March 21, 2002


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The Rediff Special/Tara Shankar Sahay

The benches bore but a few members, the hall was half-empty -- like, Professor Bore's lecture room on a lazy summer afternoon.

But this was the Lok Sabha. On March 11, 2002. And the matter under discussion was no archaic theory, but the communal riots in Gujarat that had shamed the nation.

Yet, nearly 300 of the 543 LS members didn't bother showing up.

Was it because they considered the Gujarat carnage just a political stick to beat each other with? Didn't they, the People's Representatives, care enough to ensure that such incidents do not happen again?

Apparently no, if you go by their turnout on March 11. Or the run-of-the-mill arguments they put forward during the debate on the violence.

But then, absenteeism is nothing new for MPs. The reasons they quote for this vary, however, from politician to politician, party to party.

Sample this from Somnath Chatterjee of the Communist Party of India, Marxist: "Of course the debate was very important. But the government's reluctance to get an inquiry going by a sitting Supreme Court judge provides us sufficient reason to suspect that it does not want the truth to come out."

This from Ramjilal Suman of the Samajwadi Party: "We knew what the government's response would be. We had a fair inkling on the day of the riots itself when BJP members alleged we were encouraging the minority community. I was there in the House initially. I walked out when the debate sounded all-too-familiar."

This from Congress member Adhir Chowdhary: "As soon as the debate started, the BJP benches began screaming. They wanted to pre-empt any meaningful discussion because we had a fair notion of what he [Home Minister L K Advani] was going to reply to our charges. There was little point in remaining in the House."

And, finally, this from former Rajya Sabha member Wasim Ahmed: "There are always MPs who prefer the gossip of Parliament's Central Hall. Sometimes that seems more attractive than the monotony of a dull debate."

THAT the debate wasn't exactly cerebral is a fact, what with most speakers stepping not an inch beyond their party's stated stand. The ruling MPs, true to norm, did all they could, with shouts, jeers and the like, to prevent the discussion from reaching a different plateau.

There were the usual fire-and-brimstone merchants on both sides, either trying to crucify the government for 'wilful negligence' or hurling allegations that the 'secular brigade' was protecting the culprits for 'political reasons'.

Fortunately, there were saner elements too, who lent the debate a semblance of dignity.

"Today, it is not the question of Hindus and Muslims. What we need is to figure a way to check such happenings," said Rashid Ali of the Bahujan Samaj Party. "I would like to know from the government what steps it has taken to curb riots."

"Unless we try to unite Hindus and Muslims in the country," he continued, "this nation cannot be strengthened. It will be destroyed."

For his part, former Gujarat chief minister Shankersinh Vaghela, expelled from the Bharatiya Janata Party and now with the Congress, said: "We are all responsible and accountable for the happenings there. This government has failed to check the incidents in Kargil, Godhra and Kashmir. The deployment of the army in Gujarat proves the failure of the home ministry."

Opposition representatives like G M Banatwala (Indian Union Muslim League), Raghuvansh Prasad Singh (Rashtriya Janata Dal) and Satyavrat Chaturvedi (Congress), predictably, attacked the central and Gujarat governments, holding their 'communal' character responsible for the riots.

In his reply, Advani rejected the Opposition's demand for an inquiry by a Supreme Court judge. "Here is a situation where the state government has decided on a judicial inquiry and even named a retired high court judge," he said. "Therefore, I do not think it would be right for me to reverse the decision."

Political observers felt the debate was not productive because the members had not done their homework and treated it as 'just another discussion'. "The participants said the usual lines against 'communal cancer' and 'pseudo-secularism'," one observer noted. "That was all. That doesn't make a debate!"

Veterans like Chatterjee and former speaker Shivraj Patil, deputy leader of the Congress in the Lok Sabha, did go after the government, but their arguments were all too familiar, observers said.

A WEEK after the debate on the riots, the Lok Sabha saw more empty benches -- thanks, according to media reports, to 29 Congress members, 19 from the BJP, nine from the Telugu Desam Party and several from the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, Janata Dal United, Samata Party, Indian National Lok Dal, Rashtriya Janata Dal and Akali Dal.

This time, what they missed was the voting on the crucial Prevention of Terrorism Bill.

Union Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pramod Mahajan defended his MPs' absence thus: Since Parliament's budget session would go into recess on March 22, there was 'a feeling' among the majority of the members that they should return to their constituencies, and so...

"Absenteeism in both Houses of Parliament has become common nowadays," said former Lok Sabha member Saifuddin Chowdhury, "and the fault lies with the party leaderships concerned."

"Whips are issued by the party leaderships for the purpose of voting and that is for the numbers, not for the quality of the debate," he continued. "Political parties today do not care for the quality of debate."

With such large-scale absenteeism, and the we-can't-stop-the-government-from-doing-what-it-wants mentality that many MPs seem to be struggling under, isn't the Opposition failing in its duty as a check on the government?

Certainly it is, agreed Chowdhury. "If the attendance is good during important debates, a positive message goes out to the people. But that never happens nowadays. I don't know whether the MPs or their parties understand this vital aspect."

Though he underlined that it was 'immensely important' for parties to direct their members to be present during debates in Parliament, Chowdhury admitted that beyond a point, it cannot be "drilled into their heads".

"It is a question of their conscience," he said. "[The voters send MPs to Parliament as their representatives] not to idly while away precious time in Central Hall, gossiping."

Political analyst C P Bhambri blamed the ailment on party leaders. "Why are they tolerating it when they find a particular member absent during an important debate? He should be pulled up!"

The government spends at least Rs 60,000 on each MP every month (including his salary of Rs 12,000, daily allowance of Rs 500, TA/DA, etc) when Parliament is in session -- in other words, to ensure that they represent their voters in the House. "So people are not amused when members stay away during important debates without rhyme or reason," Bhambri said.

Somnath Chatterjee, too, agreed that it was a 'criminal wastage of resources' when members stayed away. The absentees in his party, he claimed, "were being counselled to be present".

"If absenteeism has grown, surely our leaders are responsible for that," said Lok Sabha member Kirit Somaiya of the BJP.

The salary and perks of MPs were increased recently. But, unfortunately, no one thought it necessary to make it mandatory for MPs to attend Parliament.

Illustration: Lynette Menezes

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