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Both UPA & NDA Guilty: TRIVIALISING PARLIAMENT SHAMELESSLY
By Poonam I Kaushish
Parliament continues to be trivialised and denigrated. Shamelessly. Without even the slightest tinge of remorse or regret. Indeed, a tragic farce was enacted last week in both the Houses. In the Lok Sabha, one stood witness to the macabre and lurid political pantomime on the Indo-US nuclear deal. Wherein the UPA Government’s over-smartness by ‘cotton-wooling’ the Prime Minister from answering the MPs searching queries seemed to have politically boomeranged. No wonder it generated a lot of empty noise from vacant benches! If this trifling spelt bad news, worse happened in the Rajya Sabha. The Government surreptitiously smuggled in the AIIMS Amendment Bill 2007 for consideration and passage in a Supplementary List of Business circulated on Wednesday morning. That too when the business listed for the day was far from over.
True, technically speaking, the Government has every right to bring a supplementary list. But it should have at least extended the courtesy of sounding out the Opposition in advance.More so against the backdrop, that the BJP had informed the Government that its leaders, who had been designated for speaking on the Bill would not be available on Wednesday. What was the tearing hurry? Should the Union Health Minister’s one-point agenda of ousting the AIIMS Director have taken precedence over the dignity of Parliament and what is right?At one level, not a few would dismiss these outrageous happenings as an exercise in political one-upmanship between the NDA, Left and UPA. The former drawing blood and the latter battling for political supremacy. At another, and far more significantly, the issue today is not what happens to the nuclear deal and AIIMS. What matters is the unprecedented and umpteen body blows administered to Parliament and its sovereignty by the UPA and the NDA. Individually and collectively.
A sad reflection, indeed, of the depth to which India’s democracy has degenerated. Transgressing all limits of Parliamentary ethics. Not many seem to understand the diabolical and dangerous dimensions of making Parliament insignificant. It needs to be remembered that the temple of democracy is the bedrock of our nation State. Parliament represents the people of India, who count upon it to function as the sovereign watchdog of their national interest. Constitutionally, the Executive is responsible and accountable to Parliament every second of the day. Its survival depends on its enjoying the confidence of the Lok Sabha. Nothing more, nothing less. Think.
When Parliament is in session and a majority of the MPs are opposed to the deal and looking forward to hearing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s himself, why did the Government field the Leader of the House and External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee instead? Particularly, as the whole story of the deal started with Manmohan Singh’s meeting with President Bush in Washington followed by a joint statement on 18 July 2005. Subsequently, the PM silenced various critics by giving solemn assurances on the deal to both the Houses. It was therefore, for him and him alone as the head of Government to tell the Lok Sabha whether the assurances had been met. It was for him alone to come out clean in the matter, not his Foreign Minister, even if he was the convener of the UPA-Left Committee and the Leader of the House. In fact, Pranab Mukherjee, as the Leader of the House, should have prevailed upon the PM to reply, or at least, intervene substantially in the debate. Remember, the Leader of the House is expected to uphold the dignity of the House which, regrettably, has been compromised by the PM’s astonishing refusal to reply and answer pointed questions which he alone was competent to answer. Specially as Manmohan Singh doubles up as the Minister for Atomic Energy and was present during the entire six-and-a-half hour debate.
The Minister of Parliamentary Affairs, no doubt, argued that “at no point of time there was any commitment from the Government that the PM would reply…” He also added that “our PM has spoken four times” on the subject and “we made no commitment to the Business advisory Committee” that the PM would reply. But in doing so, he only made matters worse, reducing Parliament to irrelevance. Plainly, the PM has been grossly unfair to Parliament by not participating in the debate. Something wholly unexpected from one who is widely acknowledged as “a nice guy.” But to understand how scorn was poured on this high temple of democracy, one needs to highlight the sequence of events and how the fears raised by members cutting across the political spectrum on the deal remained unanswered.The CPM’s Rupchand Pal initiated the debate by raising pointed queries. He said: “We have raised nine points where we differ and we have serious reservations vis-à-vis the Draft123 Agreement …In August 2006, the hon. PM came out with reassurances and assurances on all those points.But to our dismay, we found that in the Hyde Act December, 2006, most of the important assurances given by the PM on the floor of the House were trampled and ignored.Our apprehensions have been proved true repeatedly.”
Asserted the Leader of the Opposition, LK Advani: “I would like to recall that a question was posed to the PM two days after his Joint Statement with President Bush on Nuclear Cooperation in July 2005. He was asked: ‘Do you see any resistance coming forward from your allies and the Opposition in putting the new India-US Policy to practice, and will you seek a Parliamentary consensus or approval to the new direction you seem to be taking in Foreign Policy?”Added Advani: “The PM replied: ‘The Parliament in our country is sovereign. It is my intention to make a statement in Parliament when I go back home and it goes without saying that we can move forward only on the basis of a broad national consensus.’ My first poser is this. Do you see this broad national consensus? When it is obvious that there is no broad consensus, why are you so rushing into this deal?“Mr. Prime Minister, are you determined to ensure through this deal that there will be no Pokhran III? Is that your desire? Our objection to this particular deal is principally because this deal prohibits India from making another test. Section 106 of the Hyde Act bans Indian testing. Are these consistent with the assurances given in both Houses that under no circumstances, would we accept the kind of restriction on our right to test?
The PM countered: “What our Government has done is no more than what your Government had done. We are committed only to a unilateral moratorium and that if in our wisdom, if necessity arises that this country has to have a test, there is nothing in this agreement which prevents the exercise of that sovereignty.”Shot back Advani: “Correct… A country which unilaterally decides to have a moratorium can unilaterally decide to disregard it. But, here we are inviting consequences if we test. I regard it as an infringement of India’s sovereignty. That we will explain why a test became necessary?It is for them to be satisfied…. No self-respecting country should agree to it. I would urge the Government to come to Parliament clean on this matter.”The I&B Minister, Priya Ranjan Das Munshi, argued that “at no point of time, there was any commitment from the Government that the PM would reply.” But Advani hit back: “In fairness to the House and the country, it is an important debate – after all, you (PM) have been dealing with the matter since 2005. You have listened to the whole debate. I do not see why you should not reply to the debate.” The PM sat unmoved. His refusal to speak resulted in the NDA walking out without hearing Mukherjee’s reply.
The Foreign Minister bemoaned: “I expected that the Leader of the Opposition would remain to listen to the reply to the points, which he raised but after all we are living in a world where all the parliamentary norms, etiquettes and courtesies are thrown to the wind. For the first time in the history of this country, the Prime Minister was not allowed to speak on August 13, 2007… because of the obstruction of the principal Opposition party a discussion could not take place.” What the NDA did that day was unacceptable and unpardonable. It was, indeed, a black day in the history of free India’s Parliament. But this does not provide any justification for the PM to have sulked and stubbornly refused to reply to the debate. As the PM and his Foreign Minister should know, two wrongs have never made a right. Moreover, a pot has no business to call a kettle black! At the end of it all, the debate ended sans the PM’s categorical assurance of 20 July 2005 that the Government would “move forward only on the basis of a national consensus. It also raised before India a bigger question mark over the future of its parliamentary democracy. It is high time the Government and the Opposition stop trivializing and denigrating parliament. Either it is sovereign or it is not.