Column: ‘Missing in Action’: MLAs, Ministers Make Mockery of Assembly Proceedings

By Sandeep Sahu

The excuses ranged from the laughable to the bizarre. “The debate took place between 1-3.30 pm, which is peak lunch time. So there is nothing unusual about the fact that some MLAs had gone to the lobby to have lunch. Many of them are diabetic and can’t miss lunch. But they followed the debate from the lobby,” said Rohit Pujari, deputy chief whip of the BJD legislature party, when asked why he was missing from the House when it was discussing the important issue of farmers’ agitation in western Odisha in protest against the centralized token system for paddy procurement introduced by the government this year on Tuesday. (Curiously, he was one of the MLAs who had vehicles laden with paddy parked in front of his house by protesting farmers earlier in the day!). Senior leader Amar Satpathy was more creative. “I had other important issues to raise in the post-lunch session. Hence I ‘had to’ miss the discussion on the farmers’ issue. In any case, not participating in a debate on an adjournment motion ‘does not’ mean one is not interested,” was how the veteran leader sought to explain away his absence from the House during the debate.

The award for the most bizarre answer, however, goes to the person who is supposed t keep the flock together, BJD chief whip Pramila Mallick. “The members who were missing in the House were all following the debate from the lobby. So, it is wrong to say they were ‘absent’,” said the chief whip. Really, Mrs. Mallick? In that case, they might as well stay at home and follow the proceedings of the House from there!

Barely 20 minutes into the debate that started at 12.30 pm, just 35 out of the 113 BJD MLAs were present in the House. The number further dwindled to 17 by 1.50 pm and an abysmal 12 by the time the debate came to an end. Of course, the Opposition members fared no better. Only 18 of the 23 BJP MLAs and five out of the nine Congress MLAs were present in the House when the debate started. Parliamentary Affairs minister Bikram Keshari Arukha, government chief whip Pramila Mallick, Leader of Opposition (LoP) Pradipta Nayak and BJP chief whip Bishnu Charan Sethi, who together share the responsibility for ensuring that members remained present during important debates, went ‘missing in action’ when the House was debating the farmers’ issue. The combined strength of the Opposition benches was reduced to an incredible ‘Zero’ by the time the debate ended at 3.35 pm! So much for the importance that our honourbale MLAs hold Assembly proceedings in!!

Veteran legislator and leader of the Congress Legislature Party (CLP) Narasigha Mishra, a member of the old school who rarely skips proceedings of the Assembly, expressed serious concern over ministers and MLAs, especially from the treasury benches, missing from the House during important debates on Tuesday. As if to cock a snook at the veteran leader, all ministers decided to skip the House during the all-important Zero Hour on Wednesday.

But then why should the ruling party MLAs bother about what the former Leader of Opposition (LoP) said when they have cared two hoots for the strict instructions of Chief Minister and the leader of the House Naveen Patnaik issued to them at the customary pre-session legislature party meeting of the BJD? It is possible that they have interpreted the leader’s fiat to mean they have to be physically present within the Assembly premises, even if they are not inside the House and are engaging in gossip – or even having a nap – rather than taking part in the deliberations. At least that is what appears to be the case going by the explanations offered by the MLAs and the chief whip of the BJD. Even the threat of action based on their attendance and performance has failed to drive some sense into the ruling party MLAs, including first timers.

The bulk of the blame for the non-compliance, of course, lies with the person who served the warning himself: Leader of the House Naveen Patnaik. He may have served as the Chief Minister of the state for the longest period in history. But he would also go down as the CM who has gone ‘missing in action’ during proceedings of the House for the longest period in history. Forget other important debates. He is invariably missing in the House when it is discussing matters pertaining to his own department: Home. As someone who has covered Assembly proceedings since the late 1980s, this writer cannot recall another Chief Minister, who routinely ‘outsources’ the job of answering a question addressed to him to some other minister even when he is present in the House! When he deigns to come to the House once in a while, rarely does he stay inside for more than three minutes. This being the contempt in which the Leader of the House himself holds Assembly proceedings, is there any reason to be surprised that his ‘followers’ follow him rather than his instructions? A leader leads by example. And one who does not will have little moral authority to act against those who skip House proceedings. This is what gives the MLAs the audacity to defy and flout his instructions with impunity.

This contempt for the Assembly is manifested in other ways too; in the steadily shrinking duration of the sessions, for one. Forget adhering to the norm fixed by the late Biju Patnaik, in whose name the BJD has been formed, that the House must meet for at least 60 days in a year. This columnist cannot recollect one occasion in the last few years when the House has not been adjourned sine die long before the period for which it has been convened ends.

For this Leader of the House, proceedings in the Assembly are obviously an unavoidable ‘chore’ that has to be somehow ‘endured’. Biju Babu must be fidgeting in his grave!

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.)