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Like Atal, Advani, Somnath

Excerpts from a speech to new parliamentarians, July 31

Written by Fali S Nariman | Updated: August 4, 2016 8:53:00 am
parliament759 In recent times, members of parliament have been perceived as not having contributed much to relieving the trials and tribulations of “We the People”: The first three stirring words of our Constitution. File Photo/Agencies

Congratulations to all new Members of Parliament.

Welcome to India’s most exclusive club! Let me begin, with some bad news.

Practising lawyers, and members of parliament have one thing in common – not only in India but all around the world – they are held in low public esteem. Simply because, in public perception, neither of us is able to produce tangible results. We lawyers with our prolix and never ending arguments in court have done little to end the scourge of the laws delays.

And in recent times, members of Parliament have been perceived as not having contributed much to relieving the trials and tribulations of “We the People”: The first three stirring words of our Constitution.
So for us – for you and me – ETHICS in politics or in the law – is at a low ebb.

But I have a theory. I have for long believed that a large part of the disruption of proceedings in Parliament – about which the public outside are so deeply concerned – could perhaps be avoided with a simple experiment.

I mention this to you newly elected members of Parliament – hoping it will find some modicum of support.

My view is: if sitting in each of the Houses of Parliament the Hon’ble Speaker and the Hon’ble Chairman (or their deputies) just refuse to adjourn the House whenever there is one or the other altercation in the House, and keep seated in the Chair, things might improve.

But so far – most regrettably – this has not even been attempted!

The suggestion is that when members rush to the well of the House and will not allow a measure to be passed or discussed – which happens not infrequently and is endemic with all parties across the political spectrum – then, if only the presiding officer remains seated in the chair, and just will not move – for minutes together or even for hours together – people who come shouting down the aisle will have at some time or the other to stop shouting, at which point proceedings can then resume. This is my theory.

And there is reason for this. Because so long as the Speaker or Chairman (or the deputies) are in the Chair – whoever else is or is not present in the House – the House remains (according to the rules) in Session, and the listed business of the House at some time or the other could get transacted.

It is only when the chair is vacant and the House is adjourned whether for a few minutes or few hours or for the day (as is not infrequent) that little or no work gets transacted.

Hence my unsolicited but most respectful advice to the Chair in each of the Houses of Parliament is that their occupants stick to their seats whatever the disturbance or provocation!

But I must frankly tell you that when this suggestion was mentioned by me to a very high and distinguished personage (who will remain nameless) that very distinguished personage politely told me that it was “a good idea”:- which gave me the impression that he wasn’t convinced.

Just like when Gandhiji’s responded to a British journalist’s query before independence; as to ‘what his view was about modern civilisation?’

Gandhiji cut him short with: “Well, that is a good idea”!

I suggest that my proposal – of the Chair sticking steadfast to the Chair (at all times) should not be treated just as “a good idea”, but one that needs to be implemented.

It might work – only because all methods so far of making proceedings go on in Parliament do not appear to have been successful.

As to DOS and DONTS – to speak about them is only to speak about rules of the House and the practice of each House which is all part of the record of each House – which you must know if you are to effectively participate in the proceedings.

And if you have not gathered what you must do and must not do, try to supplement your information by reading the morning newspapers or by watching some of the televised proceedings of the day in Parliament (you will learn a lot – especially about what not to do!).

The more important thing, I want to speak to you about is that you must be conscious of the fact that being a Member of Parliament is a great privilege.

To every new member I can confidently tell him or her: that at least a thousand other citizens would have been as well qualified and willing to fill your seat if you had not been elected or nominated. Always remember that. It is a humbling thought.

Participating in proceedings in the House – even when you are silent and do not speak itself is a great experience.

You must therefore be conscious of the fact that you are altogether – just 790 members in both Houses of Parliament representing more than one billion people outside and so in the very highest position both of power and privilege – and a position of responsibility as well.

It is an awesome responsibility, and a burden you are called upon to bear; one which the Constitution calls upon you to fulfil and which you have undertaken to fulfil when you took your oath as Member of the House.
Your older colleagues may not remember the oath they took when they first sat in Parliament but each of you newly elected members swore only a few weeks ago – that amongst other things:

“I will faithfully discharge the duty upon which I am about to enter”.

