive elections, and came down to 22.0 per cent in the seventh Lok Sabha of 1980. Similarly, teachers, journalists, writers and medical practitioners who together formed 25.2 per cent of the MPs in the first Lok Sabha, gradually receded from parliamentary politics, their number reduced to 11.7 per cent in the 1980 seventh Lok Sabha. During the same period, according to the survey, people described as “agriculturists” were found to have increased their share in parliamentary seats

    – from 22.4 per cent in the first Lok Sabha to 38.6 per cent in the seventh Lok Sabha. Commenting on the trend, the compiler of the statistics of the survey report in 1980, made an observation in a language which would sound rather biased by today’s “politically correct” standards, but was prophetic and significant in terms of the later political developments. The report said: “The declining representation of welldefined intellectual class…and the increasing representation of agriculturalists (who are supposed to be more conservative generally) in the Lok Sabha may perhaps mean a qualitative deterioration in the Lok Sabha as a system.” Trying to explain this trend by pointing at the “dominance of agriculture in the economic life of the country”, the compiler warned: “But governance or law-making are functions which require intellectual and mental calibre… From that angle, this trend may be treated as distressing.”

    Incidentally, Shankar Dayal Sharma, a Congress leader, who was to become the president of India in 1992, wrote the foreword to this survey report. Commenting on the situation surrounding him at that time, he wrote in the foreword: “In modern times, for securing election, the candidate’s personalities, their educational background, their ages and even their abilities do not count much when compared with the one all important fact of their party labels” (Socio-Economic Background of the Members of the Seventh Lok Sabha, the Institute of Sciences and Industrial Publications, Faridabad, 1980).

    Big Farmers, Traders and Industrial Tycoons

    Since the 1980s, the representation of the agricultural classes in Parliament had gone up. There had been a shift from the old feudal landlord class to a new group of rich and middle farmers, mainly from the so-called other backward classes (OBCs).

    Urban traders and business classes are also increasingly making their presence felt in the Lok Sabha, while in the Rajya Sabha industrial tycoons have begun to join the rank of elders. This change in the composition of Parliament has had a twofold impact – first on policy decisions on major issues that are debated there, and second, on the conduct of proceedings on the floors of both the Houses.

    To take up the first issue, there may be grounds to suspect that some crucial decisions are sought to be influenced by business interests who are directly represented in Parliament and hold important positions in parliamentary committees. The Rajya Sabha MP Vijay Mallya, for instance, is a member of the standing committee of the ministry of industry, and also a permanent special invitee on the consultative committee attached to the ministry of civil aviation. He was reported to have lobbied among fellow MPs to sign a petition demanding that Kingfisher Airlines, owned by him, be allowed to fly to foreign destinations.

    Can anyone be blamed if he suspects that certain decisions taken in the field of communication and information technology could be influenced by the family interests of the minister Dayanidhi Maran (who is in charge of the department) whose family has major stakes in an electronic media company in Tamil Nadu? Similar suspicions are fuelled by the presence of media baron Vijay Darda on the standing committee attached to the communications, IT and information and broadcasting ministry, or of the industrialist R P Goenka on the standing committee on finance, or of another industrialist Rajkumar Dhoot on the consultative committee of the finance ministry as well as of the ministry of petroleum and natural gas (Indian Express, July 29, 2006). Without casting aspersion on anyone among these MPs, one should however remind them of the ethical norms that require parliamentarians to refrain from using Parliament for furthering their personal interests – business or otherwise. This reminder becomes all the more essential because of the noticeable absence of ethical behaviour among MPs, among whom 10 were caught some time ago accepting cash from certain vested interests for raising questions (to help the latter gain information regarding the future of their stakes in undertakings). It is all the more shameful that, even after they were disqualified and expelled from the Lok Sabha, some of their parliamentary colleagues (cutting across party lines) are now trying to reopen the case by suggesting the institution of a review committee that might lead to the revocation of their expulsion. In view of these insidious attempts, it is necessary to look at the controversy over the office-of-profit bill in a larger perspective that would include the wider dimension of the moral responsibility of an elected representative. In other words, efforts have to be made to restore the moral authority that Parliament once enjoyed.

