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What The Monsoon Session Tells Us About Modi And Indian Politics

17/08/2015 10:37 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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NEW DELHI, INDIA - AUGUST 15: Prime Minister Narendra Modi wipes his face as he addresses the nation from the rampart of historical Red Fort on the occasion of Independence Day celebration on August 15, 2015 in New Delhi, India. In his address to the nation from Red Fort, PM Modi spoke about the progress of various social security schemes launched by his government. He said efforts to bring back black money stashed abroad are on, while stressing that there's no place for casteism or communalism in India. Modi repeatedly referred to the central role of the country's one billion-plus population - which he dubbed 'Team India' - in his government's development plans, saying the people alone will take India to new heights. Modi, who spoke without the protection of a bulletproof shield, said his government had accepted the demand for OROP in principle but did not commit himself to a timeframe for rolling out the scheme. Modi warned that corruption was eating away at India 'like a termite' as he used an Independence Day speech to pledge his commitment to eradicating graft and poverty. (Photo by Mohd Zakir/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

If you heard or read the Prime Minister's Independence Day speech you may have noticed some references to his previous speech from Delhi's Red Fort, on the same day, last year.

But there was no reference to one excerpt, from the earlier part of the 2014 speech.

In his speech on the 15th August 2014, Narendra Modi had said:

"This country has been built on such a foundation of ancient cultural heritage, where we were told of one mantra during the Vedic period, which is indicative of our work culture, which we have learnt, we have memorized - 'Sangachchdhvam Samvadadhvam sam wo manansi jaanataam.' We walk together, we move together, we think together, we resolve together and together we take this country forward... Yesterday only the first Parliamentary Session of the new Government had concluded. Today, I can proudly say that the Session of Parliament reflects our thinking and it is a reflection of our intentions. We are not for moving forward on the basis of majority, we are not interested to move forward by virtue of majority. We want to move ahead on the basis of strong consensus. 'Sangachchdhvam'. And, therefore, the nation has witnessed the entire Session of Parliament. Having taken all the Parties and Opposition along while working shoulder to shoulder, we achieved an unprecedented success."

One year and some parliamentary sessions later, one is wont to ask: What happened? Where did the consensus go? Most importantly, what could the PM have done?

A simplistic answer would be, "A few ordinances and scandals."

But, for a clearer picture, let's examine in a holistic way the parliamentary session of a one-year-old government that concluded just before this Independence Day - The Monsoon Session.

Disruptions

There are two explanations for the disruptions we have witnessed in this past session. One is strategic, the other ideological.

"[F]or disruptions indicate Parliament is not working and the media's job is to cover that which is not working rather than things that seem to be coming along fine."

First, the strategic. Have you noticed how, the more Parliament works, the less you hear of it? There's no media circus, fewer press conferences, bytes, TV appearances, interviews. Rarely, when Parliament works, do you have primetime TV shows revolving around what's happening in the houses. Bills passed, questions asked and answered will find, at best, a cursory mention. At times, just a ticker.

Contrast this Monsoon Session with the Budget Session just before it. The Budget Session was, according to PRS, the most productive in 15 years. The productivity for Lok Sabha was pegged at 123% while Rajya Sabha was at 102%. The Monsoon Session, on the other hand, logged a measly 48% productivity for Lok Sabha and 9% for Rajya Sabha.

Now, which session did you hear about more? "You don't need numbers to disrupt Parliament-- you need the media," a senior parliamentarian had said to me, off the record, last year.

"Remember when just two MPs from Telangana had held the whole house hostage?"

PRS claims this Monsoon Session was the least productive Parliamentary sitting since the Winter Session of 2010, when UPA 2 was in power, which is when the BJP had begun disrupting Parliament in right earnest.

The question is, would the BJP really have been able to whip up as much of a storm as it did over the 2G, CWG and Coal scams merely by reasonable parliamentary debate? So, while disruptions in Indian legislatures have been par for the course for a while now, what the BJP did, in fact, by upping the frequency and scale of their disruptions, was set a strong precedent for disruption as a means to put one's political opponent on a mat.

Now the BJP is in Government. And the Congress is ensuring the precedent passes into practice.

