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Rogues In The Well

MPs and MLAs now have a code of conduct to go by. But is anyone listening?

Rogues In The Well
Jitender Gupta
Rogues In The Well
The winter session of Parliament opened with the promise that Lok Sabha MPs would henceforth behave themselves: no bad language, yelling, manhandling, exchange of threats, storming the well or stripping. Speaker G.M.C. Balayogi's code of conduct, backed by the threat of punitive action against offending members, kept fractious MPs in line for the first week. But by the second week, the strain was beginning to tell.

Rashtriya Janata Dal members, through sheer force of habit, would have stormed the well in protest against withdrawal of security to their incarcerated leader Laloo Yadav but for Congress MPs. Jaipal Reddy blocking the aisle. "What are we to do when the government will not give us a satisfactory response? We are getting calls from chief minister Rabri Devi asking why we aren't taking it up," says RJD MP Raghuvansh Prasad Singh.

Conscious of the deteriorating image of Parliament, most MPs agree it needs refurbishing. Few parliamentarians will forget former Bihar MP Anand Mohan spraying the Lok Sabha lobby with blood, when he severed his wrist while resisting forcible eviction from the House by the marshals. Or the audacity of erstwhile RJD MP Surendra Yadav in snatching the Women's Reservation Bill from the speaker's hand and ripping it to shreds. The ensuing volleys of abuse and violence may have been expunged from the records but were clearly audible (and visible) to a none too appreciative audience in the press gallery.

More recently, DMK MP Vetriselvan ripped off his shirt and strode bare-chested through the Lok Sabha, all the better to show off the marks allegedly inflicted by the AIADMK cadre. And Congress MP Avtar Singh Bhadana, springing to the defence of his leader, rolled up his sleeves and invited the BJP's Vinay Katiyar to step outside, so he could show him a thing or two. Katiyar didn't get a chance to accept the invitation, since his hot-blooded colleagues had already joined issue on his behalf.

Party leaders encouraging their MPs, by word and gesture, to storm the well and members being ordered out of the House for compulsive heckling by the speaker has become common occurrence. The less dramatic violations now hardly attract comment, like parliamentary affairs minister Pramod Mahajan bringing his laptop into the House, or Leader of the Opposition Sonia Gandhi invariably reading from prepared texts (both are no-nos and reading from a prepared text without the previous sanction of the Chair is strictly disallowed).

That's just in Parliament. The state legislatures are worse. Television watchers need no reminding of the scenes of violence from the UP assembly, or more recently, from Gujarat. Opposition MLAs broke down the door of the speaker's office, physically assaulted him and trashed his chamber.

What had Balayogi worked up even more than the fact that Parliament was getting a bad name during his tenure was the fact that work wasn't getting done. The House was sitting for fewer days and the increasing number of adjournments and disruptions saw to it that bills were being hurriedly passed without adequate discussion, much less meaningful debate. From an average sitting of 135 days a year in the first Lok Sabha, the number of working days now has come down to a little more than half this number.

So Balayogi drew up a list of dos and don'ts. This, he felt, would help improve the functioning of Parliament. Actions which would invite suspension for a week from the House include storming the well, heckling or tearing documents, bringing weapons or cellphones into the House, arguing with the speaker, sitting on dharna, etc.But even Balayogi admits that penalties may not be enough. "Considering the amount of playing to the galleries going on, both within and outside the House, to be punished might even be seen as a virtue. So, resorting to penal measures may not be a solution in itself," he says.

Meanwhile, while Sonia Gandhi welcomed the speaker's efforts to improve the image of Parliament, many MPs feel it wouldn't make much difference. The Samajwadi Party's Akhilesh Singh does not see much future in the code of conduct. "We are MPs, not bonded labourers. If necessary, we will go into the well of the House and if the speaker wants to suspend us, let him," declares Singh, a stellar member of the shouting brigade who has made countless forays into the well.

A code of conduct cannot be a one-sided affair, he pointed out. "It can work in ordinary circumstances. But what do you do when the government is creating extraordinary circumstances, like re-inducting George Fernandes even before the Venkatswami Commission has completed its inquiry?" he asks. In the given circumstances, a code of conduct is meaningless, Singh insists.

Bhadana agrees, voicing suspicions that the code of conduct is founded in the government's dictatorial attitude. "We will not allow manmani (wilfulness) in running the House. If there is bhed-bhav (discrimination) between the treasury and the Opposition, then democratic traditions will be finished."

Raghuvansh Prasad Singh points out that the Opposition frequently had no option but to disrupt the House, for several reasons. The first is that there seems to be no other way of getting a response from the government. "Remember when the Gujarat government permitted its officials to attend RSS shakhas? Our protests were ignored. Only when we consistently did not allow the House to function was the pernicious order withdrawn," he recalls.

The second reason is selective reporting by the press. "The best of speeches on which a lot of hard work has been expended might be appreciated by other MPs. But not a word will appear in the press. Only when I go into the well or do something abnormal does the press sit up and take notice. And my constituency back home feels I am not performing unless it sees my name in the newspaper. So what choice do we have?" Apparently, in disrupting the House, MPs are simply playing to the press gallery.

Maharashtra MP Ramdas Athavale, who delights in the role of Lok Sabha jester, says the code of conduct could well wind up being one-sided and undemocratic. "We don't want to see shouting or storming of the well every day. But when there is an important issue, then it has to be highlighted somehow." The government has to meet the Opposition halfway, he insists.

MPs point out that the main responsibility of ensuring compliance with a code of conduct lies with the treasury benches. "But what do you do when the treasury benches themselves rush to the well of the House?" asks Akhilesh Singh. Off the record, MPs expressed the fear that Balayogi would not be impartial in enforcing the code of conduct. "When Mahajan was speaking the other day and the quorum was incomplete, despite repeated entreaties from MPs the speaker waited a half-hour before ringing the quorum bell," an MP observed. To his credit, Balayogi has been just as prompt in sending the Samata Party's Prabhunath Singh off with a flea in his ear as he has in requesting the Congress' Mani Shankar Aiyer to quit the premises.

Balayogi's code of conduct also takes note of the conduct of members outside the House, urging them to avoid nepotism and abusing their position, privileges and access for personal gain. One of the most talked-about misdemeanors in recent years was the sub-letting of his official residence by BJP MP Girdhari Lal Bhargava, who happened to be chairman of the Lok Sabha Housing Committee at the time. "Contrast that with the US House of Representatives, which fined its own speaker $300,000 in 1997 for a relatively minor infraction. Or the H.G. Mudgal case of 1951, when Nehru moved a resolution to sack the MP after he was indicted for links with bullion merchants," says A. Surya Prakash, author of What Ails Indian Parliament?

The big question now is, will the Balayogi formula work? The speaker has laid down a code of conduct which many MPs will find hard to follow. The toughest part for our decibel-happy parliamentarians would be this—not speaking unless called on to do so by the speaker.
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