Company law model for Parliament

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Business Line, December 08, 2011

There should be a debate, followed by voting on a subject if, say, 10 per cent of the House wants it.

The rules of debate in the Indian Parliament seem to be a relic of the Raj. The government of the day decides almost dictatorially what to admit for discussion, and fights shy of a discussion culminating in voting if it isn’t confident of rustling up a majority on the issue.

These are pre-Independence rules that were in vogue to stifle any debate against the colonial masters, even while giving the nation a pretence of democracy.

It is ironical that even after 64 years of Independence, we have been clinging to these archaic and oppressive rules of debate in Parliament. Even non-Congress regimes that have led coalitions at the Centre have not thought it proper to change this dismal state of affairs, perhaps for fear of losing power prematurely, given the rather thin glue that tends to keep them together.

GERMAN MODEL

In the US and Europe, debates can be demanded and made, irrespective of whether they end up embarrassing or dethroning the government of the day. While a no-confidence motion against the government is always a choice, its repeated and ready use would rob it of its solemnity and amount to using a sledgehammer to swat a fly ? as would be the case if the Opposition were to bring it in the face of the government’s stubbornness in refusing a debate on FDI in retail.

Parenthetically, there is a dire need to fashion the rule on introduction of a no-confidence motion on the lines of the law in Germany ? it can be brought in only along with a confidence motion in the proposed alternative regime, and the two have to be voted as a package.

In other words, the no-confidence motion would be defeated if the simultaneous motion in favour of the alternative regime is lost. This indeed would discourage the frivolous use of the brahmastra. The debate on FDI culminating in voting ought to have been allowed so that the stand of the various political parties comes out in prominent relief and they aren’t allowed to indulge in mere grandstanding. Losing the debate would just mean loss of face and abandoning of the proposal without the government being required to quit.

EMULATE COMPANIES ACT

The Companies Act, 1956, comes out smelling of roses in this regard. Those who can manage to rustle up 10 per cent of the voting power at the minimum can requisition an extraordinary general meeting, and discuss pretty much what they please. This is as it should be.

It is surprising that this enabling regime is in place where it is not as much required, but not in place where there is a felt need for it. For, in companies, minority shareholders hardly even rock the boat, unless their own interests are vitally subjugated by the acts of the majority; in such a case, they prefer to petition the Company Law Board to prevent oppression or mismanagement of the company rather than merely haranguing the promoters in the saddle with no material results to show.

But in Parliament, the issues that assume importance from time to time merit serious discussion that culminates in voting in the interest of a healthy democracy. In its absence, the political party spokespersons routinely make a beeline to the television studios to make themselves clear, thus willy-nilly bypassing Parliament, the seat of democracy.

DEBATES OUTSIDE HOUSE

To be sure, the Fourth Estate, the media, has its place in a democracy, but it cannot be allowed to upstage, by default, the august Parliament any more than trial of cases can be conducted in television studios even while a case is in progress in Court.

Media then can supplement the discussions and debate in Parliament but in no case should the government allow its own and Parliament’s marginalisation ? which is what happens when Opposition parties court the media to articulate their views on a given issue, in the face of persistent stonewalling on the part of the government of the day.

There is a view that discussion, followed by voting on anything and everything, would throw the Parliamentary calendar out of gear, what with vociferous members constantly developing the itch to speak.

But to stifle discussion and voting is anathema to political democracy, especially in the light of the more benign dispensation in place in the corporate arena. In any case, even the Opposition parties would be loath to press for a debate if the writing on the wall is clear ? numbers piled up against them.

A standard procedure with built-in safeguards, such as the one in the context of company law, is any day better than allowing the whim of the ruling party to hold sway and swat the Opposition.

Why can’t Parliamentary rules then be amended to mandate a compulsory debate followed by voting if that is what, let us say, 10 per cent of the membership of the House demands? Since such matters are pressing, debate must be had at the earliest, by asking the members to stretch themselves beyond their leisurely working hours.

The author is a Delhi-based chartered accountant.

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