The media, in its defence, may say it has no choice but to cover disruptions more than normal proceedings -- for disruptions indicate Parliament is not working and the media's job is to cover that which is not working rather than things that seem to be coming along fine. However, the question is, is the media really just 'covering' the disruptions, or are the disruptions taking place because of the coverage accorded to them?

Remember how Telangana was granted statehood, finally, despite the disruptive MPs? That's right. The Parliament cameras were switched off.

Today, ask someone what the biggest news in India is, and they're likely to utter some combination of the following words: 'Sushma Swaraj', 'Lalit Modi', 'Favour' and 'Scandal'. News dies with each news cycle but the Lalit Modi-Sushma Swaraj scandal has lived on despite it having been over a month since it broke. It has piggybacked on the new news cycle of the Parliamentary disruptions to stay afloat. Just as the 2G, CWG and Coal Scams remained for long in the public gaze because of BJP's disruptions during UPA 2.

With the strategic explanation out of the way, lets look at an ideological one. Political Scientist Dean E. McHenry Jr.'s paper titled Parliaments in India: Is There Order Midst The Chaos?, published in 2007, studies disruptions in the Indian Parliament and State Legislatures-- particularly disruptions by the BJP in the last decade and by the Congress during NDA 1. It infers, "Although the disruptions in Parliaments appear deadly to the proper functioning of Parliament in the eyes of those used to Western cultures, they seem to be more accepted in Indian cultures." It links the 'culture of disruption' in Indian legislatures to the non-violent disruptive politics (such as the Non-Cooperation Movement, Salt, Kheda and Champaran Satyagrahas and Quit India) of national figures such as Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi in the past.

It also says:

"What we have argued is that the disruptions are not simply anti-democratic. They entail the promotion of democratic values and provide representation that might not otherwise exist. They do not appear to be lethal to democracy. Indeed, despite persistent claims that disruptions of legislative bodies presage the imminent collapse of democracy in India, that collapse has not occurred."

A crucial point here is "representation that might not otherwise exist". India having a 'First-Past-The-Post' as opposed to a 'Proportional Representation' electoral system has entailed that a party's seat shares are often not representative of the actual vote shares. The BJP, for instance, won 51.93% of the seats in the Lok Sabha with 31% of vote share. The Congress, 8.10% of the seats with 19.31% of the votes.

In such scenarios, if certain parties didn't have the right to protest in - or disrupt - Parliament, the voices of those who voted for them would simply not be heard.

In this light, the BJP's recently declared plan of campaigning in each Congress and Left MP's constituency to make their electorate realize that their candidate should not disrupt Parliament is politically naïve. The Congress, for instance, is protesting to be able to represent 19.31% of the electorate in Parliament, whereas the votes that actually got the MPs in Parliament elected probably constitute less than half of this. So, ideally, the BJP should campaign against the Congress disruptions in every constituency. Even if it wants to focus its on-ground opposition on certain constituencies it should chalk out a larger number of, say, 200 constituencies which got the maximum percentage of Congress votes, not just where the Lok Sabha MPs were elected.

Which issues should a party choose to disrupt Parliament on though? The productivity of the previous Budget Session of Parliament shows that, despite the Congress having huge problems with the BJP's Land Ordinance, it had allowed Parliament to function quite well.

A final quote from McHenry Jr.'s paper:

"What we find is that much of the (parliamentary) disruption actually has some democratic content--apparently enough to off-set the negative consequences it engenders."

What is the "democratic content" of the Monsoon Session disruption? Trying to not let a Cabinet Minister and two Chief Ministers get away with impunity for possible acts of corruption and nepotism, whether by commission or omission.

What are the "negative consequences"? The delaying of the debating and passing of certain key pieces of legislation, particularly - in this case - the GST Bill.

Now, does one off-set the other?

"I want to reaffirm that this nation will get rid of corruption," the Prime Minister said on this Independence Day. "We can rid the country of corruption, we have to start from the top."

Since the Prime Minister seems to believe so, does it not make sense that he asks the politicians against whom serious allegations have been raised to at least step down until a free and fair enquiry into those allegations have been completed? If he had done so in time, wouldn't the Monsoon Session have been different?

