Nineteen Rajya Sabha MPs of the Opposition suspended for a week, a day after four Lok Sabha Opposition MPs were suspended for the entire Monsoon Session. This was not a show of “enough is enough” firmness by the Lok Sabha Speaker and the Deputy Chairman of the Upper House. This cannot be passed off as action taken to “uphold the dignity of the House”, to punish “unruly behaviour” “misconduct” and “utter disregard” to the House and the authority of the Chair. A decision that effectively deprives 23 Opposition MPs of a voice in Parliament for a week or the entire session, must, in the first place, be avoided. If it must be taken, the bar must be set very high indeed. Nothing that transpired in either House over the last few days can be said to merit this extreme form of disciplinarianism. The suspensions come in a political context that makes them look even more jarring and disproportionate. Already beset by a fading of lustre that afflicts institutions in general with the passage of time, growing cynicism and the pressures of populism, Parliament is in particular need of resuscitation in times of a strong executive that feels less accountable to the legislature. When spaces are shrinking for the Opposition to ask questions and hold the government to account on a host of issues, including price rise and GST on essential commodities — the two issues that the Opposition has been pressing for a debate on, over the last few days — this large-scale suspension of MPs sends an especially dismal signal on the curtailing of debate.
The party with the larger numbers is able to get its laws passed in Parliament, but it would be an impoverished notion of parliamentary democracy that defines itself only as one where the ruling side has its law, or way. Parliament is looked up to as the highest forum for deliberation because it accords room — and respect — for the views of all the people’s representatives, and especially of those in the minority, not just of a chosen few. Of course, there are rules of the House but they must be used, in letter and in spirit, to make the debate more participatory, not less. And if debate itself is seen to be imperilled by disruption, by slogan-raising or placard-bearing MPs, for instance, then it is the responsibility and challenge of the presiding officer to find ways to restore “order” without taking the axe, in polarised times, to its very possibilities.
It is possible to argue that in a political climate made of the overwhelming majority of the BJP in Lok Sabha and the Opposition’s wavering foothold even in Rajya Sabha, and given that the BJP goes by a winner-takes-all approach and often gives short shrift to the conventions of debate, Parliament’s rule-book needs to be read down to make the House free-er and more inclusive. This requires greater accommodation to those who don’t have the electoral numbers to amplify their voices. In suspending 23 Opposition MPs, the presiding officers of both Houses may have invoked the rule-book but it is an invocation that cramps deliberative democracy. They need to rethink —and rescind.