Putting the House in order
The Hindu, December 25, 2015
M R Madhavan*
Urgent steps are
needed to restore Parliament?s role as a deliberative body
rather than as one prone to disruptions
The winter session
that ended on Wednesday followed the trend of the previous
session, with very little work done. The statistics are stark:
just eight Bills passed, half the scheduled time lost in the
Rajya Sabha, with just 13 per cent of Question Hour being
productive. Major bills including the Goods and Services Tax
Bill were not taken up for discussion. Few bills were introduced
? the only major one was for a new bankruptcy law.
The previous Lok
Sabha had been the worst performing one till then in terms of
time lost to disruptions ? about a third of the total scheduled
time was lost in its five-year term. Some senior Opposition
leaders had justified disruptions as a legitimate tactic stating
that they had no choice if the government refused to discuss
alleged incidents of large-scale corruption. The situation is
different now ? the government has stated that it was willing to
discuss all issues permitted under the rules. Despite such an
assurance, the Rajya Sabha repeatedly saw Members of Parliament
(MPs) entering the Well and shouting slogans.
Parliament is an institution designed to allow voicing of
diverse views on various national issues.
assumption is that members discuss issues and convince others
through persuasive arguments. Indeed, the rule book even
prohibits members from reading out speeches, except with express
permission of the Chair. The rationale for this rule is that
members are expected to listen to others, and to respond to
Several structural constraints have weakened this process. For
example, the topic to be debated and the rule under which the
debate would happen (effectively determining whether there would
be a vote at the end of the discussion) are determined in
all-party meetings through consensus. This process enables the
government to block the discussion on any issue that could
embarrass it. Various suggestions have been made to address this
aspect. These include marking out days when the Opposition
determines the topics to be taken up ? the model followed by the
British Parliament, which earmarks 20 days a year for this
purpose. Another suggestion is to include a topic if a
significant minority (say, 20 per cent or 25 per cent of the
membership) demands a discussion through a written notice.
However, such changes in rules of procedure are unlikely to make
much impact under current circumstances.
The reason is that
rules of procedure can only work if members are willing to
follow such rules. The members of the highest lawmaking body of
the country are expected to follow certain norms of conduct and
decorum. This includes allowing other members to speak and
express their opinions, raise issues through due procedure such
as during Question Hour, Zero Hour, and longer discussions. If
members do not follow the rules, there is unlikely to be a
change in behaviour if the rules are tweaked.
disciplinary action make much difference? I do not think so. If
there are one or two recalcitrant members, they can be
suspended. However, if all the members of a major opposition
political party disrupt proceedings, can the Chair suspend them?
Can Parliament retain its legitimacy if a major opposition party
is excluded? And would such a precedent lead to suspension of
members when a government attempts to stifle dissenting voices?
These are tough questions. We have seen the Chair taking such
decisions, including expulsion of 25 members of Lok Sabha during
the last session, and there has been little change in behaviour.
Indeed, the Chairman
of the Rajya Sabha expressed his anguish in his valedictory
address on Wednesday: ?This state of affairs is at times
attributed by sections of opinion to lack of disciplinary
control over the proceeding. Forgotten in the process are the
limitations of the rules of procedure, the operative assumptions
on which they were framed, and the various Rulings and
Observations from the Chair pertaining to the requirement of
decorum and dignity. Vehemence in language or behaviour
resulting in obstruction of proceedings, apart from interruption
and neglect of listed agenda, also results in violation of the
privileges of individual Members themselves. It reflects
adversely on the parliamentary process and our commitment to it.
There is an imperative need to dispel this impression.?
What is at stake
here is the very foundation on which our republic is founded.
Parliament is expected to fulfil the critical role of
representing the aspirations of citizens, and guiding the nation
towards social and economic justice. If Parliament?s performance
continues to deteriorate, citizens could lose faith in it to
perform these functions.
Is there a way out? Perhaps, the route lies in changing the
power equation between the leadership and members of political
parties. Few parties have internal democracy ? at best, some of
them have an oligarchy that takes decisions. The leadership
allocates electoral seats to party candidates, so the member is
beholden to the party boss(es) for being given a ticket to
contest. After getting elected, the MP is subject to the party
whip and the anti-defection law, which means that he or she
cannot form an independent view on any issue. This power
structure also results in MPs having no option but to obey the
leadership?s diktat to disrupt Parliament.
reforms may be imperative. Political parties need to be
regulated. It should be mandatory for them to elect their
leadership in a transparent and credible manner ? perhaps, the
Election Commission could be tasked with conducting elections
for all recognised political parties. Candidates need to be
determined by bottom-up processes such as local committees or
through primaries. After all, similar requirements exist for
even private bodies such as private limited companies. The
anti-defection law should be repealed, and an MP elevated back
to being a decision-maker rather than a number for the party to
count for a vote.
Will these steps
work? One doesn?t know. All one can say is that urgent steps are
needed to restore Parliament?s role as a deliberative body
rather than as one prone to disruptions.
Co-founder of PRS Legislative Research
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