Sunday, August 14, 2022

Suspension of expression

India’s parliamentary democracy may not be the most perfect but even though imperfect, it has been functioning with debates and discussions been taking place, albeit with cycle of disruptions. Parliament and assemblies are the highest fora to raise pertinent issues of utmost importance to the people. In the recent years, what is being witnessed is the cycle of suspension of opposition MPs due to alleged “unruly behaviour”. The opposition have been demanding debates over various issues but are being denied under various pleas by the government. When opposition parties protested and insisted on debates, 23 opposition MPs were suspended on Monday and Tuesday. While four Congress MPs were suspended from Lok Sabha on Monday for the rest of the session, 19 opposition members were suspended on Tuesday for rest of the week. These suspensions come amid a face-off between the government and the Opposition over issues of inflation and Goods and Services Tax’s (GST) imposition on everyday essentials such as packaged and labelled pulses, wheat, rice, flour, and curd. An extreme steps of suspension of MPs has turned the spotlight on the use of disruption of proceedings as a parliamentary tactic. What cannot be denied is that Speaker’s/Chairman’s actions are often dictated more by expediency and the stand of the party that they belong to, rather than by the Rules and principles. With a big chunk of opposition MPs now suspended, it will only leave the Government even more unchecked. Bills are passed in a hurry and even amidst din; the scrutiny of Bills by committees and debates are few and far between. There can be no question that the enforcement of the supreme authority of the Presiding Officer is essential for smooth conduct of proceedings. However, the job of the Presiding Officer is to run the House, not to lord over it. The ruling party of the day invariably insists on the maintenance of discipline, just as the Opposition insists on its right to protest and their positions change when their roles flip. It was the BJP’s late Arun Jaitley who theorised on the legitimacy of disruptions as a parliamentary instrument. As the principal Opposition in the years leading up to 2014, the BJP so disrupted Parliament on a regular basis, that the UPA government was rendered dysfunctional for years. After coming to power since 2014, the BJP has tinkered with parliamentary processes in a way that the Opposition has been pinned down. It should be clear that Parliamentary debates should not be viewed as a distraction or waste of time. They are a barometer of public mood and must be respected as such, by both the ruling side and the Opposition. Disruption as a brief, momentary reaction to a situation that demands debate is understandable, but as a sustained strategy, it is self-defeating. A guiding principle of parliamentary proceedings is that the majority, i.e. the Government, will have its way, and the minority, the Opposition, will have its say. This principle has been observed in its violation in India for several years now. This is no defence of disruption in general or the behaviour of the particular MPs, but the punishment is only worsening the conflict, and not facilitating debate. The moot point is whether suspensions have helped the government or the parliamentary system?

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