India’s functioning anarchy

Despite British-style parliamentary procedures, Indian parliament ferquently dissolves into chaos and farce.

Indian parliament
Many parliamentarians prefer to disrupt the lawmaking rather than debate the law [EPA]

Every year, during India’s rainy season, there is, equally predictably, a “monsoon session” of parliament. And, every year, there seems to be increasing debate about which is stormier – the weather or the legislature.

Consider the current session, which began on August 1. The opening day was adjourned, in keeping with traditional practice, to mourn the death between sessions of a sitting member of parliament. But the adjournment did not come before a routine courtesy greeting to the visiting Speaker of Sri Lanka’s parliament was interrupted by Tamil MPs from a regional party, who rose to their feet to shout demands for his expulsion because of his government’s behaviour towards that country’s Tamil minority. The errant MPs were rapidly silenced, and the visitor received a table-thumping welcome from the rest of the House.

Matters were not so swiftly resolved, however, the next day. No sooner had a newly-elected member taken his oath than a number of MPs from the Bahujan Samaj Party, which rules India’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh, stormed into the well of the House, shouting slogans and waving placards in protest against the government’s land-acquisition policies.

The Speaker attempted for a few minutes to get them to return to their seats, then gave up and adjourned the session for an hour. When the MPs reassembled, the opposition members – now joined by MPs from a rival regional party – marched towards the Speaker’s desk, making even more noise. After a few more ineffectual minutes of trying to be heard above the din, the Speaker adjourned parliament again. One more attempt was made before the House adjourned for the day, with no item of legislative business transacted.

That, unfortunately, is often par for the course in India’s parliament, many of whose opposition members appear to believe that disrupting proceedings, rather than delivering a convincing argument, is the most effective way to make their points. Last winter, an entire five-week session was lost without a single day’s work, because the opposition parties united to stall the House, forcing adjournments every day. There has not been a single session in recent years in which at least some days were not lost to deliberate disruption.

Not always so

It wasn’t always this way. Indian politicians were initially proud of the Westminster-style parliamentary system that they adopted upon independence. India’s nationalists were determined to enjoy the democracy that their colonial rulers had denied them, and convinced themselves that the British system was best. When a future British prime minister, Clement Attlee, travelled to India as part of a constitutional commission and argued the merits of a presidential system over a parliamentary one, his Indian interlocutors reacted with horror. “It was as if,” Attlee recalled, “I had offered them margarine instead of butter.”

Many of India’s new MPs – several of whom had been educated in England and observed British parliamentary traditions with admiration – revelled in the authenticity of their ways. Indian MPs still thump their desks, rather than clap their hands, in approbation. When bills are put to a vote, an affirmative call is still “aye”, rather than “yes”. An Anglophile Communist MP, Hiren Mukherjee, boasted in the 1950s that British Prime Minister Anthony Eden had commented to him that the Indian parliament was in every respect like the British one. Even for a Communist, it was a proud moment.

But six decades of independence have wrought significant change, as exposure to British procedures has faded and India’s natural boisterousness has reasserted itself. Some of the state assemblies in India’s federal system have already witnessed scenes of furniture upended, microphones ripped out, and slippers flung by unruly legislators, not to mention fistfights and garments torn in scuffles.

While things have not yet gone so far in the national legislature, the code of conduct that is imparted to all newly elected MPs – including injunctions against speaking out of turn, shouting slogans, waving placards, and marching into the well of the House – is routinely honoured in the breach. Equally striking is the impunity with which lawmakers flout the rules that they are sworn to uphold.

There was a time when misbehaviour was dealt with firmly. One of my abiding recollections from childhood was the photograph of a burly Socialist parliamentarian, Raj Narain, a former wrestler, being bodily carried out of the House by four sergeants-at-arms for shouting out of turn and disobeying the Speaker’s orders to return to his seat.

Sliding standards

But, over the years, standards have been allowed to slide, with adjournments being preferred to expulsions. Last year, five MPs in the upper house of India’s parliament were suspended for charging up to the presiding officer’s desk, wrenching his microphone and tearing up his papers. But, after a few months and some muted apologies, they were quietly reinstated.

Perhaps this makes sense, for it allows the opposition some space in a system in which party-line voting determines most legislative outcomes. Four decades ago, in more genteel times, an opposition legislator once ended a debate whose outcome was a foregone conclusion, with the words: “We have the arguments. You have the votes.” Years later, the same MP, Atal Behari Vajpayee, became prime minister, and took pride in giving the opposition as much leeway as possible.

The result is a curiously Indian institution, whose prevailing standards of behaviour would not be tolerated in most parliamentary systems. In India’s parliament, many members feel that the best way to show the strength of their feelings is to disrupt the lawmaking rather than debate the law. The Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith, who served under President Kennedy as US Ambassador to India, described the country as a “functioning anarchy”. We need look no further than the temple of Indian democracy to see it in action.

Shashi Tharoor, a former Indian Minister of State for External Affairs and UN Under-Secretary General, is a member of India’s parliament and the author of a dozen books, including India from Midnight to the Millennium and Nehru: the Invention of India.

A version of this article was previously published on Project Syndicate.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent al Jazeera’s editorial policy.