Denigration of Parliament: Protecting national interest by disruptions
Denigration of Parliament
Protecting national interest with disruptions
by Jagdeep S. Chhokar
From The Tribune, September 06, 2012
THE monetary figure of Rs. 1.86 lakh crore attributed to the coal scam is actually irrelevant and so is the claim that there has been no loss as the coal is still inside “the mother earth” made by one of the ministers. But there has been a colossal national loss, and in two forms. One is the severe denigration of the institution of Parliament, and the other the reiteration of the loss of credibility of the entire political establishment. How does one move from the CAG report to these two?
Let us take Parliament first. The Leader of the Opposition in one of the Houses of Parliament writes: “If parliamentary accountability is subverted and a debate is intended to be used merely to put a lid on parliamentary accountability, it is then a legitimate tactic for the Opposition to expose the government through parliamentary instruments available at its command. Presently, a national debate on allocation of natural resources is on.”
This raises two questions: (1) Is preventing Parliament from performing its legitimate and constitutional duty, and completely preventing it from functioning a “legitimate tactic” for the Opposition? (2) Should “national debate(s)” on matters of critical importance to the nation happen in Parliament or in TV studios, or newspaper columns?
“The Opposition” seems to be under the impression that the best way to protect national interest is to not let Parliament function. There have been far too many instances of this desecration of the temple of democracy in the last few months. In an earlier instance the Leader of the Opposition in one of the Houses would announce in the evening that they would not allow the Parliament to function the next day. I believe there can be no greater offence against democracy, and thus against the nation, than the premeditated prevention of Parliament from functioning.
It is not only the Opposition that is to be blamed. The ruling coterie is equally at fault but more of that later. First, one wonders about the duties and responsibilities of the presiding officers of the two Houses. Are their duties and responsibilities limited to requesting the members to take their seats, maintain decorum, observe silence, etc., and in extreme cases adjourn the House for two hours, till after lunch, or till the next working day, or is there more to it? It seems strange that their accountability seems to be only to their electors, the members of the Houses, and not to either the House itself as an institution, or to the Constitution, or to what is best called “We, the people”.
Now to the behaviour of the ruling coterie. The CAG, in para 4.1 of its report, says: “Delay in the introduction of process of competitive bidding has rendered the existing process beneficial to a large number of private companies as has been observed by the then Secretary (Coal) in July 2004 itself…Audit has attempted to estimate the financial impact of the benefit to the coal blocks allottees restricting itself to private parties.” It then gives the methodology adopted for this purpose before giving the figure of Rs.185,591.34 crore. It then gives four explanations given by the Ministry of Coal in February and March 2012 before explaining why the contentions of the Ministry are not acceptable. Its final conclusion is “Therefore, audit is of the strong opinion that there is a need for strict regulatory and monitoring mechanism to ensure that the benefit of cheaper coal is passed on to the consumers.”
What has been the ruling dispensation’s response? One minister says there has been no loss as the coal is still inside the “mother earth”, overlooking the fact that the ownership has passed from the government/public to private hands. Another “lawyer and a Congress MP” while expressing “personal” views, says, “CAG does not have the constitutional or legal mandate to make its own policy prescriptions and then utilise them to compute notional or even mythical loss or gain.” He also has doubts about the Indians’ knowledge of the English language. The 82-word sentence in which he expresses this doubt reads: “Anybody with even a nodding acquaintance with the English language can discern that the constitutional provisions, parliamentary enactment, rules, regulations and even the OM, read together, do not permit CAG the kind of role and approach it has arrogated to itself of juxtaposing its personal policy prescriptions against the policy choices made by a democratically elected government and arriving at quixotic estimates of presumptive loss or windfall gain numbers which by themselves are incorrect and open to both dispute and demolition.” It leaves one wondering if “a nodding acquaintance” with a language also includes writing in a language that folks with “a nodding acquaintance” can understand what the writer is trying to say.
The Prime Minister’s statement, sadly, also does not raise the level of debate much. The word “consensus” occurs four times. Reading the statement makes one wonder whether we have a competitive, representative democracy or a friendly, consensual democracy working in the country!
Developing a consensus is obviously difficult, as we well know. Hasn’t it taken over 42 years to build a consensus on the institution of Lokpal to which the entire political establishment is committed? And we are nowhere near it. Also, we are still working on getting a consensus on reservation for women. But there was an immediate consensus when the Supreme Court ordered that candidates contesting elections disclose their assets and criminal cases pending against them, and an Ordinance had to be issued to prevent that from happening. But on 01.11.2004 “The PMO stated, ‘…Therefore, there is no urgency in the matter. Accordingly, there is no need to bring in the required amendment in the Coal Mines (Nationalisation) Act through an Ordinance.’”
The Prime Minister also “humbly submit(s) that, even if we accept CAG’s contention that benefits accrued to private companies, their computations can be questioned on a number of technical points.” While the humility of the Prime Minister is well known and must be admired, this statement is hardly prime ministerial. Questioning the computations on technical grounds is not what the Prime Minister should be doing.
But then he also says that several state governments, and he specifically mentions some that had the opposition parties in power, disagreed with the competitive bidding process as it “would dilute their prerogative in the selection of lessees.” He, of course, does not clarify what this “prerogative” is. The dictionary, however, explains prerogative as “an exclusive right, privilege, a power, immunity, etc.” In what or whose interest will state governments use this exclusive right is any one’s guess.
The reason for this disrespect to Parliament and to the people is that political parties do not feel accountable to anyone except themselves. Their smugness arises from the feeling of invulnerability for five years after each election, and knowing that their competitors after five years will be the same, at least in general terms. The slide in the prestige of the Parliament and the credibility of the political establishment will continue till the political parties realize that they have to reform themselves in their self interest, even if they do not want to do that in the national interest.
The writer is a former Professor, Dean, and Director In-charge of the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad