Cynical netas jettison democratic tradtions

UP Governor Ram Naik is correct in questioning the outgoing Speaker Mata Prasad Pandey’s move to “recognize” Samajwadi Party leader Ram Govind Chaudhary as the new Leader of Opposition. Naik rightly pointed out that the swastha loktantrik parampara (healthy democratic tradition) was breached by Pandey’s action. It is, however, unfortunately that Naik’s championing of the healthy democratic tradition stopped short of being bipartisan; for he has not criticized the breach of another tradition by veteran Bharatiya Janata Party leader Hriday Narain Dixit.

Pro-tem speaker Fateh Bahadur Singh announced Dixit’s election as the new Speaker of the UP Assembly on Thursday. “As per tradition,” The Times Of India (March 31) reported, “the speaker-elect should have been in another room—or not present among the MLAs—when his name was announced. But a smiling Dixit sat in the front row with a group of MLAs in a break from convention. He was then taken jointly by the CM and the leader of opposition to his chair.”

Worse, Dixit did not sit in the hall out of ignorance. He did is purposely. “He informed the House that parliamentary traditions of the country had developed on the pattern of British Parliament where the speaker acted as a messenger of the House to the monarch. He said, nearly half-a-dozen speakers were killed in British history for carrying unfavorable messages of the House to the king or queen. So, the House began concealing the identity of the speaker. Later, this became a tradition. At the time of their appointment or election, the speaker-elect would hide himself and then the prime minister would search for him and produce him before Parliament,” TOI reported Dixit as saying.

In the political market, anti-British sentiments sell like hot cakes. From Leftwing intellectuals to the Congress’ glib demagogue Shashi Tharoor to the Sangh Parivar, everybody still loves to hate the British 70 years after they left our country. So, Dixit said, “In an Independent country, why should a British legacy, which can be done away with, continue?” The reaction of MLAs was deplorable, as they “broke into laughter.”

Deplorable, because traditions in a democracy are no laughing matter. The UK is the oldest continuous democracy because of its strong belief in traditions and conventions. British politicians religiously follow conventions. Ditto with the US. For instance, in August 2014, President Barack Obama was slammed for wearing a tan suit at his White House press conference. Americans want their head of the state to be dressed more formally on such occasions.

In our country, on the other hand, politicians have little regard for conventions and traditions. For example, Prime Minister Narendra Modi attended Dushera in Lucknow last year, evidently with an eye on the forthcoming Assembly elections in the state. Therefore, the tradition of the Indian Prime Minister participating in the festivities at Ramlila Maidan in Delhi was jettisoned cavalierly; no thought was spared for the fact that it takes decades, often centuries, for a tradition to come into being but just one reckless act to do away with it.

It is not just the BJP but all parties show eagerness to discard conventions. In April 2010, the then environment minister Jairam Ramesh termed the practice of wearing the traditional robe at convocation ceremonies of universities as a “barbaric colonial” relic.

It is not just in matters of attire and practices that the powers-that-be are careless; in weighty matters like President calling the leader of the Lower House to become Prime Minister too, there has been considerable imprudence. When in the 1989 general election no party got a majority, president R. Venkataraman first invited Congress party leader Rajiv Gandhi as the Congress, with 194 seats, was the single largest party in the House. After he declined to form a government, the president invited V.P. Singh.

President Venkataraman stuck to the so-called “arithmetic test/objective test.” On May 15, 1996, president S.D. Sharma accepted the same test and appointed Atal Bihari Vajpayee as prime minister. It was a decent test because arithmetic and objective facts can scarcely be debated. It was also in consonance with the famous Bommai judgment of the Supreme Court. The late Karnataka chief minister S.R. Bommai was dismissed in 1989 because some of his own party members had withdrawn support to him. His government was dismissed by the Centre. The apex court ruled that only a floor test could determine whether or not a government enjoyed the support of the legislature, be it the Lok Sabha or a Vidhan Sabha.

The next president K.R. Narayanan, however, muddied the waters after the 1998 general election by asking Vajpayee to submit proof in the form of letters of support to him. In other words, a precedent, set up a president (Venkataraman), scrupulously followed by another (Sharma), was thrown away by the third president.

The upshot is that whenever elections lead to a hung Parliament or Assembly, which is quite often, confusion prevails. Parties interpret various precedents and the Bommai verdict according to their convenience.

Political parties ought to sit together to acknowledge democratic traditions and conventions and to guard them; but they, instead, are keen on making political capital out of any situation, even if it means the jettisoning of age-old practices.