<%-- Page Title--%> Nothing if not Serious <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 127 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

October 24, 2003

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Talk Shop

Shawkat Hussain

About a 150 years back, Thomas Carlyle, great Victorian critic and sage labeled the British Parliament a “talk shop” for the members of the landed aristocracy. Fox-hunting and the partridge-shooting were the favourite pastimes for the nobility, but when these arduous activities were over, those members of the aristocracy who were also members of the parliament would descend upon the Parliament and talk and talk and talk. Carlyle's characterization of the parliament was of course pejorative; it was a conservative response to the evolution of parliamentary democracy in England. When one million new voters, mostly from the poorer classes, became enfranchised in 1967, Carlyle threw up his hands in despair, and thought England was shooting down the Niagara, plunging the nation into disaster. Carlyle fears were partly understandable, but he was wrong in his prediction of the outcome of the extension of the franchise. There was no revolution in England.

One-man one-vote, or universal manhood suffrage, was an unthinkable idea. The question of universal adult suffrage, where every adult, man or woman, would have the right to vote, did not even figure in the worst nightmares of British conservatives. This reform was at least two decades away. For Carlyle, the idea of giving one vote to one man was tantamount to “doghood” or “horsehood” suffrage. To allow the poorer classes to vote would be no better than giving animals the right to vote. Well, let us be clear about this. Most of us dogs or horses in Bangladesh want to continue to be able to vote. The foundations of what we have today in Bangladesh (at least the façade of what we practice in this country)Parliamentary Democracy were thus laid over a century back in the same England which Carlyle thought was heading towards a catastrophe. But do we deserve this right to vote when those we elect to the Parliament refuse to talk?

The Parliament is indeed a talk shop, or at least ought to be one. If there is no talking in the Parliament, there cannot be a Parliament in the true sense. It is talking in the Parliament, according to another great Victorian, Walter Bagehot (he wrote The English Constitution) that leads to a real “government by discussion.” One of the great benefits of a government by discussion is that it works both as a contraceptive and a prophylactic: the more you talk the less you procreate; the more you talk in the parliament the less you agitate in the streets. The first is quite a novel idea, and we don't know where Bagehot got this idea from. And in any case, this idea wouldn't work for Bangladesh where the population is now well over 120 million. But in England, Parliamentary Democracy has indeed worked as a kind of prophylacticone against revolution. Talking in the Parliament led to numerous reforms, and reforms forestalled the possibility of revolutions.

Talk is often just hot air; but sometimes talk can lead to good things, as it has in England and in other countries that really practice parliamentary democracy: it can lead to reforms of the Parliament itself, it can lead legislation that allows women the right to vote, to humane factory laws and labour laws, and numerous other legislations that guarantee better lives of the citizens of the nations. Even as I write these words, hopeful words about what the Parliament can do, it seems like so much hot air to me. It seems like hot air not because we dogs and horses who voted the government to power have done anything wrong. It is simply because the Parliament has failed because it refuses to talk. So what would be the point of voting another government to power three years from now when you know that the winning party would act with predictable arrogance, and the losing party with equally predictable sulking. This the not the “government by discussion” that Parliamentary Democracy is supposed to ensure for the millions of voters who take the trouble to vote, and the crores of Taka spent on the entire electoral process.

Dogs and horses are not supposed to think much about these matters. They are simply supposed to vote and shut up for the next five years when they vote again, hoping that things will be somehow better. But some dogs do think. These thoughts about the Parliament as a talk shop come to mind because we have been reading about the recently-concluded 42nd Conference of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association in its 91-year history. Over 500 delegates, spouses and visitors from about 50 countries descended on Bangladesh, and we have just given them an embarrassing sample of what kind of Parliamentary Democracy we practice.

There were numerous glitches, big and small, in the management of the Conference: the national anthem could not be played, flags were flown upside down, and there were many other protocol bunglings. But the biggest mess-up was the absence of Members of Parliament from the opposition Awami League. Whatever the background of this boycott, this absence discredits our credentials as a country that practices parliamentary democracy, discredits the ruling party for its short-sighted exclusionary policy in the preparatory stages, discredits the opposition party for its inability to rise above the pettiness of the other party and show a largeness and generosity of political vision that is at the basis of all governments by discussion. Awami League would have gained much from talking, drinking, discussing, arguing, and socialising with the other parliamentarians who gathered here for a week. Sending crests and others gifts to visiting delegates in Sonargaon and Sheraton were very feeble gestures of appeasement.

Even without the Awami League, there was surely some good talk in the Conference. There were calls for global peace, more representation for women, better opportunities for marginalized communities, better parliamentary practices, and lots of other high-sounding rhetoric about how to make the world a better place. I wish they would unitedly call for one very doable thing: eliminate visa fees amongst Commonwealth countries; better still just do away with visas. Really good talk is one that leads to a really good deed.


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