PUNJAB VIDHAN SABHA
They are publishing a new book, so please go read an old one
- S Pal
They are publishing a new book, so please go read an old one



Noisy? Tantrums? Falling level of debate? Critique of Punjab Vidhan Sabha sessions needs to be more informed
 
JOURNALISM IN OUR times is of tick-a-box variety. So, a day after newspapers carried headlines describing scenes inside and outside the Punjab Assembly, expect lament-dripping analysis bemoaning the falling level of debate, use of unparliamentary language and scant discussion on most relevant issues. There will be cursory mentions of the few bills passed but the focus will remain on the ruling Congress' surprise Resolution against some opposition legislators who seemingly dragged higher judiciary into the mud of corruption allegations.

This is how Vidhan Sabha sessions are covered: A broadspectrum criticism of Assembly sitting for too few days, routine demands by opposition that the session's duration be enhanced, a couple of walkouts, a few on-the-spot tantrums, impromptu press conferences over famed pakoras of Punjab Vidhan Sabha's tea-pakora-dispensing press room, and journos looking out for something worthy of a news headline.
 
 Also Read: THE LOOT THAT RAJASTHAN COMMITTED – An insult bigger than Bollywood’s Padmawati!

Anything more serious, and a sense of ennui sets in. An MLA studying the draft of a bill for days, referencing and marshalling arguments in support or opposition of a particular sub-clause and making a long winded extremely intelligent speech in the Assembly is likely to find his name mentioned among "those who also spoke."

As a result, legislators also seem to have given up. A brave soul now and then makes an effort, but is frustrated by our notion of how to judge and assess the functioning of this law making body. Gradually, even a Kanwar Sandhu will realise that it is easier to make it to the headlines by sitting next to a loudmouth, than by bringing the weight of his intelligence to bear on a debate.
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No matter in which state of India you are, no matter whether it is an Assembly or Parliament, and no matter in which decade of India's Independence did you raise this question about the diminishing quality of debate in legislatures, you will receive the same discouraging answer: that legislators in the past used to make brilliant speeches, that debates used to be of much better quality, that MPs or MLAs were less inclined to jump into the well, that Assembly's or Parliament's proceedings used to receive wider media display and that an MP or MLA used to command more respect.
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What can be more exalted than a representative assembly deliberating on matters of common concern? 

Lamenting the decline of Assembly's functioning is nothing new, but I am tempted to quote Michael Oakeshott (the English philosopher and political theorist who impacted our understanding of philosophy of history, religion, aesthetics, education and law as perhaps few others did) that whenever a new book is published, one should go and read an old one. 

No matter in which state of India you are, no matter whether it is an Assembly or Parliament, and no matter in which decade of India's Independence did you raise this question about the diminishing quality of debate in legislatures, you will receive the same discouraging answer: that legislators in the past used to make brilliant speeches, that debates used to be of much better quality, that MPs or MLAs were less inclined to jump into the well, that Assembly's or Parliament's proceedings used to receive wider media display and that an MP or MLA used to command more respect.

As I said, you will do yourself little favour by reading such analysis. No point buying a new book that says only what you could read in the old one.

Few people understand that an Assembly does not function only when it is in session, just as the Parliament's functioning extends over an arc much larger than the duration when the two houses meet. Legislative bodies in India — Lok Sabha, Rajya Sabha and State Assemblies — do their work through standing committees which have become the principal instrument to ensure executive accountability.
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Given the diverse nature of the electorate, the politician has developed a grammar of political language that is outside the grasp of English media which sees walkouts and noisy interruptions as negation of serious debate. 
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The lamenting hordes in journalism, politics and the larger civil society must understand that the days of elitism have long passed, and democratic spaces today are likely to witness heated contests and fights for legitimacy. Thus, it was natural for Parliament and Assembly sessions to become arenas for public posturing, point scoring and legitimacy-garnering tantrums.

Given the diverse nature of the electorate, the politician has developed a grammar of political language that is outside the grasp of English media which sees walkouts and noisy interruptions as negation of serious debate. It cannot wrap its head around Ludhiana's Bains brothers MLA duo's choice of timing to reveal a controversial audio recording, nor can it understand the stratagem of the Parliamentary Affairs Minister Brahm Mohindra springing a surprise with a resolution condemning the audio clip's release.

The elitist lamenting tribe needs to understand that democratic functioning cannot proceed in a single language. The din-raising debate in the Assembly was one variety, the serious work undertaken by the legislators in Standing Committees is another.

Much of the real lawmaking happens in Standing Committees where MLAs of both ruling and opposition sides sit together in a more convivial atmosphere, without the pressure of performing for the media, and come up with legislation that is much tempered with concerns of various sections of society.
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The shenanigans of politicians across the treasury-opposition divide is not why legislative functioning is on a decline; in fact, the shenanigans are merely a symptom of the decline. More important is the near total effacement of the individual legislator.
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Our media focusses far too little on the structure of committees set up by the House, their mandate, the rules and directions governing these and the conventions these follow. Also, the effectiveness of the overall control of the speaker and the chairman on these committees are factors that warrant serious examination. 

Also, any criticism of the three-day session of the Punjab Vidhan Sabha that dwells upon the Assembly session being too short, or why the ruling Congress or the opposition Akali Dal have a vested interest in silencing a Sukhpal Khaira, or why sections of the ruling Congress would actually feel happy about Khaira directly taking on CM Amarinder Singh or Minister Rana Gurjit must contend with other concomitant factors if it has to make any sense.

