At the receiving end of people’s wrath and cynicism all through the last one year or so, the MPs and politicians have certainly never had it so bad. The spate of scams and the general atmosphere of distrust it has generated against the politicians, climaxed at the Ram Lila maidan last week, when all and sundry took to the stage and had a go at the politicians.
Two of them now face action from no less than the Parliament itself, as the two were seen having crossed all limits of decency. Kiran Bedi, the former police officer and the key member of Anna Hazare’s team and the ageing film personality, Om Puri had directly attacked the MPs. While Bedi who is seen as one of the members of Team Anna, who made negotiations difficult for the UPA Government by her adamant approach, mocked at the MPs using a “ghoonghat” and calling them “ganwar” among other things.
Om Puri, known for his brilliant acting skills, however disappointed the multitude of his fans, when he appeared on the Ramlila stage, in a drunken state and started speaking completely out of context, even mentioning a well-known TV anchor and making up a story about her disappearance from the country. What however got the MPs ire was his reference to them as “illiterate” and “corrupt” who makes crores of rupees in a short time. He also rambled on, "I feel ashamed when an IAS or IPS officer salutes a ganwar, who is a neta . We have more than 50% ganwar leaders. Don\’t vote for them," before he was asked to vacate the stage.
The furious MPs have moved a motion of breach of privilege in both Houses of Parliament. Though the movers of the motion are low-profile MPs from smaller parties, there is no doubt from the mood among the MPs that they have almost unanimous support from everyone. “We should send these people to jail for a few months, only then they will learn”, has been the general feeling among many MPs, cutting across party lines.
The two MP/politician-bashers join an illustrious list of people who have been hauled up by the Parliament, for showing disrespect to the members. They include, Khushwant Singh, Osho or Acharya Rajnish, as he was also known as and the acid tongued Shiv Sena Patriarch Bal Thackaray.
Though there are different types of breach of privilege MPs, the one dealing with current incidents relates to the “speeches and writings reflecting on the House, Members etc”, as laid out in the Rules of procedure of the two Houses.
The rule states, “It is a breach of privilege and contempt of the House, to make speeches—– reflecting on the character or proceedings of the House or its committees or on any member of the House for or relating to his character or conduct as a Member of Parliament. Such speeches or writings are punished by the House as a contempt on the principle that such acts "tend to obstruct the Houses in the performance of their functions by diminishing the respect due to them."
However, interestingly, William Gladstone, the great British Liberal and four time Prime Minister in the nineteenth century, discussing the issue of breach of privilege, states, “Breach of privilege is a very wide net, and it would be very undesirable that notice should be taken in this House of all cases in which hon\’ble members are unfairly criticized. Breach of privilege is not exactly to be defined. It is rather to be held in the air to be exercised on proper occasions when, in the opinion of the House, a fit case for its exercise occurs. To put this weapon unduly in force is to invite a combat upon unequal terms wheresoever and by whomsoever carried on…Indeed, it is absolutely necessary that there should be freedom of comment. That freedom of comment may, of course, be occasionally abused; but I do not think it is becoming the dignity of the House to notice that abuse of it”.
Interestingly even the Indian Parliament has taken Gladstone’s advice seriously more often than not. For instance in the case of Osho, the Rajya Sabha Chairman, decided to ignore his rather shocking statements. He had been reported in Navbharat Times on Aug.3,1986, to have said, “Members of Indian Parliament are mentally under-developed. If investigations are made they would be found to have mental age of 14 only.” Then Chairman R.Venkataraman, in his ruling to a privilege notice, dismissed the rantings , "We generally treat such remarks beneath our notice…It is inconsistent with our dignity to attach any importance to the vituperative outbursts or irresponsible statements of a frustrated person”.
In the case of Khushwant Singh also, the Rajya Sabha brushed aside his critical comments about MPs voting to raise their own emoluments.
However in the case of their own, a former MP, K.K.Tewari, the Rajya Sabha who made derogatory remarks against the Rajya Sabha chairman, the house was stern. It summoned him to the House and charged him with contempt of the House and was reprimanded in the bar of the House.
The Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha, before which the breach of privilege notice against Kiran Bedi and Om Puri is now placed, will have the option of seeking an apology and if given treating the matter as closed. Om Puri has already expressed regret for his statements, and possibly he will also give it in writing. In the case of Kiran Bedi is she persists with her stand that she will not apologise, the two Houses may even go to the extent of summoning her to the House and reprimanding her and in the worst case scenario even sentencing her to imprisonment for some time.
What this entire episode shows is that though there are occasions when politicians and MPs are criticized and shown in poor light, there has to be a limit to the criticism and should never cross the borders of decency. Both Om Puri and Kiran Bedi obviously have crossed those borders, and therefore it is understandable that the MPs have been forced to take action against them. It is now upto Bedi, like Puri to show the grace to tender an apology and close the matter. If she persists, it is she who will be seen as the offender and not the Parliament, whose dignity is more important than an individual’s ego.