Elections above parliament

In the winter of 1994 when I first moved to Delhi from Mumbai, the chance to cover Parliament was a major attraction. Entering Central Hall and gazing at the portraits of our founding fathers was motivating. Listening to speakers like George Fernandes, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Somnath Chatterjee enthused me. This was, after all, the crucible of Indian democracy. Almost a quarter of a century later, I am pained to report that every romantic illusion one had woven around Parliament has been dashed. With the winter session of Parliament pushed back till the Gujarat elections are over, the message is clear: A single state election matters more now than a ‘national’ Parliament (that the new dates being bang in the middle of Christmas will inconvenience Christian MPs also doesn’t seem to matter).

At one level, the government’s argument for deferring the winter session is understandable. With the high stakes in Gujarat – the prime minister’s home state – intense campaigning by major national leaders has left little time for Parliament. Besides, there have been instances in the past – most notably as recently as 2013 – when the winter session was curtailed because of assembly elections by the previous UPA government.

The difference is that Manmohan Singh was not expected to criss-cross the country seeking votes. That was his weakness but also, in a sense, insulated his government from the constant pressures of elections. By contrast, Narendra Modi is the ultimate 24 x 7 election campaigner, someone who revels in the akhara of electoral politics. His unmatched status as the star campaigner for the ruling BJP means that almost every election has become a mini-referendum on Prime Minister Modi’s appeal. As a result, electoral success is now almost a driving force for the government, the oxygen that sustains the Modi juggernaut. Is it any surprise then that the governance agenda, including potential legislative business in Parliament, must be kept on hold during election time?

In fact, the downgrading of Parliament is almost a throwback to Modi’s tenure as Gujarat chief minister where once again assembly sessions in Gandhinagar were often a perfunctory exercise. In the 12 years that Modi was chief minister, assembly sessions were almost routinely cut short, with opposition MLAs being suspended en masse on several occasions for ‘disruptive’ behaviour.
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Modi preferred to run the state from the chief minister’s secretariat while using his party’s overwhelming majority in the assembly to set the terms of engagement with his opponents.

Ironically, just before entering Central Hall for the first time in 2014 as prime minister, Modi had staged a dramatic photo-op: He had knelt on the floor of Parliament and spoken of his reverence for the ‘temple’ of democracy. Now, his frequent absences from Parliament during crucial debates have led the Opposition to claim that, unlike a Vajpayee, Modi has little time for the cut and thrust of parliamentary interaction. In the Modi rulebook, it is so much easier to directly communicate with the voter through a tightly controlled, one-way ‘Man Ki Baat’ rather than be held accountable by his political opponents in Parliament.

It isn’t as if the Opposition has a credible track record in parliamentary interventions either. Rahul Gandhi’s refusal to become the leader of the Congress in the Lok Sabha in May 2014 was perhaps indicative of his own lack of confidence in his public speaking skills. His attendance record in Parliament in the first three years of the Modi government is 54%, well below the average lawmaker who attends around 80% of the sittings. Ahead of the 2017 monsoon session, Rahul Gandhi had participated in just 11 debates in three years. It’s a record that can hardly enthuse an Opposition still to recover from its 2014 electoral drubbing.
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But the crisis of Parliament goes well beyond its principal players. Truth is, a majority of MPs have been elected for considerations other than their speech-making abilities. The extreme ‘localisation’ of elections has meant that local community networks influence the ‘winnability’ quotient much more than oratory skills. Where once parliamentarians were lauded for their stirring speeches, now it is their disruptive powers that attract instant attention. The frequent adjournments in particular have meant that the institution of Parliament is being gradually delegitimised in popular imagination.

Which is also why the government will probably get away with its decision not to face Parliament till the election cycle is over. After all, when an all-powerful executive is now taking every decision, who needs the pesky distraction of an unruly legislature?

Post-script: It isn’t just Modi who will be on a Gujarat blitzkrieg for the next few weeks. Practically, every government minister is hitting the campaign trail and making a multitude of promises to the electorate. As the internet joke goes, GST at least temporarily stands for Gujarat Service Tax.

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