You don’t faithfully discharge the duty upon which you are about to enter if you just sign the register outside the Hall and depart. This is not prohibited – but it is not expected of you – it is simply not ethical.

It is also, if you will pardon my saying so, not very honest.

No work-no pay was the Bill that I had introduced as a Private Member’s Bill in my days in the Rajya Sabha. Every sitting Member applauded it and said it was a good thing. But it went the way of most Private Member’s Bills – it never saw the light of day as an enactment.

Because only Friday afternoons are reserved for private member’s bills during each week of the Parliament session.

My term of office of six long years passed and the Bill got introduced but was not listed for discussion thereafter – and on my retirement in 2005 (after six long years) my Private Member’s Bill lapsed!

Because unlike a government bill (which does not lapse because the mover i.e. the Minister is no longer a minister) a private Member’s Bill is removed from the record when the private member ceases to be an MP.

Thus my first attempt ladies and gentlemen to inject some ethics into politics was a total failure
To become a Member of Parliament and having the prefix ‘Hon’ble’ before your name does mean a lot.

It is a device deliberately used to keep you on right path, and keeping oneself on the right path is what ethics is all about.

Obviously if, you are Hon’ble Mr. so-and-so or Hon’ble M/s – so-and-so – you have to be seen to be “honourable” in all that you do or you don’t do, whether within the House or outside it. That’s the cross that you must always bear. So long as you are a member the prefix sticks to you – which also means that you must deserve it, and live upto it.

I have often wondered how honourable it is for a sitting member to be seen advertising some commercial product not his own – except perhaps for some charitable event. I would humbly advise, and plead, with you new members not to get tempted.

Because in this great country those in positions of power and privilege are looked up to – fawned upon – as “great men”: and “great women”.

The Bhagwad Gita says that whatsoever a great man does that very thing other men and women also do; whatever standards they set up the generality of men and women follow the same. We the people learn by the example of our leaders – not by the precepts they profess, and proclaim.

Let me tell you how you new members can become truly Hon’ble and remain Hon’ble during your entire term of office:

(i) First, by not entering into the well of the House, so as to disrupt proceedings: if a sufficient number of you, belonging to a particular party, together inform leaders of your party that this should not happen, then in the not too distant future it will not happen!

(ii) Second, by not doing anything to prevent proceedings from going on: if you do have to walk out as a group with other members of your party then do so, without too much disturbance, and only as a mark of protest at some event – but be sure to come back in 10 or 15 minutes to participate again in the proceedings of the House – because you have made your point – made known your protest.

Participating in the proceedings of the House and not walking out of the House is what you are elected to do and also paid to do – and that is the only reason why you are called Hon’ble – because the constitution regards your taking part in making laws for the country a most honourable pursuit.

(iii) As I said before, you don’t remain honourable by merely signing the book, earning your hafta for the day and walking out; that is positively dishonourable.

And believe me, there is pleasure in every job well done. And that includes attending as a member of parliament even when you have no specific duty to perform, but to participate.

When you participate and keep your ears and eyes open, you have an opportunity to speak.

If due to pressures of parliamentary time you do not get such an opportunity to speak in the House, you can impress upon your party leaders to nominate you to Parliamentary Committees. They are innumerable.
When you demit your office before every General Election in the Lok Sabha or when your election for the six year term (or less) in the Rajya Sabha comes to an end – remember that the State still continues to treat you as a very special person.

You are given a pension which never gets reduced in absolute terms. On the contrary, experience shows it keeps getting increased – this is simply because it is only members of Parliament who can vote on their own pensions! And after you retire all health problems of yourself and your family are looked after at the exclusive expense of the State.

All this ladies and gentlemen must prompt you to give back a little of your time and your experience whilst you are functioning as a sitting member.

This is a sample of the work-ethic – I recommend to you a work-ethic in Parliament (the best thing in Ethics!).

Your consciousness of being a Member of Parliament is the most important thing for every member and when he or she in time becomes a Minister or other official in government, he or she always desires to excel in performance. I have seen this during my term in Parliament.

In my sojourn in the Rajya Sabha for six long years I found in one person – Mani Shanker Aiyer – then a minister in Government – who spent vast amounts of time working on Answers to Questions, and then answering the questions in Parliament fully – at times too fully!