The shenanigans of politicians across the treasury-opposition divide is not why legislative functioning is on a decline; in fact, the shenanigans are merely a symptom of the decline.

More important is the near total effacement of the individual legislator. Individual MLAs are now almost completely dependent upon the party leadership.

The noise that you see emanating from the House is indicative of the fact that some MLAs have still not been effaced completely. Too few have a social or political base that gives them a sense of being secure. A Sukhpal Khaira, the Bains brothers, a Brahm Mohindra, a Navjot Sidhu can stand their own ground against a party hierarchy. 

Also, our legislators are not free to speak their mind (so at times the electorate cannot even judge if they have one). All that the anti-defection law does is to prohibit them for crossing the floor when it comes to voting on a bill. In practice, the party whips have become ubiquitous and any MLA speaking against a bill or line of the government finds herself/himself becoming a persona non grata in the eyes of the party leader. It is time we reassess the impact of the anti-defection act on the quality of the legislative debate.

Imagine a Donald Trump having the power of anti-defection act! Obamacare would have been shredded long back, and Republicans would have been required to refer to many fellow Congress and Senate members, listed by POTUS, as Pocahontas. 
 

Clearly, there is a need to restrict whips to only certain classes of issues so that the democratic space for individuality remains protected and MLAs can be judged on their record rather than a party whip. Is it too much to hope from the elitist media to make a case for a performing MLA? Should she or he remain at the mercy of the Party Machine?

Why must MLAs or seekers of a party ticket remain solely dependent on the whims of one super boss? If the fate of a large number of MLAs rests on one boss or a very small coterie that hardly functions in a democratic manner, then how can the will of the people prevail? How can an MLA or a wanna be MLA feel that she or he is responsible to her or his constituency more than to the leader?

The first point of any progressive news analysis of the Assembly session must be on how to prevent it from becoming a tug of war between Amarinder and Sukhbir, and at least to make it Congress versus Akali Dal. A more progressive approach towards making the Assembly an arena for incremental advances in democracy will follow as the natural corollary.
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The fact is that most of our MLAs are simply not equipped to deal with the complexities of modern legislation and representation. The path is lined with temptations. Policy formulation has become much more complex while class strife has become much sharper. 
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The moment you engage with this aspect, you are likely to run into another wall - the internal democracy of political parties.

To hope that our Assembly session-reviewing media hacks will wax eloquent about the composition of the House, the breakdown of social hierarchies as evidenced in the election of some of the AAP MLAs and a few of other parties, the ignorant social contempt among many social elites for elected representatives, the asymmetry between politics and the media, will be a little too much.

And the public knows as much. The bandwidth of messaging has increased manifold with the expansion of platforms - newspapers, television channels, social media. Naturally, debates have been simply rendered less important. But when even sober politicians find that their ability to control the message and be self-possessed is gone, citizens make enough room to negate media's elitism.
 

"MLA Sahib, yeh sarrak mein gadda kyon hai?" kind of brigade is the darling of the media which feeds upon schizophrenic constituent expectations. It signifies a paradoxical attitude towards the elected legislators. People shriek that the elected man or woman must serve their particular interest, and are then contemptuous of them precisely for this reason.

The fact is that most of our MLAs are simply not equipped to deal with the complexities of modern legislation and representation. The path is lined with temptations. Policy formulation has become much more complex while class strife has become much sharper. 

As Pratap Bhanu Mehta once said, "Never was it clearer than it is today that Nature shows no disposition to produce men with a greatness proportioned to the scale of the problems they have to solve." In such a situation, we need to ensure that our elected representatives have the right kind of institutional support. Instead, they are subjected to an analysis of the Assembly session that could have been written five years back, or ten.
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In the last few years, MLAs have proved that blocking an Assembly forces government to respond on an issue. It is time they prove that making an Assembly work will ensure that the government remains responsive.
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We are not just failing the readers with such an approach; we are failing even the MLAs. The fact is that most state legislatures are in tatters and the situation suits party honchos the most who find it easier to govern.
 
However, this will benefit the ruler in the short run but will have serious consequences for democracy in the long run. The demand for more extensive debates, less ubiquitous party whips, more time to read the draft bills, more discussions with experts, broader consultations with various interest groups, mechanisms for extensive briefings etc must come from the MLAs themselves.

A Vidhan Sabha will be taken as seriously as its members take it seriously. Also, how seriously is a Vidhan Sabha taken must be made a test for its Chief Minister, its Parliamentary Affairs Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and the ranking members. 

In the last few years, MLAs have proved that blocking an Assembly forces government to respond on an issue. It is time they prove that making an Assembly work will ensure that the government remains responsive.

Otherwise they can keep publishing new books, and you can keep reading an old one.
 

Disclaimer : PunjabToday.in and other platforms of the Punjab Today group strive to include views and opinions from across the entire spectrum, but by no means do we agree with everything we publish. Our efforts and editorial choices consistently underscore our authors' right to the freedom of speech. However, it should be clear to all readers that individual authors are responsible for the information, ideas or opinions in their articles, and very often, these do not reflect the views of PunjabToday.in or other platforms of the group. Punjab Today does not assume any responsibility or liability for the views of authors whose work appears here.

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