Legislators often seek the “protection” of the Chair when they are interrupted or heckled while exercising their right to unfettered expression of opinion in Parliament or the state Assemblies. And though those institutions are frequently hailed as “temples” or “shrines” of democracy, the sad reality is that now there appears there is need for physical protection of the “Chair”. Those entrusted with designing and “fitting out” the new (temporary) chamber of the Andhra Pradesh legislature are making a determined effort to make it difficult for agitated legislators to surround the presiding officers, pressure them. The podium at the interim secretariat at Velagapudi (20 km from Vijayawada) will be over six-and-a-half feet above the “floor” of the House. And while, as is customary, there will be stairs on both sides of the podium, there will also be wooden railings that can serve as barricades, and positions earmarked for marshals to keep unwanted persons a safe distance away. Obviously lessons have been learnt from unhappy experience (in various legislatures) of angry MLAs/MPs surrounding the Chair, tearing and throwing papers. The chamber of the apex legislature has also been witness to members “getting physical”, not stopping at waving placards, and on one occasion a member used pepper-spray against his opponents ~ and that came during Andhra-related turmoil.
Those measures, and a sophisticated sound-system, which can be de-activated at the discretion of the Speaker, could help in maintaining order in the House. Yet recourse to such measures only emphasises the pathetic state of institutions of the democracy. What next: bullet-proof glass shields to keep the Speaker/ministers safe? Fencing to keep Treasury and Opposition members apart? More “empowered” marshals and frequent orders from the Chair to evict unruly members? Yet the ugly stand-off in the legislatures is only a realistic reflection of the divisions in the body-politic, it is a matter of “us” versus “them”. There is very little of the “collective wisdom” of the House being brought to bear on any issue, and the government being willing to accept suggestions from across the floor. And when there is consensus on a legislative proposal there is a tendency for it to be approved “without discussion” ~ as if that were a matter for pride. Keeping the Chair “safe” actually articulates the danger facing the system of parliamentary democracy.