Censoring debate in Parliament will not help the government

Bharat Bhushan

If Adani was allegedly just another rogue businessman, a discussion in the Parliament and the institution of a transparent inquiry into allegations of market manipulation should have been the order of the day. However, the demand for an enquiry was stamped down in Parliament by the power of the presiding officers last week.

In the Lok Sabha, Speaker Om Birla patted himself on the back for allowing Congress leader, Rahul Gandhi, to speak freely. By the end of the day, however, the speaker had expunged 18 portions of Rahul Gandhi’s speech. Because it was televised live, it is public knowledge that the expunged portions referred to Gautam Adani’s alleged links with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. They spoke of the government tweaking rules and deploying its investigative agencies against an airport owner to sell out to Adani. They hinted at Adani’s ubiquitous presence in Prime Ministerial visits abroad. They alleged government facilitation of his business interests in Israel, Australia and Sri Lanka and finally suggested that the government policies on infrastructure and energy were tailor-made for the Adani Group.

Why did Birla not stop Rahul Gandhi from using an unacceptable word or expression while speaking? Every presiding officer is well-versed in the rules of the House, and only a simple order has to be uttered – “This will not go on record.” Birla’s silence in the House suggests that expungement was an afterthought. It erodes the credibility of the presiding officer as a non-partisan referee whose job is to allow MPs to hold the government to account. Further, the speaker can expunge only a word or an expression deemed “unparliamentary”, not entire portions of a member’s speech.

In the Rajya Sabha too, at least six references relating to Adani, made by the leader of the Opposition, Mallikarajun Kharge, were expunged – some of them questioned the PM’s silence on the Adani controversy; his alleged links with the billionaire businessman and referred to the use of government agencies to pressure legislators into defecting to the BJP. Dhankar also expunged an entire paragraph and an Urdu couplet for good measure in the Rajya Sabha.

Kharge’s speech in the Rajya Sabha was interrupted every few minutes by the chairman declaring that his “every allegation will have to be authenticated”. He dismissed the Hindenburg report, asking, “Any report can come from anywhere. Are we to act on it?” He further urged the Rajya Sabha members to believe in Indian institutions — precisely what the entire world is now questioning as a consequence of the Hindenburg’s Adani expose.

Despite calls that he should not reply on behalf of the government, the presiding officer of the Rajya Sabha claimed that India had “transparent, accountable and robust mechanisms” and advised the House, “We have to say from this platform only that which is in the national interest.” He was vociferously supported by the leader of the House, Piyush Goyal and the finance minister, Nirmala Sitharaman. With the chair and the treasury benches defining “national interest,” there was no space for the Opposition to question the policies and practices of the government in Parliament.

The Rajya Sabha chairman’s enthusiasm for “authentication” did not extend to the prime minister’s reply to the vote of thanks. Instead, a Congress MP who demanded that the chair ask the prime minister to authenticate the allegations he levelled against the Opposition had his remarks expunged. Nor did Dhankar object to the offensive tenor and illogicality of the prime minister’s statements wondering why the Gandhi family refused to acknowledge their illustrious ancestor Jawaharlal Nehru, by adopting his surname.

Kharge has since sent a long note of protest against the expungement to Dhankar, saying that criticism of the government or its policies cannot be construed as impacting the “dignity of the House” or as an allegation against a particular member. It also says that no statement made in a speech on the floor of the House requires authentication unless the member is placing a document in the House. Finally, it says that the investigation and gathering of evidence for authentication is the government’s job and that the speaker cannot invert that responsibility and put the onus on the member speaking.

Will the stymying of Parliamentary debate by the partisan conduct of its presiding officers mean that the Opposition will have to take the Adani issue to the street? Perhaps this is exactly where the government wants it to go. In taking the issue directly to the voters, perhaps they are more confident of defeating the challenge it poses, just as they were able to defeat the Opposition’s earlier campaign on the modalities of purchasing Rafale aircraft, “Chowkidar Chor Hai” (The watchman is the thief).

Whatever the fate of the Opposition’s campaign, the issue will continue to be raised abroad because the globalisation of Capital will subject the Indian economy to global scrutiny. International bankers, financial institutions and rating agencies – from Credit Suisse, Citigroup, Standard Chartered, Barclays, Morgan Stanley, Norway’s Sovereign Wealth Fund and Moody’s – are drawing down their investments or downgrading the group. International newspapers of repute are replete with stories of allegations of crony capitalism in India. This cannot be good for the “Amrit Kaal” or Golden Era that the government wants to usher in over the next 25 years, predicated on growth based on domestic and foreign investments.

Indeed, The Economist, in its latest editorial, “The parable of Adani,” under a subheading “Licence raj to silence raj”, has claimed, “The Modi years have in many ways eroded India’s checks and balances… For India to prosper, its institutions will in the long run be as important as its infrastructure. Indians benefit from clean power and level roads, to be sure; but they also need clean governance and a level playing field.” The world is bothered, and international investors may be getting twitchy because if market manipulation, round-tripping and cronyism are the necessary underpinnings of the Indian growth story, they will never get a level-playing field. Opaque political connections will always skew the market in favour of the local cronies.