It was not an isolated aberration. An irresponsive executive, an Opposition full of fire but devoid of direction, and the Chair's silence and recourse to technicalities on crucial issues—these have been the norm of late. Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao has been guilty of allowing himself the luxury of functional unaccountability. His refusal to update the House on the CBI probe in the hawala case, his withholding information on the Bofors probe's progress (which he was duty-bound to reveal after his April 1992 promise), and most glaringly, his constant absences and the low frequency of his interventions in queries and debates in these five years—all this created an impression that the executive shares information with Parliament only at will.
Of course, the ruling party isn't the sole culprit. Despite the frequently orchestrated spells of 'pandemonium', the Opposition's focus of attack on the Government was blunted, largely because of the division between the BJP and non-BJP parties. And the executive—fully within its rights to take advantage of the division—always exercised the option of getting away without revealing much. Rao was fully aware that he had not been interrogated by the CBI in the hawala case. Yet he took shelter behind the Supreme Court directive to the CBI not to report to (or take orders from) him in not divulging anything before Parliament.
"You have neither the courtesy nor the courage to respond," yelled former prime minister Chandra Shekhar at a tight-lipped Rao at the end of a nearly week-long debate. "And the Speaker never asked Rao to respond," says an expert on parliamentary affairs. The question that goes a begging is: if the House doesn't get information, what is its relevance?
In the absence of a convincing rationale, some of the blame sticks to the Speaker. "He has his share of responsibility in the manner the thanks motion was allowed to be passed," says Subhash Kashyap, ex Lok Sabha secretary general. He puts the decline in the highest legislature over the years in perspective, recalling how the Haryana assembly speaker in the early '70s had rejected a suggestion from the then chief minister, Bansi Lal, that a no-confidence motion be put "right away" for voting without a debate.
The 10th Lok Sabha began life with the Prime Minister's request for a "consensus" on national issues and a moratorium on political warfare. But after the ruling party wangled a majority, causing defection in the National Front, its attitude changed. Gradually, Rao began withdrawing from the House, making only brief appearances. In contrast, Nehru had spoken a total of 45 hours in the first Lok Sabha (1952-57), spending at least an hour daily in the House. Nor would he condone unparliamentary behaviour, mainly from the ruling party.
But that's a bygone era. In July 1993, Govindaram Munda entered the House in an absolutely drunken state to save the Rao Government from a no-confidence motion. The Chair didn't so much as admonish the member, a defector to the Congress. Of all the debates on corruption cases—the securities scam, the Madhavsinh Solanki letter episode, sugar scam and hawala—only the Solanki one ended in resignation. The series of resignations in the hawala case was not a response to parliamentary debate—they happened only in the light of the CBI decision to chargesheet the ministers.
All this is a marked departure from past practices. The third Lok Sabha (1962-67) was the most effective on this count. Despite the Opposition's depleted strength, it had the executive on the ropes—Krishna Menon, K.D. Malaviya and T.T. Krishnamachari had to resign on charges of corruption and inefficiency. Presiding officer Hukum Singh, drifting from precedence, recognised members' right to quote from authentic secret/official documents, even table them. In 1968, Speaker N. Sanjiva Reddy gave yet another landmark ruling, allowing censure motions against individual ministers on Madhu Limaye's initiative. But in the just-concluded session, Speaker Patil disallowed a privilege motion against Rao and four Jharkhand MPs over the alleged July 1993deal, taking the technical plea that it was not an "issue of recent occurrence".
Every Lok Sabha has its moment of glory and defeat. But the recent trends—coming amidst fears that the judiciary is usurping the legislature's right—does not augur well for the institution. Executive control of the legislature is far worse than the danger inherent in an activist judiciary.