He would be so well-prepared in answering the questions and the supplementary that followed it, that he could go far beyond the scope of the question, and give answers that were not even sought.

So much so that the Chairman (Vice-President Shekawat) – who was in a hurry to finish his list of questions between 11 a.m. to 12 noon – would sometimes say “Abhi Bas Karo”.

Which also reminds me of that other Mani Shanker Aiyer, not just the fine Parliamentarian but the one with a caustic tongue!

He was of course one of the most entertaining of speakers, but he was at his sarcastic best when someone said in the House that the late Prime Minister Mr. Narasimha Rao, knew and spoke in ten different languages.

Mani Shanker Aiyer’s spontaneous response (under his breath – but which could be heard all round) – was

“It was sad then that he could not take a decision in even one of them.”

Now – A bit about myself, because I must preach only by example.

When I was first nominated in 1999, as a member of the Rajya Sabha, I persuaded myself to believe (out of purely selfish motives) that I could attend a couple of hours or a few minutes of the proceedings each day and go back to my active practise in the Supreme Court. But I soon realised that I could not perform two different duties at two different places on the same day, at least not at all effectively.

So after I found that I was completely dissatisfied with myself, I realised that one must give up one activity or the other, and the activity which I gave up temporarily was my practice of law.

And believe me I never regretted it.

I have recorded my experiences in Parliament in my autobiography; Before Memory Fades”, published 6 years ago. It has since been re-printed fourteen times (but is now out of print but available on for only Rs.271).

In it there is an entire chapter headed: “In Parliament: and out of it” – for those of you who are interested in the experiences of a new member in Parliament I have left a couple of Xerox copies of this chapter with the Secretary-General and if more copies are required he will inform me and I will supply them to those who want it.

I mention this only because I believe the Chapter will help you to better understand not only the pleasures but also the problems and difficulties of a new member in Parliament.

It is only when you constantly attend sessions in parliament – even when they are sporadically adjourned from time to time, that there is a certain feeling of camaraderie amongst members belonging to different political parties.

You build up relationships with the person sitting next to you, or behind you or in front of you – whatever his or her political affiliations may be. And somehow this instils a feeling of togetherness, togetherness in doing something worthwhile.

Besides, the perks, the advantages, the free medical assistance, during and even after your tenure as sitting member, the pension for life when you retire – all these must make you realise – that although all we Indians under our constitution are equal, some are definitely more equal than others: sitting MPs like you, to start with!

This consciousness of your performing a duty (a duty mentioned in your oath of office) has to permeate, and it is only when it enters your subconscious psyche, that you begin to engage in proceedings in the House and so experience and enjoy the great privilege of being a Member of Parliament. This is what I call the work ethic in politics, that in course of time you will come to enjoy.

Enjoyment in the office of MP is one of the great perks of being a member.

And to enjoy yourself and the experience of being a Member you have to have a sense of humour and occasionally a sense of fun.

This was made apparent to one and all in the old days, long before I became a Member of Parliament.

I recall that when Pilloo Mody and Indira Gandhi were members in the 5th Lok Sabha they often crossed swords but never lost their cool.

Once whilst in the House, on a matter of some importance, Pilloo Mody wrote to the Prime Minister expressing concern about some particular measure or resolution that had just been adopted. Writing on Parliamentary Note Paper to the Prime Minister he began “Dear I.G.” and signed off with his own initials “P.M.”! The cheek!

But was Mrs. Gandhi affronted? No. not at all.

Prompt came her reply. again on Parliamentary Note Paper, (the contents of which are irrelevant) except the spirit in which it was written. She began her letter to Pilloo “Dear P.M.”, signing off – “I.G.”!

They were the most astute political rivals at the time – and yet indulging in some fun as well. There is much fun in Parliament.

I must, tell you that this sense of fun (not merely of good humour) was instilled in me whenever I watched and listened to the great statesman of his time – the greatest Indian statesmen of my time – Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

Now it is customary that when a Prime Minister returns from a foreign visit the first thing he does on his return is that he makes a statement in each of the Houses of Parliament, and handpicked members (handpicked by the Chair) are asked to put questions to the Prime Minister so that further information is elicited by Members of the House on the matters contained in the Prime Ministers’ statement.

