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The rise of an illiberal India: What the logjam in Parliament shows us

This is the age of decibel and drama. Gone are the days when the eloquence of oratory and the cogency of arguments were lauded in Parliament.

Updated: Mar 30, 2018, 21:45 PM IST

This is the age of decibel and drama. Gone are the days when the eloquence of oratory and the cogency of arguments were lauded in Parliament.

Parliamentary dysfunction in India is not new; it has been happening for quite some time. Each time it happens, the media reports it, commentators express indignation at the state of affairs, politicians utter homilies - but do nothing to check the morass. While the factors contributing to the logjam are many and varied, the most important ones pertain to the declining importance of meaningful political debate in the country, resulting in the excessive dumbing-down of public discourse. 

What is unfortunate is that there is no serious, genuine attempts to even address the issue. Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah said at a rally of party booth unit chiefs in Guwahati on March 24, "The Opposition is not able to digest our victory in state after state post-2014. That is why they are not allowing even a single minute of work in Parliament for the last 20 days."

On its part, the Congress blames the BJP for parliamentary disruptions during the second half of the Budget Session. Party president Rahul Gandhi said at a public rally in Karnataka on March 25, "In Parliament, a no-confidence motion against the Modi government has been moved. For the past 10 days it has been stalled because the government is afraid."

It is the typical blame game - and not unprecedented. When the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) was in office (2004-14) and when there was a deadlock, similar arguments were made by both sides-with the difference being that BJP leaders used to say what Congress luminaries say now and vice-versa. Paraphrasing what James Bond said in Golden Eye, we can say today that governments and oppositions change but their lies stay the same.

The Left-liberal narrative is typical and predictable: Prime Minister Narendra Modi is an authoritarian, and the marginalization of Parliament is his way of killing dialogue and debate in the world's largest democracy. Hence the logjam. QED.

Such partisan approach does nothing to strengthen our democracy. Running Parliament for one minute costs the taxpayer Rs 2.5 lakh, according to a September 2012 estimate. Another calculation has put the cost of one-day washout at Rs 9 crore. Far more damaging and insidious is the absence of discussion in the most hallowed platform for the purpose. Even the Union Budget was passed without any debate over the subject.

There is hardly any consequential discussion because our politicians have convinced themselves that what matters are caste configurations, communal equations, smart slogans, spin-doctoring, loud rhetoric, and grand spectacles. To a large extent, that is also true. From a politician's perspective, it is much easier and more rewarding to get, say, the right caste calculus than persuading the voter about the party's ideology and programme. This is also the reason that, over the years, party manifestoes have become a formality rather than a policy document. Usually, the manifestoes are a hodgepodge of homilies, clichés, and platitudes. 

Since principles, ideologies, and policies matter little and have less impact on voting patterns, eye-catching and even questionable tactics acquire considerable importance among lawmakers. Tactics like incessant sloganeering and screaming in the House despite the chair's admonitions and pleas, rushing to the well and carrying placards - in essence, reducing parliamentary proceedings to unsavoury spectacles. Gone are the days when the eloquence of oratory and the cogency of arguments were lauded in Parliament; now, decibels and drama carry the day.

We, the people of India, have become so accustomed to the boisterous behaviour of our legislators that we have lost sight of certain truths. First, if something doesn't work, it loses relevance. In our context, legislative stalemates mean that within the political class more and more power is concentrated in the hands of party bosses, whether those of the treasury or the Opposition. 

Second, the parliamentary form of democracy transforms into the presidential form, as the legislature fails or refuses to be check on the executive.

Finally, and most importantly, democracy degenerates. The essence of democracy is letting others express their opinions, however offensive we may find the opinions. But such is the ubiquity and intensity of self-righteousness that shouting down and disrupting the opponent, be it a minister or an Opposition leader, have become regular features. This is how our politicians have been taking baby-steps towards fascism. I don't want to sound alarmist, but suppressing the views of others is indeed the essence of fascism, and this is what the leaders of all parties are doing. If not fascism, it is indubitable that illiberal tendencies are gaining ground in India.

The point is that Indian democracy is suffering from the boiling frog syndrome. The term comes from a couple of experiments. In one, a frog is brought near a pot of boiling water; it immediately moves away from the pot. In the second, it is put in a pot of cold water which is slowly boiled. In the beginning, the frog is not uncomfortable, making no effort to get out. By the time it finds the heating water unbearable, it is unable to get out and dies. 

Parliamentary dysfunction, thus, is symptomatic of the slow decline of democratic ethic.

(Ravi Shanker Kapoor is a journalist and author. He has spent around 25 years in the media. As a freelance journalist, Kapoor has written for a number of leading publications. He has written four books on Indian politics and its associated institutions.)

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL.)