Parties, pandering to public emotion, have junked a bill critical to insulating the legislature
Ever since Rahul Gandhi determined, as his “personal” view, that an ordinance to temper the Supreme Court judgment disqualifying convicted legislators deserved to be shredded, political debate has stacked up along a straight line. Predictably, the Congress and the government it leads at the Centre fell into step, not only withdrawing the ordinance but also the bill to a similar effect that Parliament had been seized of. Congress members gushed about how their vice president had herded them back to the straight and narrow. Opposition leaders also attempted outrageous acrobatics to assert that, even though their parties had agreed to send the legislation to a parliamentary committee, they were opposed to its contents. In this scramble to represent one’s party as in sync with the public sentiment for cleansing politics, they are failing their higher bipartisan responsibility to secure the institutional integrity of the legislature.
The 15th Lok Sabha was always going to be judged harshly by history. But were Parliament to abandon the defence of the legislative branch because of the intemperate outburst of one man and the hollowing out of the bill’s nuances, it would damage the institutional balance that sustains our democracy. Amidst the UPA government’s cowardly surrender and the opposition’s lazy play for the political advantage, it is important to emphasise the difference between the bill and the ordinance. The bill attempted to avert distortions and manipulation that the court-mandated disqualification of convicted MPs could have created. It was clumsily drafted, and so there was merit in it being sent to a committee for careful consideration. Disqualification of legislators by a lower court alone, pending an appeal, allows the composition of the House to be altered by potentially imperfect judgments. The bill was needed, but it was also essential that the political class articulate the democratic necessity for its passage — the debate would have ironed anomalies out of the draft legislation, besides nuancing the popular sentiment to show that disqualification of convicted MPs is not exactly the right way of cleansing politics, that it could, in fact, undermine a popular mandate. The ordinance, on the other hand, was an expedient measure, and the president rightly sought clarifications.
However, by panicking at the popular disgust with the ordinance and disowning the bill altogether, MPs have collaborated in a spectacular and frightening institutional surrender. A future