A better parliament for all

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Indian Express, December 21, 2014

Parliament has resumed its normal disruption. That should surprise no one. The chaos is deceptive as well as functional. It is deceptive because the real work of Parliament happens away from the TV cameras, in standing committees. Compromises are worked out outside before legislation is presented. The most controversial Bill is pushed through in minutes. Remember the Telangana Bill. The disruption is functional because the Opposition has no other power to influence business except preventing it from happening. The Executive is too powerful in determining the order of business. The backbenchers are unable to express independent views and are fodder for the rush to the well. The disruption is a sign of impotence rather than power.

Even so the country needs a better Parliament. The operating procedures of the Indian Parliament were laid down in colonial times and have not changed. They gave excessive powers to the Executive. As a backbencher in the British Parliament, I speak my views often at variance with my party?s line. I vote on amendments and we often ? indeed a hundred times in this Parliament ? have defeated the government. So at the very least, Indian Parliament needs better procedures and also needs to unshackle the backbenchers, as they used to be in the first three decades .

As we reform Parliament, we need to do something about the perennial election cycle. There seems to be a non-stop election season as the general election is succeeded by one state poll after another. The political system is constantly in campaign mode. The Prime Minister has been on the stump ever since he got elected, as Maharashtra and Haryana and then Jharkhand and Jammu and Kashmir beckoned him. There is Delhi to come and then on and on.

It is time to put the general election along with all state polls on a single date. This was the case at the beginning of elections in the Fifties. Then as majorities fragmented, governments became short-lived and all coherence was lost. Perhaps by 2024, we should move towards a uniform cycle. This would imply that if a government was replaced mid-term, the winners would only be in power for the remainder of the five years. This can be done by introducing a Fixed Term of Parliament Bill as the UK has done. This Bill would raise the threshold for a no-confidence motion and/or reduce the reward as the winner would get only a partial term. It would save much time and resources. This is not a new idea. It was advanced by the Administrative Reforms Commission and by L K Advani. It?s time has come.

There is also another urgent matter. The electorate has expanded to 800 million while there are only 545 MPs. There should be one MP per million voters at least. It makes sense. One simple way is to redraw the boundaries and add 255 seats to make up 800 seats. But as we set about radical reform of Parliament, there are other changes which can be made. The first-past-the-post system can be quite cruel to small parties which get a share of seats below their share of votes. In other parliaments, there is a top-up mechanism. This adds seats in proportion to votes. These MPs are ?at large? and do not represent a constituency but the overall sentiments nationally. It would not be a bad idea to add 200 ?at large? MPs.

A parliament of 1,000 may sound large but given the size and complexity of the country, there are many other interests which need representation and not just the geographical constituencies. The issue of women?s share has been delayed for a long time now. It would be easier in a larger parliament. Similarly, other minorities which have fewer seats than their share in the population can be accommodated. These special constituencies could be given slots in the ?at large? list.

Of course, a larger parliament will require a new building. There is no reason why we should stick to the colonial heritage. Those buildings were the best of their times then, better than the Westminster Parliament, as I can vouch.

A new building for Parliament needs one feature above all. No well to rush into!

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