House of opportunity

There is little doubt anymore that the continuing political logjam in India has discredited not just any one party or coalition, but politics as a whole. At the root of this are both the many corruption scandals and a dysfunctional Parliament. A quick scan of the print and electronic media, or comments on social media, or even just eavesdropping on the conversations of ordinary people, leads to the indubitable conclusion that most people think the system is broken. This has led to palpable anger among citizens against politicians as a class.

It is not as though politicians have not sensed this. There is, in fact, a buzz of disenchantment cutting across the political spectrum, and a sense of foreboding about what might lie ahead. And yet, the only introspection that this seems to have triggered, so far, is murmurs among politicians that there is too much mudslinging going around for our own good, that we all need to tone it down if we want to regain a semblance of respectability in the public eye.

That response is not just inadequate, it is wrong. It is in fact an ostrich-like burying of heads in the sand, in the hope that if we politicians don't point out each other's flaws, if we stick to a cosy consensus of live and let live, everything will return to normal. The reality is different. Democracy is a slow process, but in 65 years it has struck deep roots and emboldened millions to demand better of us. And modern media and communications have enabled them to do so, destroying the system's earlier ability to restrict the details of unscrupulousness to mere gossip among a privileged few.

In an earlier era, scandals and uproars in Parliament used to mean that the party in power got egg on its face, and the opposition's political prospects brightened. But now, several parties, both in the government and the opposition, are tainted in the eyes of the public. Moreover, tongues have started wagging that politicians of all hues, feeling the heat en masse, have begun circling the wagons. The near collapse of the law-making process has raised anger and scepticism, and is increasingly seen as proof of collusion, as an orchestrated drama against the public interest. That is why disruptions in Parliament are now greeted with knowing smirks as much as with dismay.

So why don't more politicians feel compelled into action to stem the rot? One reason is a still widely held belief that the vastly more numerous rural Indians do not care much about corruption scandals or about the nuances of parliamentary functioning. As someone who spends almost two weeks of the month in rural India, I can attest that the former is not true, but that there is something to the latter. In my experience, rural folk do care about malfeasance, but also need to see a viable untainted alternative before they will let that be the key deciding issue.

As for their not being overly consumed by Parliament's functioning, the irony is that it is a gigantic missed opportunity for political parties and their leaders. They could either defend themselves against charges or distinguish themselves from the rest as the viable, untainted alternative. The proliferation of satellite and cable television in even the remotest areas has ensured that literacy is no longer a prerequisite to get voters to engage with such issues. Many politicians, however, are still rooted in an earlier paradigm, where parliamentary debate did not afford such an opportunity to make their case to the masses.

But apart from the need for more politicians to recognise that a functioning Parliament is in all politicians' interest, there are also systemic flaws that need to be addressed. Some of these flaws severely disincentivise the smooth functioning of Parliament. Many commentators, myself included, have written of these, and proposed solutions.

For example, the routine disruption of the question hour, which is an immense waste of time and resources, bears some analysis. The old paradigm rationale is that throwing a fit better demonstrates one's efforts to constituents than debate. Wrong though this notion now is, it is better to restructure the system to deal with this attitude. One option would be to start the day, not with the question hour, but with a zero hour designed to be a platform for MPs to vent their ire on the outrage du jour.

Shifting the question hour to the afternoon would yield a double bonus: a far greater likelihood of its functioning, as well as a boost in the post-lunch attendance of MPs (who, despite the disruptions, see it as a priority). Ironically, this change was attempted a few months ago, but only in the Rajya Sabha; that was logistically impractical and affected the schedule of the ministers' designated attendance in both Houses. To work, this change must be applied in both the Rajya Sabha and the Lok Sabha. There is immense resistance to this idea, mainly because it tampers with a decades-old tradition. But it is high time to give unworkable traditions the heave ho. And tellingly, the idea is acceptable to a large number of younger MPs.

There are other such proposals for parliamentary reform — the scope and size of this article cannot cover them all — which would dramatically improve the incentives for both treasury and opposition MPs to make Parliament function. But the most important incentive of all will be the realisation by a critical mass of MPs that the paradigm has changed, and that it is now simply in their own best interest.

The bad news is that it could take an election or three before that realisation sinks in. Meanwhile, the opportunity exists right here and now.

The writer is a BJD MP in the Lok Sabha

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