Shouting over discussion

Last Updated: Wed, Aug 22, 2012 19:42 hrs

The purpose of a report like that of the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) on coal block allocation is to inform discussion in Parliament, to ensure that the executive is held accountable and, if necessary, policy is re-framed. Of course, that is only possible if Parliament is functional, and a credible and active Opposition uses the system to hold the government’s actions up to scrutiny. Were their representatives to put in the hard work, research and careful reading required in that process, India’s citizens would have no cause to complain. Unfortunately, Opposition members of both Houses of Parliament do not seem willing to do the work involved; which is why they have chosen, instead, to disrupt proceedings for two successive days, demanding the prime minister’s resignation. The Opposition – especially the principal Opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, or the BJP – has been handed eminently politically damaging material by the CAG in the three reports it submitted last week. If, even then, it cannot frame a coherent argument on the floor of the House, and is unwilling to take on the government, then questions will inevitably be asked about its capability and dedication in its assigned role.

The government – in a change from a previous defensiveness where it tried to insulate the prime minister from appearing before the public accounts committee of Parliament to discuss CAG-related accusations – has said it is ready for a debate, and that the prime minister will defend himself. Questions over inefficiency and cronyism in the allocation of coal mines, given that they span periods when Manmohan Singh himself held the portfolio, do indeed require him to face Parliament and, by extension, India’s citizens. Yet the BJP is not allowing India’s citizens the opportunity to see him do so. Yet the leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, Arun Jaitley, has compounded his party’s error by asking: “What do you require a debate for?” If this is the party’s attitude to Parliament when it is in opposition, what will it be if it is in government? How, precisely, in their contempt for the possibility of discussing matters within Parliament, are the disruptive MPs different from, say, Kisan Baburao Hazare or Arvind Kejriwal, and their often-expressed disdain for the functioning of the legislature?

The BJP has tried before, through disrupting Parliament, to force ministers to resign. That, of course, is not how it works. The Opposition can, through skilful questioning, expose ministers – even prime ministers – as unworthy of the public trust. If they want to force a resignation, they can call for a motion of no-confidence — which, oddly, the beleaguered UPA-II has never faced, though it has not had an easy majority on its own and there has been no dearth of misgovernance and corruption charges against it. Either way, there is the possibility that India’s citizens will better understand the failings of their government, and that policy will be given a chance to improve. Doing so would be in the national interest — but, by stalling proceedings in both Houses repeatedly, the BJP seems to have little concern about what is in the best interest of Parliament or of the country.

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