Shaky House

Too many state assemblies are disabled by partisan rancour and disregard for institutional decorum

The DMK has been collectively suspended for what remains of the budget session in the Tamil Nadu assembly, after being evicted four times this session for disrupting proceedings. There has been heightened tension between the ruling AIADMK and the opposition parties, with both the DMK and DMDK evicted on separate occasions. In February, DMDK chief and leader of the opposition Vijayakanth was suspended for 10 days. This is not a new phenomenon in Tamil Nadu, where partisanship appears to run deep and bitter, and often spills into outright antagonism between the treasury and opposition benches in the assembly. In 1989, Jayalalithaa was attacked by DMK members in the assembly, and declared that she would set foot in it again only as chief minister, a vow she made good on, in 1991. Since then, she and her DMK arch-adversary Karunanidhi don't enter the assembly when the other party is in power, except every six months to sign the attendance register outside the hall. The legislature's effectiveness as an institution of deliberation, oversight and accountability has been seriously eroded in the state.

Tamil Nadu may have lived with this damaging pattern for decades, but other state assemblies also suffer similar breakdowns all too often, where intense and spectacular political disagreement crowds out debate altogether. In 2010, INLD MLAs were collectively suspended from the Haryana assembly for nine days for making "objectionable remarks" about the speaker, and they staged a mock-assembly where they could speak freely. In Karnataka, the same year, opposition MLAs spent a night on the floor of the House. Delhi, where the primary rivals are national parties, has also seen serial expulsions of legislators. In Gujarat, too, the opposition Congress has been suspended on several occasions. The reasons for these incidents vary, but taken together they point to the fact that debate without disruption or high-handedness has been difficult to sustain in many of our assemblies.

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