It was 1840. The Democrats-dominated Illinois House of Representatives was to vote on shutting down a state-run bank. Among the opposition Whig Party (which was founded in 1833 and dissolved in 1856) representatives was Abraham Lincoln who went on to become the President of the United States of America 20 years later, as a Republican. To stop the Democrats from killing the bank, the Whigs decided to boycott the session, so the House wouldn’t have the quorum (the minimum number needed to vote). But there was a hitch: The doors of the first-floor hall were locked. Lincoln opened a window and jumped out.
The American media recollected Lincoln’s leap of faith (which went in vain as he and many of the other Whigs had marked their attendance) two years ago when 11 Republicans of the Oregon State Legislature went ‘missing’ to deny the Democrats the quorum to pass a climate change bill.
Walkouts aren’t uncommon anywhere in the world, but such incidents as the flight of Oregon lawmakers continue to make news because of their timing and purpose — two things sadly missing when our legislators walk out of the assembly at the drop of a dhoti.
The latest of such charades in the Tamil Nadu assembly was staged past Friday by Edappadi K Palaniswami and his AIADMK legislators as soon as finance minister Palanivel Thiaga Rajan rose to present the DMK government’s first Budget in 10 years. The given reasons: The government has not implemented the poll promise of doing away with NEET; the finance minister made “baseless” charges against the previous government’s handling of finances; and the government was foisting cases on the AIADMK leaders. While the demand for doing away with NEET (everyone knows the state cannot do that, and the DMK was fooling the voters on this count) was at best hilarious, the other two are worth a protest, but is a Budget presentation the context to walk out citing these reasons?
I don’t blame the AIADMK alone, for it was just carrying on a legacy of farce that virtually every party while in the opposition has been enacting for decades, some by force of habit, some others by the poverty of protest ideas. The DMK has at times added masala to the walkout drama, as it did during the February 2017 trust vote of the EPS government, when M K Stalin walked to the media contingent with his torn shirt unbuttoned. Such acts have helped parties and politicians grab the eyeball, however short the public attention has been.
Legislative assemblies across the country have had ministers and legislators going missing from the House at times of crucial discussions, especially when the absentee is at the vortex of the controversy being discussed. We’ve heard tales of legislators, who, to avoid being seen loitering in the lobby or the canteen during sessions, take long bio-breaks (urinary incontinence is the best thing that happens to such honourable members).
Legislators are elected — and paid — to legislate. And that involves sitting through tedious sessions and going through the process that may include being the subject of criticism. They should protest against the government’s wrongs, but that should be done by taking on the ruling party, by not running away from the debate floor.
Walkout, when it is not the last resort to protest against one’s parliamentary rights being denied, should be tactical and symbolic. And symbolism works only when it is employed selectively. Overdoing it would be purposeless buffoonery that cocks a snook at we the people and makes democracy a laughing stock.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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