Lawmaking Peril in a Raucous Democracy

The past few weeks have witnessed India's legislators stooping to new lows in parliamentary behavior. From flinging shoes at opposition members to breaking furniture in assemblies, wrenching mikes away from the opposition, hurling paper missiles at governors to exchanging blows and mouthing profanities, the recent slugfests mark a nadir in parliamentary conduct.

Legislative sessions have repeatedly been reduced to battlefields, with violence marring the proceedings. The first major disruption this year took place on February 10 when the Uttar Pradesh assembly got off to a cantankerous start with the opposition Samajwadi Party members protesting the December 24 murder of a state-employed engineer named Manoj Kumar Gupta who was allegedly killed at the behest of a Bahujan Samaj Party legislator named Shekhar Tiwari when the former repeatedly refused to cough up Rs five million for Chief Minister Mayawati's birthday celebrations on January 16.

The Samajwadi lawmakers jumped onto tables and threw paper missiles and microphones at Governor T.V. Rajeswar, who watched aghast from his podium while his marshals tried to fend off the attacks. Lawmakers burst gas balloons which they had carried into the house unchecked. As the house dissolved into chaos, the governor abandoned his house address and Speaker Sukhdeo Rajbhar adjourned the proceedings.

A day later, the pandemonium shifted to the Andhra Pradesh assembly where almost the entire opposition belonging to the Grand Alliance protested the governor's refusal to call a hearing into the fraud scandal involving the Satyam IT company, which covered up billions of dollars in losses. Although the exasperated Speaker K R Suresh Reddy suspended 34 Grand Alliance members, they defied the speaker's orders and had to be bodily carried from the house.

In the ensuing melee, microphones were wrenched from their stands, papers were torn and flung in the air as legislators engaged in fistfights with khaki-clad security personnel. In the meantime, the suspended assembly members rushed in and out of the house to give sound bites to the electronic media.

The steady decline in the quality of the Indian political class has been one of the biggest failures of the country's democratic polity. Recently, the Lok Sabha Speaker, Som Nath Chatterjee , got so exasperated with misbehaving parliamentarians in the lower house that he placed a curse on the group, saying they would lose the upcoming elections.

"You are insulting the people of this country and wasting public money. You are behaving in a condemnable manner," he shouted.

Although Chatterjee later apologized for his outburst, he could well be echoing civil society's angst and despair over the misdemeanor of the people's representatives. Instead of focusing on the work at hand, the house is increasingly getting entangled in needless disruptions which have counted for a cumulative loss of 415 hours in the 14th Lok Sabha. This is amply reflected in the amount of work that gets done within the house. From 140 sittings a year in the Lok Sabha in the 1980s, the number plummeted to 46 in 2008.

The behavior of the elected representatives is hardly surprising. More than 100 Indian MPs have criminal cases pending against them while about 15 have fought elections from jail. During a confidence vote last year, India witnessed the spectacle of imprisoned members being brought to Parliament to vote. This criminalization of Indian politics is the root cause of the bad quality of its representatives.

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"What we've been witnessed in state assemblies recently is shameful," said High Court lawyer Vijay Pachauri. "Instead of doing meaningful work for the public which elects them, our power hungry politicians are wasting time in petty politics. Disruption of the Parliamentary and State Assemblies amounts to disruption of democracy itself."

Some time back, the Orissa Assembly also witnessed bedlam as Congress-led opposition parties demanded a white paper from the government on communal violence in one of the state's districts. Belligerent legislators demanded that the government place a white paper on the killing of the leader of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, which triggered communal riots. The police who blamed the Maoists for the killings, while Hindu organizations held Christians responsible for the crime and launched attacks on the community. Thousands of Christians were forced to flee from their homes after their houses were attacked by rampaging mobs. At least 38 people were killed in the violence. Such was the seething anger of the MLAs over the issue that the Speaker had to adjourn the house thrice.

Similar violence marked the Kolkata assembly last year when six lawmakers belonging to the Left Front, two staff of the Assembly and two journalists were badly injured when members of both sides of the House came to blows over alleged police harassment of Congress leader Mamata Banerjee. Banerjee was allegedly was refused entry to a rally in Singur opposing the establishment of a Tata Motors car manufacturing plant. Her supporters damaged state buses, set ablaze a police motorcycle and blocked roads in parts of the city. Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee later described the violence in the Assembly as "an unprecedented and violent expression of political desperation".

According to social activist Keerthy Reddy, "Of late, our legislators have been behaving like villains. Such large-scale vandalism inside the House – which is a recent phenomenon -- is tantamount to legislative terrorism."

While many may blame such `terrorism' on election fever in the run-up to national polls scheduled for May there's no denying that parliamentary disruption is an expensive affair. According to government estimates, each hour of a parliamentary session costs the Indian taxpayer around US$20,000.

"MPs who create a ruckus in the house not only make themselves the laughing stock of millions but also exhibit defiance of the parliamentary process itself," says Pachuari. "Bedlam distracts the house from important issues by preventing proper debate and mocks the sufferings of people whom these questions affect directly."

However, while the recent crop of incidents involving Indian legislators marks a new low for Indian politics, such misbehavior isn't entirely new. In India's most populous state of Uttar Pradesh, scores of parliamentarian were injured in clashes inside the House in 1993. In 1997, microphones and shoes were flung at the chair by opposition legislatures. Even inside the Lok Sabha, the Upper House, MPs have often come to blows during heated debates. Then there was the spectacle of MPs displaying wads of cash inside the house last year which they claimed were bribes paid to vote for the Congress government during a trust vote, which caught the attention of the world media.

Given the current lack of decorum within the Indian parliament, the government is seeking to find ways to enforce a stricter code of conduct for its wayward parliamentarians, including banning misbehaving legislators from attending sessions or demanding compensation. So far, they haven't been able to do it, and that doesn't augur well for the world's largest democracy.