The Creeping Threat to the
Autonomy of Parliament
The Wire, November
The delay in
convening the winter session is symptomatic of a deeper malaise
– the attempt by the executive to subvert the independent
function of the legislature and its secretariat.
Article 85 of the Indian constitution says that the gap between
two sessions of parliament should not be six months – which
means the next session should be called before the completion of
six months. The opposition had voiced its fears that the
government was going to skip the winter session. Now that the
session’s opening has been set for December 15, that
apprehension is set at rest for the time being. Nevertheless,
the complaint remains that the winter session has been delayed
by almost four weeks in view of elections to just one state
assembly. This is unprecedented.
It is in fact the prerogative of the government to convene
parliament on a particular date. The government is free to
consider various aspects before deciding to call the session.
Unlike the situation in the UK, the US and some other democratic
countries – where parliament meets at a fixed time – the
constitution makers of India thought there should be some
flexibility in scheduling the meetings of the legislature. In
fact, the original provision in the constitution was that there
should be at least two sessions in a year. This was amended in
1951 to say parliament may be summoned from time to time.
Thereafter, it always met thrice a year and that practice
continues till today. Thus, three sessions of parliament in a
year have become the pattern and any departure from it now will
naturally be frowned upon. Then why would any government think
of reducing the number of sessions unless it has a sinister plan
of gradually reducing the importance of parliament with the
ultimate object of dispensing with it altogether?
In political circles, the widespread belief is that the winter
session of parliament has been delayed due to the election in
Gujarat. The fact that the session begins on December 15 – the
day after polling concludes – reinforces this belief. The
argument that sessions were postponed during earlier Congress
regimes is self-deceiving because the Bharatiya Janata Party
seriously believes that everything the previous ruling party did
was wrong. So any imitation of the Congress will not make it
right. The simple conclusion one can arrive at in these
circumstances is that in the eyes of the present government, the
elections in Gujarat are a greater priority than a session of
parliament. Then, on a point of fact: the duration of a session
or two was cut short in the past because of elections to a large
number of assemblies and that too after arriving at a consensus.
No session was ever postponed for as long as four weeks for a
single assembly election.
Parliament not getting the priority it deserves at the hands of
the executive is indeed a serious matter. The executive is
collectively responsible to the legislature. The collective
responsibility of the executive is the essence of responsible
government. The Supreme Court has emphasised this point when it
said, “The cabinet is responsible to the legislature for every
action taken in any of the ministries. This is the essence of
The primacy of the
legislature over the executive is an essential aspect of the
constitutional democracy we have in our country. But the trend
that has emerged over a period of time is of the executive
progressively strengthening its control over the legislature.
At first blush, this may appear paradoxical. After all, the
legislature sanctions money for running the government. The
executive cannot withdraw a paisa from the consolidated fund
without the authority of law made by the legislature. The
executive cannot levy or collect any tax from citizens without
the authority of law made by the legislature. The legislature
makes laws which the executive is duty-bound to enforce. The
legislature has the power to throw out a government when it
loses the confidence of the house.
Now, when the constitution vests all these powers in the
legislature, it expects the legislative branch to carry out
these functions in the most effective manner. For this purpose,
the legislature establishes systems to ensure the accountability
of the executive. The most crucial system is an independent
secretariat for the legislature. But this is also its Achilles’
Article 98 of the constitution provides for a secretariat for
each house of parliament with a staff which is independent of
the executive and free from its control. The reason is obvious.
The secretariat is the eyes, ears and arms of the legislature.
If the secretariat is under the control of the executive, the
legislature will most surely fail to perform its most
fundamental duty of scrutinising the functioning of the
Legacy of another
The new generation
of parliamentarians may not have heard of Vithalbhai Patel. The
present government has left no stone unturned in dinning the
name of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel into the nation’s
consciousness. But everyone has forgotten the role and
contribution of Vithalbhai Patel, the elder brother of
Vallabhbhai Patel and the first Indian speaker (president)
elected to the Central Legislative Assembly in 1925.
The elder Patel laid down the basic rules for the independence
of the legislature and its secretariat in India. He fought a
long battle with the colonial government for an independent
secretariat for the Central Legislative Assembly because he was
conscious of the fact that the legislature can perform its basic
functions only with the help of a secretariat which is free from
the control of the government.
At last, Vithalbhai won the battle and an independent
secretariat was established on January 10, 1929. Vithalbhai was
a fearless, independent and impartial speaker who gave many
rulings against the colonial government. Though the government
did not like many of those rulings, in the best traditions of
the British parliamentary system, they chose to obey the
speaker. These are facts of history.
These facts need to be remembered in the present context when
the control of the executive on the legislature is growing
If anyone has a long-term plan to subvert the legislature, the
first thing he/she will do is to dispense with the independence
of the secretariat of the legislature. This can be achieved by
inducting officers of the executive in the legislature
secretariat. Being trained to serve the executive, the concept
of independence of the legislature secretariat is alien to them.
They will gain control of the core functions of the secretariat
– like admitting parliament questions, preparing the reports of
committees, and a host of other functions which have a bearing
on the legislature’s scrutiny of the government. It is an
unfortunate fact that this insidious process of subversion of
Indian legislatures has been going on for some time. This is in
clear violation of the constitution which contains various
provisions to insulate the legislature secretariats from
To my mind, this is
a major challenge which the Indian legislatures are facing.
Members of parliament or of the state legislatures do not seem
to be sufficiently aware of this threat to the parliamentary
system. When crucial questions are disallowed or recommendations
or observations of various house committees are ‘sanitised’ or
made bland and unfocused, the members may not be aware of the
fact that this is precisely what the executive wants the
legislature to do.
In order for parliament and the state legislatures to survive as
the watchdogs of public interest, a deep understanding of
parliamentary history and traditions and, above all, the
constitutional role and responsibilities of the Indian
legislature is necessary.
While we are justifiably concerned about the delay in the
convening of parliament, we must also pay some attention to the
slow process of subversion of the legislature by the executive.
The institutional integrity of parliament is like chastity. Once
lost, it is gone forever.
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