It is possible that Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati may have forgotten a famous speech by B R Ambedkar about the “grammar of anarchy” when, in an outburst last Wednesday, she berated Vice-President and Rajya Sabha Chairman Hamid Ansari. That is ironical since that speech, by a man assiduously commemorated otherwise, referred to constitutional democracy and the need to jettison the politics of the street. Ambedkar’s point was that parliamentary decorum is critical for a constitutional democracy to function. Yet Ms Mayawati’s behaviour is not unusual for India’s Parliament; such are the standards to which debates have sunk in recent years. Yet, till recently, much of the undignified conduct has been the prerogative of the Lok Sabha – MPs “rushing to the well of the House” has become a stock phrase in parliamentary reports – where hurly-burly politics conducted by people’s representatives may be tolerated up to a point. The Rajya Sabha, to which Ms Mayawati is a recent entrant, is expected to rise above the considerations of electoral politics and enable saner counsel to prevail. That basic function has long been diluted with all political parties stuffing it with their favourites. Ms Mayawati’s frustration at the House’s inability to introduce the Bill on reservations in job promotions is understandable. But she is an experienced legislator, and sufficiently au fait with parliamentary procedure to know that she should have vented her ire on the Congress’ floor managers. True, such disrespect to the chair was not worse than the louche disruptions by the Opposition the day before — the latter having caused an unprecedented walkout by Mr Ansari, following repeated interruptions during Question Hour. Mr Ansari was led to wonder at the point of Question Hour itself — the most important way for MPs to hold the government to account is hardly being used.
Mr Ansari is a respected man and it is no surprise that he has attracted enormous sympathy across party lines. But the larger question of legislative decorum remains to be addressed. In Assemblies across the states, unedifying sights of MLAs resorting to fisticuffs (as in Uttar Pradesh), sleeping in the aisles as a protest (Andhra Pradesh) and, ridiculously, turning up in helmets to make a point about House violence (as in West Bengal) have become common. Each minute of running Parliament costs Rs 2.5 lakh, former parliamentary affairs minister Pawan Bansal had told reporters in September this year. Yet each session is increasingly distinguished by disruptions on everything from issues such as farmer suicides to the spectrum scam and mining controversies. These are all vital topics that impact the country and should be discussed and debated by elected representatives — but in a considered manner rather than via the shouting matches to which the country’s legislative processes have descended.
Correcting this problem should begin at the Centre. The deputy chairman of the Rajya Sabha and the speaker of the Lok Sabha have considerable power to correct and discipline errant MPs; these powers are traditionally used sparingly. Given the manner in which many MPs have conducted themselves in recent days, it is time for those powers to be used more often.