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Why the Speaker should not have suspended 25 Congress MPs

Shehzad Poonawalla

Updated: August 4, 2015, 10:17 AM IST
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On Monday Lok Sabha Speaker Sumitra Mahajan showed the “red card” to twenty five Congress MPs who have been protesting in Parliament for the removal of External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, Rajasthan CM Vasundhara Raje for their involvement in the Lalitgate scandal and Madhya Pradesh CM Shivraj Chouhan for the multi-crore Vyapam scam that has seen over forty deaths so far, leaving many in the Opposition to describe it as a “black day for Indian Democracy”. Twenty five of the forty four Congress Members of Parliament (MPs) from the Lok Sabha were suspended by the Speaker for a period of five days for "persistently, wilfully obstructing" the House" under Rule 374(A).

As someone who has spent time serving in the Parliamentary Affairs Ministry here are ten take-aways on why the decision of the Speaker to suspend the twenty five MPs seems not only unfair and harsh but also counter-productive to the Narendra Modi government.

1) Instead of isolating the 44 seat strong Congress party in Loksabha, this decision has unified the over 100 seat strong opposition with Trinamool Congress (34), Samajwadi Party (5), Left Front (11), NCP (6) and AAP (4) MPs expressing solidarity with the Congress party and deciding to boycott the Lok Sabha during the same period.

2) On all the prime time TV shows BJP spokespersons could be seen defending and justifying the decision of the Speaker leaving many to wonder whether the Speaker acted independently or at the behest of her party! Sumitra Mahajan’s behavior as a “puppet speaker” has come into question on more than one occasion with the Opposition feeling it has not been given its due, owing to the pressure on her from the government. The AG for instance had ruled that the Congress did not deserve the post of the Leader of Opposition following which the Speaker took the same decision!

3) Many TV Channels and commentators, mostly the usual suspects who nurture a soft corner for BJP, took the line that the suspension was justified on the premise that MPs disrupting the proceedings deserved “no pay” for doing “no work”. Frankly this argument makes little sense. Just in March 2015 Parliamentary Affairs Minister Venkaiah Naidu claimed that productivity of Parliament in the first phase of the Budget Session was the highest in a decade! He termed it as a rare achievement and complimented all the MPs belonging to all parties. Quoting a PRS study Naidu added that productivity was as high as “123.5% in LokSabha and 106% in Rajya Sabha”. Would that mean that these commentators and TV channels will start advocating “more pay for more work” for MPs? It also busts the claims of several commentators that the Congress MPs have only been obstructing proceedings because if that was indeed the case, how would Rajya Sabha, where Congress and its allies enjoy a majority, have such a high productivity?

4) Another argument being made was the waste of tax payer money due to disruptions. Assuming that each minute of Parliamentary disruption does cost the exchequer Rs 2.5 lakh, would a party that held Parliament hostage for over 400 hours collectively between 2010 and 2013 like to account for the waste of tax payer money it indulged while in Opposition? It would be to the tune of Rs 6000 crore. Now, nobody is suggesting that two wrongs make a right. But certainly the pot cannot call the kettle black, can it? And if BJP and its cheerleaders are dead against following the same precedents set by themselves when it comes to justifying parliamentary disruptions, then they should be precluded from citing past cases of suspension of MPs dating back to 1972,1989, etc as precedents to justify the mass-suspension of Congress’ twenty five MPs now.

5) What is most discomforting is the reminiscence this entire affair bears to the goings-on in the Gujarat Assembly. As CM of Gujarat, there were multiple occasions, when the then Modi Government “muscled” its way through legislation by throwing out opposition members from the Gujarat Assembly. In 2013, the Modi government which was entangled in a battle with the Gujarat Governor on the Lokayukta Bill threw he entire opposition out and then passed the passed the controversial and contested bill without incorporating the changes sought by the Governor. Back then Digvijaya Singh had tweeted: "This is what Democracy means to BJP's PM in waiting. Would Sushmaji and Jaitleyji like this to be followed in Parliament?" The answer to that question by Digvijaya Singh seems quite evident today, doesn't it?

6) Given that the Modi government is fast getting a reputation of being quite intolerant to criticism and dialogue, especially when it comes to issues like enforcing travel bans on environmental activists, cracking down on NGOs, hounding likes of Teesta Setalvad, etc the idea of throwing out twenty five MPs is also seen as an attempt to silence the opposition voice in Parliament.

7) It certainly does not convey that the Modi government is a strong government. Strong governments with a majority of 282 seats should not feel so threatened by a bunch of forty four MPs that they would go ahead and get more than 50% of the principal opposition thrown out of the House!

8) When as an opposition party the BJP held that “Debate cannot be a substitute for accountability” and “Disruptions are a legitimate parliamentary tactic”, it cannot expect that parameter, set by its own leaders, to not be applied by those who occupy the opposition space today. Resignations of Ashwani Kumar, Pawan Bansal and many others were sought and scalped on this very pretext. Why then should this not apply to Sushma Swaraj?

9) Those anchors who claim to know what the “nation wants to know” must rewind to some of their TV debates from November 2012. Back then, after the monsoon session had been washed out, the ruling Congress was being lectured on why they could not compromise and accommodate the demands of the then opposition BJP. Why not expect the same from the current ruling party too then? Why have different standards? Why label the opposition today as “disruptive”?

10) Modi government ought to realize that running Parliament is an exercise in consensus building not confrontation.

(Shehzad Poonawalla is a Congress supporter and a lawyer. Views expressed here are his personal and not of CNN-IBN/ibnlive.)

First Published: August 4, 2015, 10:17 AM IST

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