Friday, August 24, 2012

Parliament logjam

Remember an old ad which ended with "and the argument continues"? The media and political discourse on Parliament disruptions is turning out to be the same though just one-sided. I don't see any commentator pondering for a moment on many issues behind the current Parliament logjam.

Rather than just lamenting that BJP is disrupting the Parliament, it would help to see what generally helps in keeping Parliament peaceful and working?

A good Ruling Party - Opposition Party relationship
Between 1991-1996, India possibly was in its most crucial phase which politically was also the most stressful one. Yet, Narsimha Rao government could navigate through landmines of economic liberalisation with great ease inspite of a minority government. What helped him was his ability to reach out to main opposition BJP and build a consensus on crucial issues. Narsimha Rao gave necessary respect to the opposition and ensured he does not act with arrogance or disdain towards them. Now come to 2004-2012. And what you see is complete lack of respect for the opposition. PM Manmohan Singh has only shown intellectual disdain and power drunk arrogance towards the opposition. To top it, he also indulged in unholy act of buying MPs from the opposition (PVNR too did it but from smaller fringe players, not main opposition). So why should opposition bail out Manmohan Singh when his government is under pressure?

For any ruling combine to push important bills, it is necessary for them to build a broader consensus with all parties. This means openness from the government to accept other viewpoints. How many times has UPA done this? It has ignored BJP throughout its tenure. For other parties, it has used or rather misused CBI to get their support. When everything fails, they step on federal spirit to browbeat or bribe smaller parties into supporting them. Is this a healthy democratic manner to run a government?

Yes, debates are one of the pillars of the Parliament. But they become just decorative pillars (and not protecting pillars) if the government does not act on the debates specially points put forth by the opposition. Take Lokpal for example. It saw some of the most brilliant debates seen in recent times. But what was the result? Government used it allies in LS to water it down and misused the office of RS Speaker to prevent a vote.

If one does an honest review of UPA government on above points, one can see their absolute failure in respecting the sanctity of the Parliament. Does then such a government deserve any sympathy when it finds itself in a corner.

Parliament has some of its institutions like PAC and JPC (whenever constituted). Congress has been consistently abusive and dismissive of the PAC led by Murali Manohar Joshi. He has been hauled over coals for asking the government tough questions as PAC chief. As for JPC on 2G, the less said the better. Congressmen in the JPC feel it okay to call an old and ill Atal Bihari Vajpayee for a probe but won't call P Chidambaram or Manmohan Singh for the same. They have reduced JPC to a joke this time.

Against this entire backdrop, one will find that disruption of the Parliament is the only option right now. All other options like debates, JPC, PAC have failed to get senses into a corrupt, power drunk, arrogant Congress. They care a damn for democratic values and to fight them just on those values did not help us in last 8 yrs and won't help in future too.

People forget that for a large part between 2004-2010 (except during Cash4Vote), Parliament functioned smooth. But what was the result? How many crucial bills were passed? Did the government bring in any major bills or initiatives then? Except 2, I can't think of any. So to say that reforms and governance can happen only if Parliament functions smoothly is a major blame shifting activity.

Coming to the current session, some of the key bills 'planned' are Women's Reservation, Lokpal, Pensions reforms, Insurance reforms, Banking reforms, Whistle Blowers Act. Now while everyone knows the long journey of first 2 bills and government's lack of will to pass it, Pensions and Insurance reforms are pending since more than 4 years due to opposition from UPA allies. Whistle Blower Act too is a watered down version of what was shown last year. So the valid question is why just blame current disruption when most of the pending business has been pending since years because of the UPA government. To just blame BJP for it is sheer lack of understanding democracy.

How serious is Congress about Parliament can be seen from the attendance sheet of Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi. Their silence in the Parliament speaks a great deal about their disdain towards the institution. Add to that the fact that PM is always on a foreign trip during a session. I can't recall a single PM who was so casual about Parliament and its business.

You generally have to use a thorn to remove a thorn. The UPA is much more than a thorn in nation's soul. So to remove that, current tactics used by the BJP are valid last options.

Liberty - just a shoe brand or more?

Hardly any subject (except sex) has been as closely discussed or followed like Free Speech or Liberty is. As India stares at web censorship by a desperate government, we find ourselves in mdst of the same discussion.

So what is freedom of speech? I am a no google experts or a think tank or a rent a quote master. I will use a simple definition I and my friend Sai had used in an online group called Bindass Bol. Liberty is freedom of a person to swing his stick wildly. But it should not touch anyone's crotch. If it does, the other person has the liberty to react. That is freedom for me.

People will say "oh but, xyz is indulging in hate speech disguised as free speech". Well to start with who defines what is hate and what is not? For e.g. For many, Imam Bukhari or Raj Thackeray are indulging in hate speech. But for a sizeable section, they are just giving words to their woes (whether true or not). If left to people, judging hate speech is very subjective and will just increase friction and intolerance. Letting government do it can result in misuse of it to quell disset and promote appeasement. Only courts should be allowed to say what is a hate speech and what is not.

The only way to fight hate speech or misuse of liberty is to fight it legally. Take people to court. In M F Hussain's case, I agree with those who filed cases against him but not with those who threatened violence against him. India has enough laws which if followed carefully work perfectly well.

Coming to the recent case of blocking few twitter handles. The list will clearly show you that the idea was to muzzle anti-government voices and not to stop hate speech because very few in that list were guilty of hate tweets. And if government is keen to work on stopping hate tweets, it has to act against many IDs from across political and religious spectrum. Blocking a few Hindu Right is more politics than security. But expecting a balance from a government keen on minority appeasement is plain foolishness.

What about the role of common people in upholding liberty? A very crucial role. While many in current saga rushed by the sides of those blocked (irrespective of ideological differences), a large number of so-called liberals either kept quite or supported the blocks. The duplicity of those supporting the blocks and such cases hurts liberty as badly as strikes by the intolerants. Many media stars who cry foul on media regulation were the first to welcome these blocks. Very few, like Shivam Vij, Salil Tripathi, Sadanand Dhume had the courage to say the right things inspite of ideological differences. But many others including few friends failed that crucial test. To uphold free speech, self regulation and unbiased approach are the only options.

As long as we don't do the above, Liberty will remain a shoe brand and no more.