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Thursday, December 12, 2019

Parliament is in decline due to absence of dialogue

There is no worthwhile dialogue between the treasury benches and the Opposition. Procedures and customs have been ignored by the government and bureaucracy finds itself squeezed.

Written by Kapil Sibal | Updated: January 16, 2019 8:26:29 am
The House in a shambles The state must be used as an instrument for social and economic transformation not as an instrument of oppression to silence dissent. (Illustration by Suvajit Dey)

We are in the midst of a crisis of confidence. Parliament, as an institution, is in steady decline. There is no worthwhile dialogue between the treasury benches and the Opposition. Legislations moved with an eye on political outcomes are thrust down the throat of the Opposition. The norm of sending the Bills to the standing committee or the select committee is given a go-by. The system of committees tasked to scrutinise Bills, hear views of all stakeholders to make the proposed legislation more purposive and effective has broken down. Ministers misquote reports to secure brownie points with the confidence that moving for breach of privilege is a dead letter. A minister laments about disruptions in Parliament, but when in Opposition, argued that disruption is part of parliamentary strategy. People watching us may be mesmerised by the drama but do not credit us for doing the job that we are tasked to. People’s confidence in Parliament is at an all-time low.

Gone are the days when judges had the luxury of time to sit back and decide matters. Litigation is on the rise and the court system is bursting at the seams for which judges cannot be faulted. Yet the court has not, in recent years, clothed itself with glory. The precinct of the courtroom should be immune from outside influence. It is most unfortunate that a previous Chief Justice was alleged to have misused his position as Master of Roster in sensitive cases involving high functionaries. None wanted to discover the truth. Four distinguished judges persuaded by their conscience held a press conference, the first ever in the history of the Supreme Court. They said that democracy was in peril. We are increasingly witnessing the impact of public sentiments outside the precincts of courts, seeking to influence judicial verdicts. Precedents, the backbone of judicial consistency are often jettisoned, with innovative judicial logic.

Courts are far too accommodating in accepting documents handed over by the government in sealed covers thereby depriving the other party of contesting the claims made. Judicial outcomes could well be influenced by such opaque precedents. Not enough attention is paid to documents filed resulting in embarrassment for the court. The proceedings in the Loya case, the Rafale judgment declining an enquiry and the recent outcome of the transfer of the CBI director have raised serious questions about the efficacy of the judicial system in dealing with issues of national sensitivity. Law is enunciated with a flourish but when it comes to the nitty-gritty of protecting personal liberty, the Court has fallen short of promises made. Constitutional courts, where judges sit in benches and where views differ depending on the bench hearing it, can never be seen to be united. The Court needs to take note of the tide of creeping public disillusionment.

An absolute majority in Parliament can be used for resolving public issues in a highly complex democratic set up. But it requires a soft touch and adherence to principles of accommodation. The state must be used as an instrument for social and economic transformation not as an instrument of oppression to silence dissent. It is in this context that all our institutions are under threat and some captured. Such institutions cater to the will of the masters. The recent goings on in the CBI, ED, NIA and CBDT are symptoms of this malaise. These institutions no longer function to ensure the supremacy of the law. Instead, they often subvert it. This causes dissension within institutions. Such spats are a matter of public shame. Those who stand up to subversive intrusions are unceremoniously ousted. Those who are charged with the responsibility of upholding the rule of law have fallen short. If the investigating agencies are tainted, judicial outcomes will follow suit. Biased and motivated investigations lead to injustice, a cause for cynicism and angst. Public outrage is a possible outcome.

The bureaucracy finds itself squeezed. Those with impeccable integrity, find themselves being persecuted and prosecuted because their previous masters are the target of the present dispensation. This has led to bureaucratic ennui. A few bureaucrats wedded to the system do the bidding of their masters. The rest feel left out and isolated. As a result, administration suffers, projects are delayed, economic growth becomes laggard and in the absence of robust growth, resources generated are inadequate to invest in public health and education, the two essential pillars for social transformation and uplift. We have seen bureaucrats expressing their anguish at innocent persons being accused and convicted for corruption. Such an environment caters to bureaucrats committed to the corridors of power contrary to the concept of a bureaucracy, which renders opinions without fear or favour.

The information technology revolution has led to a new form of oppression. Mis-information is used as a weapon to influence minds. The electronic media in particular, and to some extent, the print media is in the hands of industry, which has huge stakes in the economy. In an environment where patronage is essential for corporate growth, the media is compromised since corporate czars seek favours from government. A compromised media is the surest way for democratic decline.

It is in the midst of this crisis, we are looking for a ray of hope that will only come if in 2019, the people of India recognise the crises that confront the nation. How they answer it, only time will tell. People alone can save democracy. If not, the flame of democracy will flicker. The gusty winds of intolerance may extinguish it.

This article first appeared in the January 12, 2019, print edition under the title ‘The House in a shambles’

The writer, a senior Congress leader, is a former Union minister

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