    To come to the second issue of the nature of proceedings on the floors of the Lok Sabha, while the rural presence has definitely brought in a fresh whiff of rustic robust humour (particularly of the Laloo Yadav type) to enliven dull and lengthy debates, it has also a flip side, which was demonstrated on August 24 in the outburst of raw rusticity that shocked the sober elements both inside and outside Parliament. But to come to think about it, was this really such a startling jolt for them? Have they not read reports of similar scenes enacted by “people’s representatives” in the legislative assemblies in Bihar, UP and other states in the recent past? Did they never visualise that it would be a matter of days that these regional political actors would gain entry into the holy portals of Parliament – the ultimate resort of the Indian liberal conscience – and “defile” what they till now upheld as the purity of parliamentary procedure and conduct of business? If elected MPs are defined as “people’s representatives”, then the RJD and JD(U) MPs did indeed reflect the behaviour and language that are common among the voters who elected them from their state. This new generation of MPs from a certain region of India have been used to the traditional principle of musclepower to make their opponents agree to them. At the grassroots level in their village panchayats, their counterparts expel members from the community who dare to marry outside their caste group, and even lynch them, a phenomenon regularly reported in the newspapers. It is not surprising that the most vociferous opposition to the Women’s Bill, which has been hanging fire all these years, comes from the MPs of this region.

    Significantly enough again, it is in the legislatures of the states which these MPs represent that we find a substantial number of elected MLAs who are “historysheeters”. Even in the Lok Sabha, the majority of the 70 odd MPs who are accused of having a criminal background and

    Economic and Political Weekly September 9, 2006 involvement (including at least two ministers), mainly come from such states. Lest I be accused of regional prejudice, I submit that in West Bengal too there have been cases of elected MLAs (both from the CPI-M and the opposition) who have been hauled up on criminal charges. Although there had been proposals in the past to stop candidates from contesting if chargesheeted in a court of law, political parties of both the Left and the Right have opposed it on several grounds: first, that no one can be considered guilty unless convicted by a court; second, they argue, a lot of these criminal cases are false and foisted upon their candidates by rivals as political vendetta; and three, despite such cases against them, their victory in elections prove their popularity and hence they should be accepted as the true representatives of the people. While there may be some truth in their arguments, it is necessary to formulate a yardstick – not purely legalistic, but ethical – that would eliminate the entry of notorious criminals (however “popular” the village gangster, or the urban mafia don may be) in the state legislatures and Parliament. In other words, a distinction can surely be made between a criminal seeking votes through his muscle-power, and a political worker contesting the same election with credentials of years of social work, and yet who may have been charge-sheeted for offences like violating Section 144, or even more serious allegations.

    Let me recall in this connection three interesting cases. During the first general elections in 1952, a large number of communist leaders contested from the Telangana constituencies, when they were still underground or in jail, charged with various criminal offences under the IPC. The charges framed against them in the conventional legalistic terms, as usual ignored the political motivations that led them to violate the prevailing laws in order to fight for the peasantry – in the famous Telangana revolt. Yet, they won – the leading among them being Ravi Narayan Reddy (just released from jail) who defeated his Congress rival polling votes that gave him the largest majority among all the MPs – bigger even than that of Jawaharlal Nehru – in the first Lok Sabha. The second case is even more significant.

    In the general elections of 1957, Kangsari Haldar, a famous communist peasant leader was elected to the second Lok Sabha from the Kakdwip area of West Bengal. He had been earlier declared an accused and absconder in a case involving a peasants’ revolt in Kakdwip in the late 1940s-early 1950s period. Following his election, he was arrested on the old charge on August 21, 1957, and was sentenced by a special tribunal trying the case, to life-imprisonment. Kangsari Haldar contested the sentence in the Calcutta High Court, and the case went on for five years till it ended with his acquittal in April 1962. He was re-elected to the fourth Lok Sabha in 1967, where in August that year, while participating in a debate on the report of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Commission, he warned the ruling party by quoting a line from Tagore: “Those whom you have kept backward, will drag you backward” – a message that still remains relevant. The third case is of recent times. The socialist hero of the Emergency days, George Fernandes, who was put behind bars on a charge of criminal conspiracy in those

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    Economic and Political Weekly September 9, 2006

    days had to contest the sixth national election to Parliament in 1977 from jail. But this did not deter him from winning by a huge majority.

    When we look back at these precedents, we realise the imperfection of a legal system that equates an act of moral rebellion with that of heinous offence, and treats both as crimes. But surely, the Election Commission has the discretionary power to make a distinction between the two, between political figures like Ravi Narayan Reddy, Kangsari Haldar or George Fernandes, and the Shahabuddins, Pappu Yadavs and their ilk who masquerade as politicians. To restore the moral credibility of Parliament, which has become an endangered institution today, a mass campaign can be launched to make both the election commissioner and the speaker work in tandem to prevent criminals from entering it, and to purge it of those who have gained entry. Instead of dismissing such an effort as bourgeois reformism, Indian Maoists should do well to remember that Lenin was willing to “make use even of the ‘pigsty’ of bourgeois parliamentarism, especially when the situation is obviously not revolutionary”, and recommended the “conversion of the representative institutions from mere ‘talking shops’ into working bodies”.



    Economic and Political Weekly September 9, 2006

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