Millennium Post

Lacking in bench strength

Today in the notebook, as the first business-like session of the 16th Lok Sabha moves into the second month, it would be worthwhile to consider if debate in Parliament has been restored seriousness and dignity it deserves in a democratic nation. During the full course of the 15th Lok Sabha main rivals – the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party – could never come out of the perpetual state of political slugfest.

Towards the end of the last House, Narendra Modi, then Chief minister in Gujarat, had emerged as party’s mascot and politically for the BJP, what he said became more important than what his floor leaders had to state inside the House. To complement Narendra Modi’s campaign BJP created a brigade of Babel gladiators, which excelled in straining their vocal chords before the television cameras making House debates almost redundant.

The frenzy of the polls is over and these are still early days for the government to generate controversy for the television gurus to start sessions for pontificating. This therefore is the best time to engage members inside the House for serious debate. Though Finance Minister Arun Jaitley in his reply to the debate on the Finance Bill claimed that it was one of the longest ever discussion on Budget, the impression among those who follow parliament is to the contrary. It’s immaterial for how many hours that a discussion is held. What matters is the quality of oration. Weighty oration unfortunately has not marked its presence in the current house so far.

As mentioned earlier, one of the major reasons for the BJP’s failure to elevate the level of debate is its decision to move away from the Vajpayee-Advani era in the matters of leadership module. Since the founding of the party in 1980 to 2005, we have had BJP presidents, who have been either effervescent parliamentarian in their own right or organisation men like Kushabhau Thakre, who worked to complement the parliamentary party leaders. In the run-up to the polls for 16th Lok Sabha poll this module was replaced with a regional leader taking over the command. This eroded the command of the leaders in Parliament, despite having orators par excellence as floor leaders. No wonder BJP during the 15th Lok Sabha chose chaos over debate as matter of strategy.

The absence of debate during the 15th Lok Sabha also saw a challenge being posed to the authority of parliament through what came to be popularly called the Civil Society movement. That this movement crashed under the weight of the ambition of its leaders is another matter, but it must be realized by the believers in parliamentary democracy that debate alone draws the road map of any political party. The challenge before the BJP in the 16th Lok Sabha is to generate debate and raise its level to such standards that it overcomes the cacophony of discussions on television and demonstrations at Jantar Mantar. Now that’s an onerous task.

In the last two sessions, first the opening session and now the Budget session, the government failed to showcase any new talent from among its benches. It has been left to the oration of old war horses like Arun Jaitley and Sushma Swaraj to push ahead the agenda of the government. Surprisingly, even Prime Minister Narendra Modi has chosen the module of his predecessor Manmohan Singh rather than that of the illustrious senior leaders of his party like Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani.

The opposition benches have frequently pointed out the absence of the prime minister from parliament. Modi must realise that his absence from the house gives a license to his party members to also excuse themselves from the deliberations. There have been reports of the prime ministers admonishing party MPs for not being in the house but he must realise that more than the admonitions his presence in the house would have salutary effect and have MPs present in the full strength.

Prime Minister’s absence from the house has also witnessed that floor discipline is in tatters. Two instances in the past week clearly showed that presence of Prime Minister could have saved the party the embarrassment caused by the behaviour of two of its MPs. First the representative from the South Delhi Lok Sabha seat Ramesh Bidhuri created a ruckus by almost coming to blows with MIM’s Asaduddin Owaisi when the latter demanded action against the Shiv Sena MPs for force-feeding a fasting Muslim employee of the canteen at Maharashtra Sadan. Bidhuri ‘aggressive’ action also showed lack of guidance for the first-time MPs on ‘when to get agitated and when to let it go.’
 The bigger instance was of  floor mismanagement was party MP from Godda in Jharkhand embarrassing the leadership claiming that black money stashed in the banks Switzerland cannot be brought back. Bringing back black money has been one of the major poll issues of the BJP and its MP, who was fielded as lead speaker to defend the finance bill, claiming that the promise was unlikely to be met left the treasury benches looking awkward.

In his reply to the debate next day Finance Minister Arun Jaitley had to take on his party MP saying he (Dubey) will not have to wait for long for this. ‘When my colleague Nishikant Dubey spoke, perhaps he spoke very well. But he said that black money cannot return to India in his lifetime. We all pray for his long life but he will not have to wait for this (return of blackmoney) for a long time.’ Such floor mismanagement and lack of talent in the treasury benches for certain was not visible during the UPA regime.

The author is with Centre for Reforms, Development & Justice, and is Consulting Editor, Millennium Post
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