On one such occasion I, as Nominated Member, was one of the fortunate few to be so named by the Chair, along with two members belonging to two different political parties.

The other two gentlemen posed their couple of questions and I too asked a couple of my questions to the Prime Minister Vajpayee who was sitting in his allotted seat in the House.

One of the three persons who were so named to ask questions was the former polished diplomat and now parliamentarian, Mr. K. Natwar Singh. He belonged to the Congress Party which was then in Opposition and his questions were very critical, full of invective as well.

When he got up, he said in crisp English:

“Mr. Chairman Sir, I have six questions for the Prime Minister”.

And he set them out one by one and in recounting each question, he raised his voice a decibel louder – each time angrier than when he had asked the previous question!

And when Vajpayee got up to answer the questions, from the floor and ultimately came to the six questions addressed by the Hon’ble Mr. Natwar Singh, I was left wondering how he would deal with the pointed and somewhat inconvenient questions addressed to him!

But this is what Atalji said, in fluent Hindi in response to the questions addressed to him in English, by the Hon’ble Member from the Congress party.

He said (in Hindi) that Mr. Natwar Singh was a great parliamentarian. He (Mr. Vajpayee) had known him for many many years. He was very intelligent as well and always knew his facts. He then added:
He taught me a great lesson – that it pays not to be angry or to lose your temper when speaking in Parliament. It is always advisable to scotch your opponent with feint praise!

This is one of the things I learnt in my sojourn in Parliament – disarm your opponent – never do it with anger or derision!

Professor Hiren Mukherjee who sat continuously in the Lok Sabha for the full term of five Lok Sabhas from the very first Lok Sabha of 1952 until 1977, has written an inspiring memoir of his experiences – it is called “Portrait of Parliament – reflections and recollections from 1952 to 1977”, published by the Vikas Publishing House. These recollections are worthy of a read. Please get the Book from the library of Parliament or at least Xerox a copy of this book – for your personal use and read it.

Hiren Mukherjee was Parliament’s most eloquent member.

The book is an eye opener as to how proceedings in Parliament used to be conducted in those halcyon days.

In the book, he speaks of the camaraderie that is a necessary result of being together in Parliament, and he says that he counts as his friends members not just of the CPIM or the CPI.

He says, he was encouraged persistently and through quite critical periods of his life in Parliament by his old friend Dinesh Singh and also Shyamnandan Mishra, stalwarts of the Congress party in Parliament and then Ministers in Government.

They were remote from him in political affiliations but personally dear.

And he then says that this must not be thought to be strange.

Litterateur that he was, Hiren Mukherjee then recalls a passage from a book by Bertrand Russell titled ‘The Conquest of Happiness’.

One of the Chapters in it is headed “Envy” – And in that Chapter the following sentence occurs which Hiren Mukherjee quotes:

“have you dear reader ever spoken to a politician, about another politician, preferably of the same party?”

(suggesting it could never be in praise!).

Hiren Mukherjee writes of his sojourns in the first five Lok Sabhas, ) and says how with the sixth Lok Sabha the Congress Party lost its stupendous majority – because and only because of the experiment of the Internal Emergency, which became an excuse for excesses.

But all this is a digression – a lawyer’s bad habit!

Let me come back to the main theme of today’s talk – “Ethics in Politics”: I ask you – can there ever be ethics in politics? Perhaps, but never in party politics.

One of the great dilemmas in our Parliamentary democracy is that whilst political parties as a group have no need or time for ethics, because they are not expected to be ethical but only practical and pragmatic, individual Members of Parliament (even though belonging to and members of political parties) have been provided with a Code of Ethics which they must observe.

There is a dictionary published long years ago called the Doubter’s Dictionary (now out of print) in which ethics has been defined “as a matter of daily practical concern, described glowingly in terms by those who intend to ignore it”.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is what we have done with our Code of Ethics – we have put it in our pockets and ignored it.

I have now come to believe that there is far too much of distorted thinking when people speak glowingly or glibly of Ethics.

Take my own profession. We in the legal profession have prescribed that it is unethical for a lawyer not to accept a brief of a client, even if he considers the client to be a rogue and a scoundrel, and regards his case as a dishonest one.

