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To Talk a Bill to Death

Posted on February 18, 2012 in Politics

By Praggamoy Dasgupta:

Political misdemeanors are an ennui we bear with. When televised; they foray into our living room, leaving our discerning eyeballs protruded. These same eyes, which once bore a lackadaisical gleam, seem reignited in hope of change. However, in most cases they retire, in darkness.

At the stroke of midnight; 29th December, 2011, the upper house of the parliament of India, came to hiatus, closing the winter session for the financial year 2011-12. All this, after a week long extension and beleaguered political effervescence. Failing to reach a consensus on the mother of all issues, in the session, the coveted Lokpal Bill, the house gave away to the incongruity among its members.

The verbal onslaught that followed was expected. The incumbent passed the buck in the opposition’s court. The opposition – overplayed on the incumbent coalition’s double standard with the leader of the opposition, in Rajya Sabha, Shri.Arun Jaitley, declaring: – “This was a choreographed action. Since yesterday their speakers were filibustering, they put up a minister to give a reply. His reply could not be understood by any member of the house but he had also decided to go on till the cows come home. And the target was to reach the midnight and say the house was only till the 29th”. Although the veracity of Jaitley’s claim remained practically undeterred, it caused a caustic rush among the media, leaving the ‘aam-aadmi’ in dismay. However, for the polity of India, such adverse political flagellation could mark the outset of new-age politics.

The art of filibustering dates back to the times of the Julius Caesar, as early as 60 B.C.E. The vociferous senator, Young Cato, had specifically subjected to the dreaded political offense, to defend his pontification. As per historian duo, Rob Goodman & Jimmy Soni, Cato launched his first offensive mission, to chide the state’s private tax collection system, which he felt was an aberration of roman governance. Devastated by drought and strife, the Roman coffers had been emptied to a vast extent. Raising public money for the benefit of the state was of imperative stature. However, the lack of a permanent bureaucracy, which could raise taxes from provinces, was absent. To hasten and extricate, the concerned ambiguity in this area, the right to collect taxes was put under the hammer. The right to collect taxes was sold to the highest bidder, in an auction held by the state.

The terms of the contract between the publicani and the state were economically perverse. Promising the state an agreed amount of their collection, the difference between the amounts collected and paid to the state, was the profit margin of the collectors. However, the terms of collection were orchestrated to benefit the publicani -: collections would be directly proportional to the financial prosperity of the provinces. Certain provinces being at the brink of a financial debacle would be a barren scepter for the tax collectors.

Realizing their folly, they called for a repeal of the earlier contract; demanding fresh contracts at an advantageous rate. At this juncture, the world of politics was introduced to filibustering, by Young Cato. Cato, set the cat among the pigeons, by declining to revoke the existing contract. Writes, Rob Goodman & Jimmy Soni, “Because they were among Rome’s most influential businessmen–and because they had the powerful backing of Crassus, Rome’s richest man- most of the Senate was inclined to give in. Cato, however, refused. A contract, he insisted at great length, was a contract. If the publicani had bid too high, that was their misfortune; contracts were meant to be lived by and, if need be, suffered under.” Cato further affirmed to his view, to the extent of threatening to bring the senate to closure, until the publicani were made to walk away with the existing contract. His six month long vocal campaign saw him speak until nightfall. Given, that the Roman senate was o conclude business by dusk, Cato improvised on his malicious tool and spoke till dusk, forcing the publicani to succumb. Just before they declared, that they would walk out of their contract, leaving the Roman economy’s initiative of raising taxes from its citizens in dismal array.

Taken by his ephemeral triumph, Cato resorted to his hindering act in a few occasions later. At one instance, he filibustered to force Caesar into accepting consulship over standing for the consul, on attaining the required age. To check Young Cato’s audacity, once Caesar got him jailed. However, on account of contrary public opinion he was set free.

