Indian Parliament – Debate Or Combat?

Indian Parliament – Debate Or Combat?

A Parliament which curtails the cut-and-thrust of government-opposition encounters is a degraded institution. Hopefully this phase would pass like the British Interregnum in the 17th century.

K C SinghUpdated: Friday, August 11, 2023, 09:43 PM IST
article-image
Representative Image

The no-confidence motion against the Union government debate in the Lok Sabha was held on August 8-10. Rahul Gandhi’s membership, restored a day earlier, created a distraction from the Manipur crisis, the raison d'etre of the motion. The aim was to force Prime Minister Narendra Modi to face the House. The countdown having begun to the next Lok Sabha election, unsurprisingly the atmosphere was surcharged with partisanship.

The BJP has devised new means to hamper the Opposition whenever compelled to face a Parliamentary debate. The chairs in both Houses delete the slightest negative reference to the prime minister. The live telecast by Parliament’s television channel allegedly shifts the cameras from Opposition speakers more frequently than when ruling party members or their supporters speak. Opposition members are suspended for “unparliamentary language” at the drop of a hat. Therefore the Opposition finds that a level playing-field is missing in the very temple of democracy.

While the British Parliament also has rules, customs and traditions about Parliamentary language and conduct, it also has a long history of members using wit, sarcasm and repartee to corner opponents. Excessively restrictive interpretation of those norms can be inimical to free debate. The presiding officers in India’s two Houses must rethink their partisan protectiveness towards the government.

The British Parliament’s past needs examination to decipher the evolution of debating skills. After the regicide and death of Charles I there was Civil War (1642-51) and the Interregnum (1649-60) when Oliver Cromwell ruled a Republic with a firm and excessively moralistic hand. But the restoration of Charles II not only brought humour and wit to theatres but also the royal court and Parliament. Arguments were settled by repartee and debate rather than by duels and sword-fights.

The redline was of course the persona and life of the young King. When William Coventry in a session of Parliament by a play of words implied the promiscuity of the King, especially his relations with actors and actresses, during the Christmas recess he found himself waylaid by soldiers to have the tip of nose sliced. But the King would also respond to criticism by witty retorts rather than brute force.

An example is his response to a short verse and mock The King’s Epitaph by 2nd Earl of Rochester which ran as follows:

“Here lies our Sovereign Lord the King

Whose word no man relies on,

Who never said a foolish thing

Nor ever did a wise one.”

Charles II responded that his words were his own but his actions were those of his advisers. This created the tradition of wit and repartee, the golden period in British Parliament of which was in the 19th century. The last duel however was also fought at the start of that period in 1809 when Lord Castlereagh, hearing rumours about being dropped from the Cabinet, sought to restore his honour by challenging his Cabinet colleague George Canning. When one of them got shot in the thigh the altercation ended with shaking of hands. Canning went on to become prime minister in 1827.

The writer-statesman Benjamin Disraeli, eventually the prime minister, was famous for his sharp wit. His constant rival was William Gladstone and the exchanges between them are legendary. When asked to define the difference between misfortune and calamity he said it would be a misfortune if Mr Gladstone fell into river Thames. It would be a calamity if someone pulled him out. Substitute Thames with Yamuna and Gladstone with a ruling-party worthy — and imagine the trolling and FIRs that would follow.

Indian Parliament also has a tradition of repartee and wit. Late prime minister AB Vajpayee elicited laughter when playing on his name he said he may be “Atal”, meaning unshakeable, but was not a “Bihari”. Today prosecution may be launched for maligning the people of a state. Late President Zail Singh told Buta Singh when he became Home Minister that he needed to be renamed. He was no longer a Buta ie sapling. He was now a Darakht, a tree. But the new BJP does not value those skills. It responds to sharp criticism by unleashing the agencies, having the chairs in assemblies and Parliament intervene, trolling by its social media army and registering FIRs. Globally radically right- or left-wing politicians generally fear humour or satire.

But the Opposition too lacks speakers with the linguistic facility to pinch without hurting. Congress party leader in Lok Sabha Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury struggles with Hindi, now by his own admission, and is hardly fluent in English. He has now stumbled trying to play on the name Nirav. Rahul Gandhi went overboard employing “Bharat Mata” metaphorically. Lord Palmerston warned that “Half the wrong conclusions at which mankind arrives are by the abuse of metaphors”. Master orators employ metaphors to good effect.

A Parliament which curtails the cut-and-thrust of government-opposition encounters is a degraded institution. Hopefully this phase would pass like the British Interregnum in the 17th century.

KC Singh is former secretary, Ministry of External Affairs

RECENT STORIES

NHRC Notice To Rajasthan Director General Of Prisons Over Prisoner's Death In Ajmer Central Jail

NHRC Notice To Rajasthan Director General Of Prisons Over Prisoner's Death In Ajmer Central Jail

Chhattisgarh CM Vishnu Deo Sai Unveils Plans To Restart MISA Detainees' Pension

Chhattisgarh CM Vishnu Deo Sai Unveils Plans To Restart MISA Detainees' Pension

VIDEO: Chhattisgarh Congress MLA Kavita Pran Lahrey Faces Backlash Over 'God's Grace' Statement; BJP...

VIDEO: Chhattisgarh Congress MLA Kavita Pran Lahrey Faces Backlash Over 'God's Grace' Statement; BJP...

Nafe Singh Rathee Murder: CBI To Probe INLD Chief's Shooting, Says Haryana Home Minister Anil Vij

Nafe Singh Rathee Murder: CBI To Probe INLD Chief's Shooting, Says Haryana Home Minister Anil Vij

Tamil Nadu: Setback For Minister I Periyasamy As Madra High Court Sets Aside His Discharge In...

Tamil Nadu: Setback For Minister I Periyasamy As Madra High Court Sets Aside His Discharge In...