The professed reason for this rule is stated to be an ethical one – no man accused of an offence or in need of a lawyer in a civil case must be denied legal assistance.

But the real reason why this rule is framed is a selfish one, not at all based on ethics. It is to further the personal interest of the lawyer viz. that he must earn his fees from whatever source, whatever his personal views about the case may be.

Since he has no right to refuse the brief, he must accept it and of course appear in Court – naturally, not for free but for a fee – generally a substantial fee – no matter what his own views about the case or client may be.

I have therefore come to believe that standards of how to conduct oneself in any collective form of activity, whilst it is a good thing, the Rules of Conduct if at all to be set out need to be prescribed by those outside the fold not by those within the fold! Your Rules of Ethics need to be framed not by MPs but by those outside the House!

In the interest of so-called party discipline members of Parliament have to follow the party mandate not their individual conscience nor their personal predilection as to of what is right or wrong.

I must record that in my personal view there may be and there are a few instances of Ethics in Politics – but as I said before and I say so – now – there is no ethics in party politics.

My theory is that political parties are, by definition, unethical in the sense of not being able to distinguish between what is morally right and morally wrong, whereas individual Members belonging to political parties are presumed by rules (both ethical and legal) to be possessed of that moral sense of right and wrong – and to act accordingly.

Political parties were not foreshadowed in our Constitution when it was first promulgated in 1950; it is only 35 years later by an Amendment (the Constitution 52nd amendment) in the year 1985 – that political parties got mentioned, not in the text but in a Schedule – the Tenth Schedule – which spoke about defections by Members of Political Parties and their consequence. Yet ever since 1950, Parliament and State Legislature have always functioned under the aegis of the Party System!

Political parties have little time for ethics, they only have programmes or manifestos on how and when to influence voters voting for them at elections, and when political parties form a government whether individually or collectively at the centre all they have done1 is to see how best governments in the States (of India) which don’t subscribe to their individual party manifestos should be toppled, with consequential imposition of President’s rule (i.e. Centre’s rule).

There is no ethics in party politics especially when one realises a constitutional incongruity which has remained since its inception – viz. that Article 356 has been imposed by the Centre, whether ruled by the Congress, alone by the UPA, by the NDA or by the BJP alone – on at least 126 occasions! Only lip service is paid by political parties to federalism which our Supreme Court has extolled as part of the basic feature of the Constitution – in practice “a basic feature” that has been breached more than 100 times ever since the Constitution was itself enacted! What is ethically wrong has been always made to appear constitutionally right – until Courts have had to intervene: Bommai (1994) being the leading judgment about Court intervention on this point.

Political parties have been all along in effect destroying the very fabric of federalism. In the United States which is truly federal there are only two political parties, and their leaders are not bothered as to which of their one hundred odd States are Republican or Democratic. They are content to say that the voters of such-and-such State have been and are Republicans and that the voters of such-and-such State in the US have always voted for the Democratic Party. But in India such talk has been anathema to all Governments at the Centre.

Like in the poem Omar Khayyam the Centre likes to destroy concepts (expressed in different political party manifestos) and then “build them nearer the heart’s desire”! (i.e. nearer their own) They have been before and even now attempting to up–seat every single political party in power in a particular State which does not subscribe to the manifesto and policies of the Government at the Centre, and have been attempting to install in that State a Government that subscribe to the party manifesto of the party in power at the Centre. Fortunately, so far they have not wholly succeeded. But it they ever do, God forbid, that would be the end of the parliamentary democracy – in a multi-party system – as we have known it in India for the past 66 years.

It is always good to know that whilst the rule is that there is no such thing as ethics in party politics, there are exceptions – as in every rule. Great men (few, very few) have shown by example not by precept or by hypocritical professed statements – that doing the right moral thing at the right time is ethics in politics at its best.

I offer you the following examples of three outstanding members of Parliament – all distinguished leaders. Each of them have provided by example, not by precept, that you can be ethical as – and act accordingly – as an Honourable Member of Parliament.

First and foremost I give you the example of Mr. L. K. Advani. Of course he was a great Parliamentarian – eloquent both in Hindi and in English.