Modern democratic practices don’t provide scope for Caesar authoritative dictate. Neither does it embrace Young Cato’s oratory diligence with open arms. Today the mechanism is used in a truncated form in many democracies around the world. And most importantly, it’s used in discretion; preferably within constitutional bindings. Derived from the Spanish word “filibusterous “, a term used to describe pirates who pillaged in the seventeenth century, the devastating tool has become synonymous with democratic politics in the Western Hemisphere, notably in the senate of the United States of America.

For more than 150 years, filibustering has been rampant in the senate of USA. Formalized through senate rule number 22, which provides for the overriding of a filibuster by a vote of 60 out of 100 senators. One of the recent sufferers of this maneuvering practice was Barack Obama’s, health care reform bill, worth $900 billions, which finally saw the light of the day, after much debate.

Two primary questions in this respect are: – Why has filibustering been constricted within the senate only? Does filibustering affect genuine debate and discussion? The answers are difficult to find, as much spotlight has been focused on the perils of filibustering, than its real motive. An old anecdote, of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson could perhaps hold the key to the questions. Primarily, the first. When George Washington was asked by Thomas Jefferson on the role of senate, he questioned back, “Why did you pour that coffee into your saucer?”. Prompt was Jefferson’s reply: – “To cool it”. To which Washington replied; “Even so, we pour legislation into the senatorial saucer to cool it.” The primary role of the senate is to cool the effervescence created in the House. With only 100 members, mostly senior citizens, who were selected on a long term basis, elections are decided by state legislatures. Unlike, the House of Representatives, where discussion time is limited, the senate provided no such hindrances. Providing a ground for free flow of words, filibustering would obviously be a tool to drub unnecessary chaos. The Jean Arthur starred;” Mr. Smith goes to Washington “epitomized the image of a senator who stood firm on the senate floor, delivered flawlessly by James Stewart. In the 1939 movie, the real side of this drudgery is portrayed well, when the double faced senator, portrayed by Claude Rains, uses Stewart as a scapegoat, in times of derision and later pushes Stewart against the wall, to realize his sin later.

In India, the mechanism is yet to find legitimate footing. Unless a “ supermajority “ or “ qualified majority” of two-thirds of members present and voting in both houses of Indian Parliament; subject to at least a simple majority of Parliament members voting; is attained, the constitution shall remain free of amendments. As a result filibustering loses its stature and ground in the temple on Indian democracy .And moreover, its role and purpose is in stark contrast to the western ways of talking a bill to death. Argues, PDT Achary, the former secretary general of Lok Sabha, “Filibustering in India is not the way it is understood in West”. He further adds that in India, debates get longer because “members don’t stick to time, and the first speakers from the major parties take a lot of time.”

Achary’s point of view is pertinent. The point he drives home is; while active filibustering is yet to see the light of the day in Indian politics, passive filibustering has been in practice since the existence of the parliament. Elaborate speeches with minute details, when delivered override the allotted time. So in this respect, Shri.Arun.Jaitley, who is known for his excellence in oration, would be an equal offender.

Though filibustering is an unwanted malice, it can be a solution to parliamentary debauchery, especially in India. Although, its very essence is based on the adage, “offence is the best defense”, the boredom of a filibuster (and in case of speakers like Shri. Jaitley and a handful of excellent orators, who light up the parliament with their sheer knowledge, well stocked vocabulary and conviction), can be a breath of fresh air.

Over the years , the parliamentarians in India have subscribe to their disregard by hurling furniture’s and microphones at their adversaries.Tardy speeches would do away with such unwanted machismo, given that, words are far less injurious to health.

When V. Narayanasamy, rose up at 11:15 PM, on 29th December, 2011; to defend the indefensible, he ended up reading out the clauses of the Lokpal Bill , till the clock struck midnight and the house was adjourned, Sine dine. Although unfathomable, at least Narayanasamy and his political compatriots were sane and erudite in not resorting to their old school guillotine tactics. However, the new gesture, could only be legitimized, if it provides for rational debates, not just careworn sloganeering. Just like old wine in new bottle.