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What About Whataboutery?

An age-old political tradition in Parliament whataboutery comes up front and centre because of the two parties, literally, being face to face. Here are what-abouts from the past:

What about 2G?

What about Operation Westend?

What about Godhra?

What about the Sikh Riots?

In life, the person who wins the game of whataboutery is the person who has the last word. In politics this needn't be true.

Instead, consider Sun Tzu's maxim: "Every battle is won before it's ever fought." If you're playing the game of whataboutery and you're in opposition, you've won already. Because your job is to ask questions. If you're playing it while in government, you've lost already. Why? Because you're currently responsible. Your job isn't to ask questions, it's to answer them.

Hence Sushma Swaraj's rebuttal speech on the 12th of August, where she questioned Palani Chidambaram and Rahul, Sonia and Rajiv Gandhi - whether or not her accusations hold - don't help her. Chidambaram and the Gandhis are not in government. Swaraj and Modi are. They will have to explain to the country why she saw it fit to intervene and contact the British High Commission to help Lalit Modi when she should have been working, rather, at getting him back to India for an enquiry. They are also, of course, free to ask their colleagues, Home Minister Rajnath Singh and Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, to see if it's worth pursuing the Sarada Chit Fund case in the context of P Chidambaram and his wife, or the cases of Ottavio Quattrocchi and Warren Andersen to answer the question of the liability of current Congress leaders, or Sonia or Rahul Gandhi.

The Victim Card

The Congress played this in the past month when 25 of their MPs were suspended.

Now the NDA wants its turn. Swaraj said at the start of her speech on the 12th, "I want justice too." The NDA marched to the Rashtrapati Bhavan to protest the Parliamentary disruptions. And then there was the Prime Minister's speech in which he likened what an opposition of 44 Congress MPs in the lower house were doing to 337 NDA Lok Sabha MPs to "Emergency".

Sigh. Think back to the beginning of 2014. The Aam Aadmi Party's Arvind Kejriwal - then first time Chief Minister of Delhi - went on a dharna. Political parties, including the BJP, chastised him for 'needless drama' (if you remember the BJP's 2015 Delhi election campaign this chastisement had found its place there too).

india politics

Yet, Kejriwal had a context to his protest. The Delhi police isn't under the Delhi Government's control, tying the state's hands when it comes to law and order matters in its jurisdiction. AAP believes this should change. While the merits and demerits may be up for debate, there's no questioning this as a valid point of contention.

But what on earth is the NDA marching for? Does it want the opposition to be under the control of the Central Government? Now that would be Emergency, wouldn't it?

In short, the Prime Minister's 'victim card' doesn't hold water.

Spot the Prime Minister

Let's assume you're a person with no knowledge whatsoever of Indian politics. You've come to see Parliament for the first time in the Monsoon Session. The Lok Sabha debates ensue. You hear Jaitley and Swaraj defending the Government boldly. You hear Rahul Gandhi and Mallikarjun Kharge from the opposition benches attacking the Government with vigour. You hear Venkaiah Naidu. You see Sonia Gandhi storm into the well with Congress MPs.

Suppose, now, you were to guess who the Prime Minister was, whose name would you take? It would all be a bit confusing wouldn't it?

The Prime Minister, on this Independence Day, laid out the promises he had made in the last one and the extent to which they were fulfilled. His claims will be argued upon in the days that follow.

"[T]he Prime Minister isn't a leader of the executive alone. Our Constitution requires him to be answerable to the Parliament as well."

But these promises were made by Modi as head of the Indian executive. Yet the Prime Minister isn't a leader of the executive alone. Our Constitution requires him to be answerable to the Parliament as well. In this role he must engage. This would entail not just speaking but also listening and replying to questions. It would entail being present in Parliament for crucial sessions, which the Prime Minister has not always been this past year. It would also entail backroom off-the-record negotiations which, sources say, have been left mostly to the Finance Minister to conduct.

For, the plain truth is, till the Prime Minister continues to prefer to deliver speeches from a podium but refuse to engage the Parliamentary benches in serious debate, 'Sangachchdhvam' will remain a distant dream for many Independence Days to come.

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