But more than that when the Jain Diaries surfaced (in January 1996) – where his name did not appear but his initials did – along with some other Members of Parliament – and when he along with others was arraigned as accused under the Prevention of Corruption Act, merely because their initials had so appeared (along with a cryptic figure in rupees), L. K. Advani did what every right thinking person should do, but which no right thing person has done since then!

He promptly resigned his seat in Parliament in the year 1996 and publically said that he would come back only when his name was cleared since (as he said and I quote his words): “People vote for us and we have to live up to their trust. In my life, I have always listened to my conscience”.

Ultimately after much trial and tribulation his name (and conscience) was cleared f by the High Court in (1997) and then by the Supreme Court of India in the year 1998 (in the case of CBI Vs. V.C. Shukla) and it was only then that L.K. re-entered Parliament, in triumph!

Doing the right thing in politics – a rare phenomenon these days – is what I would call (in Advani’s instance) not just ethics in politics but heroics in politics. And for this I salute him.

Second example – slightly different – but again exhibited by the most prominent parliamentarian of his time Mr. Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

He had a very trusted efficient and well loved lieutenant in his council of ministers. But when that minister stepped out of his crease and made intemperate remarks against the integrity of the then Chief Justice of India (about wrongly stating his date of birth) and when this became public, Prime Minister Vajpeyee moved swiftly – on the high moral and ethical principle that one constitutional functionary –must never denigrate or malign another high ranking constitutional functionary! He did not call upon the Minister to resign. He went to the President and had him sacked

There were a few protests, from Vajpayee’s own party. But Atalji was adamant – there was no taking back of the dropped Minister.

This high moral sense of values exhibited by Mr. Vajpayee, in July 2000, is what I would regard and would offer you as another great example of ethics in politics.

There are no other instances I know of – except perhaps a third example: that of the distinguished former Speaker of the Lok Sabha Mr. Som Nath Chatterjee.

When the Constitution came into effect in 1950, the first Speaker of the Lok Sabha Mr. Mavlankar, a staunch congressmen, resigned from the Party in the hallowed tradition of the Speaker of the British Parliament, who (when elected) resigns from the political party of which he has been a Member.

Mavlankar followed that tradition. But ever since then there have been, in succession, 16 Speakers of each Lok Sabha elected at each first session of Parliament (convened after every election), and none of them have resigned their membership of the political party to which they respectively belonged on being elected Speaker. In keeping with this (somewhat dubious) but long tradition Somnath Chatterjee when elected Speaker in 2004 continued as a member of the CPI (M).

But then this non-resignation of the membership of his political party was used by his own political party years later against Somnath to embarrass him. This was in July 2008.

The CPI (M) was then bitterly opposed to Dr.Manmohan Singh for his nuclear deal with President Bush. And when Dr. Manmohan Singh decided to go ahead with the nuclear deal (without Parliamentary approval), CPIM leadership decided to withdraw support to Manmohan Singh’s Government.

The party then called upon Somnath Chatterjee to resign as Speaker, and to vote against the confidence motion as he was still a Member of CPIM Party. Somnath Chatterjee refused stating that “as Speaker I could not be dictated to by the party, since I am expected to be neutral as Speaker.”

After the confidence motion of Dr. Manmohan Singh was voted on, and the UPA Government survived, the CPI (M) on (23.07.2008) summarily expelled Speaker Somnath Chatterjee from his party membership.

It was with a heavy heart that he then continued as Speaker, till the year 2009, since he felt that his expulsion as member was an undue and unwarranted interference with his duties as a Speaker. And morally he was right.

This is perhaps another and a third example of ethics in politics.

I regret that I cannot offer you any other notable example of ethics in politics.

Let me end by informing you that as members of Parliament you individually and collectively are not only privileged but (as I said before) you are conferred with immense power. You therefore need to be reminded of a famous Machiavellian phrase, it is a phrase that must taunt you, but it is also a phrase that must inspire you. Machiavelli had long ago posed the question:

“How does one use power to do good, if wielding power requires one to do evil?”
As good Indians you can have only one answer to this Machiavellian question – that you will always and at all times use the power of your high office to do good, never to do evil.

The writer is a constitutional jurist and senior advocate to the Supreme Court.

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