Democracy in Danger — A G Noorani

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Parliament House, New Delhi

The BJP has a firm, incontestable record of refusal of parliamentary debate.

A G NOORANI

THE government must have its way and the opposition must have its say. Failure to understand this fundamental truth which lies at the heart of the process of parliamentary democracy is responsible for its overthrow and replacement by an autocratic regime.

This truth was well stated by the great authority Ivor Jennings in his classic Cabinet Government. “The function of parliament is not to govern but to criticise. Its criticism, too, is directed not so much towards a fundamental modification of the government’s policy as towards the education of public opinion … the government governs and the opposition criticises. Failure to understand this simple principle is one of the causes of the failure of so many of the progeny of mother of parliaments and of the suppression of parliamentary government by dictatorships.”

People change. In 1974, the BJP leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee strongly disapproved of members of the Lok Sabha entering the well of the speaker and sitting in a dharna. There was provocation, though. On Sept 9, 1974, the union home minister, Mr Uma Shankar Dixit, had solemnly promised the Lok Sabha that he would report to it “after the investigation is over”. A couple of hours before parliament’s winter session began on Nov 11, a charge-sheet was filed in court so that the government could argue in the house that since the licence scandal was now sub judice, parliament could not discuss it. (The sub judice rule has been invoked repeatedly and deserves a closer look.)

Interestingly, during the interval, the home portfolio was transferred from Mr Dixit to Mr Brahmananda Reddy in order to save the former from embarrassment. In the case in point, the government proposed, at a fairly early stage, inspection of the relevant files by party leaders, debate in the two Houses, and a decision on the mode of inquiry thereafter. Since the offer was made by Mr V.C. Shukla, minister for parliamentary affairs, the opposition’s wariness was understandable. Not so its total rejection, least of all its demand of a prior ‘commitment’ to the establishment of a joint parliamentary committee or, for that matter, any committee of parliament.

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