If you ask even a well-informed fellow Indian who Hilary Benn is, you will most likely draw a blank. Jeremy Corbyn maybe, just maybe, as the British Labour Party’s new leader has the reputation of a formidable radical and his rise has been in the global headlines lately. But Hilary Benn? Not likely. These are very insular, inward-looking times. Britain, anyway, is a declining power now along with the old class of Indian Anglophiles. It may be worthwhile, therefore, to Google him and listen to his 13-minute speech in the House of Commons on the use of air power against ISIS in Syria.
It is a stirring speech: a senior Labour MP, in fact the shadow Foreign Secretary, making the case for bombings, even justifying it in terms of both an obligation for fellow European Socialists (Francois Hollande’s government in France) and as part of Labour’s commitment to internationalism. But more stirring is the way Parliament responds, on both sides of the ideological divide. Initially, Prime Minister David Cameron fidgets uncomfortably and grimaces when Mr Benn upbraids him on his rude criticism of Mr Corbyn (whom Mr Benn is indirectly attacking, in fact) and demands an apology; but as the speech cuts into substantive issues, he smiles in approval, even admiration. Mr Benn makes a passionate call to arms against ISIS, who he calls the new fascists, and reminds the House in conclusion that when he finishes, he will return to the side of the House opposing the motion to approve the use of offensive air power in Syria — but is urging all MPs to vote for the government’s motion.
The motion is carried by a large majority in the end, of 174. More significant than the Conservative majority that made it a done deal anyway is the fact that 66 Labour MPs voted in support, crossing the party line. Unlike what would have happened in India, they wouldn’t attract punishment or disqualification under anti-defection laws. Labour had internal disagreements on this issue and, respecting these, the party allowed open voting rather than enforce a whip.
There are many points for us in India to note here. British politics is no less polarised than ours. Yet the main opposition party allowed open voting on a divisive issue, underlining the strength of the party’s internal democracy. It is impossible in India. All parties are now dictatorships of their high commands or supremos — and, forget relaxing the whip, even if a party MP praises a policy or personality of the other side, it is seen as treason.
Moments of bipartisan solidarity are rare in our Parliament. We see these in times of war, terror attacks, natural calamities and sometimes in pursuit of a higher common ideal, like the defence of conventional politics when under a vicious attack from Anna Hazare. There are also debates where old divisions persist but the level of discourse can be top-notch. We saw flashes of this in the Constitution Day debate in the ongoing session — and my favourites of all time are the two debates on secularism when Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s governments faced confidence motions (in 1996 and 1999). But all that is very different from MPs being able to act like public representatives with minds of their own, rather than obedient, unquestioning, unflinching followers of the party whip.
There are only three places where our MPs can still manage to be themselves and not party robots. The first two are Parliament’s Central Hall and the New Delhi after-hours party circuit, where deals are cut and rivalries or enmities go into suspended animation. The third is parliamentary committees. These are the only forums where MPs can afford to voice their own individual opinions. I have testified at some and can vouch for the high quality of questioning, showing great homework by the MPs. Many of their reports are quite brilliant, laden with great data and analysis. You can never tell which MP was for or against these final recommendations, as there is no voting. How does such a bitterly divided polity keep on producing such consensus?
One reason, sadly, is that these parliamentary institutions are not open to the public or media coverage — which is in principle such a pity, but in practice a blessing. If it was open to the public and media coverage, would any Indian MP dare to go against the party’s stated position? Today, it is quite common for members to weigh in against their party positions in these committees. When the United Progressive Alliance was in power, for example, some Congress MPs on respective committees opposed both the pension Bill and increases in foreign direct investment in insurance.
We fret that our parliamentary system is broken, that too few laws are passed and with too little debate. The power to stop legislation through what is called “halla” (pandemonium, that much loved expression in Indian media) is exercised as often as the arrogance to railroad a legislation through “halla”. In the United States, Senators employ the filibuster to block Bills; in India, MPs jump into the well of the House, even throw things at each other, and sometimes at the Speaker. Parties propose laws when in power but oppose them once out, and vice-versa. Editorialists can keep calling this hypocrisy, people continue to lose faith in their representatives — but nothing moves.
How, for example, would our Parliament have handled a discussion of the kind in British Parliament on Syria? Besides blaming each other for causing the crisis, even if the opposition did not want to block a resolution, it would probably have staged a walkout.
It is time, therefore, to take a fresh look at the anti-defection law and the whip system. If parties started allowing people to speak and vote on important issues — at least on some issues — without the fear of anti-defection law, our Parliament will get both better and more productive. So will Indian politics, where the greatest shame now is the total absence of inner-party democracy. The Congress has destroyed its own institutions, including the Congress Working Committee which is fully nominated and rarely meets; and the Bharatiya Janata Party, under the new dispensation, is headed that way. Most of the other parties, with the exception of the Communist parties, are now political mafias owned by dynasties. Our anti-defection law, as it is now employed, is their ally. This should change. Then, maybe we will even see some Rt-Hon-Benn-style principled breaking of ranks, even in defiance of the current party leader.