India?s rusty parliamentary machinery needs to be fixed to overcome policy paralysis

Times of India, April 18, 2014

The Indian Parliament is sacred at a distance, Bismarckian sausage-making at its most intimate. For all our cherished “representative democracy” and high regard for Parliament, it has often seemed moribund, witness to inaction and misdemeanour, cynical lawmaking and naked populism. This dichotomy limits the potential to reform, with debate over the character and behaviour of its members barred from overt criticism.

Ideally, this institution should strengthen the working of government, not act as an institutional roadblock. With meeting time declining, critical issues like the 2014 interim budget are approved without discussion. As abuse and adjournments slowed governance and cheapened political discourse, Parliament’s functioning became an embarrassment. It should be desacrilised; treated as an engine of functional efficiency rather than be honoured with platitudes and rendered non-functional.

Policy discourse and debate, woefully inadequate, need to be strengthened. India’s parliamentary system offers the ruling elite carte blanche in setting the agenda. MPs rarely know what is up for debate, with little homework done (a fact displayed in the mediocre level of debate). Legislative decision-making should be more participative, instead of being held hostage to last minute political deals between parties. Why should crucial bills be left for poll season, gaining brownie points?

Civility in Parliament is a quaint thought, but one we must all strive to uphold. Disruptions have led to no business for two sessions. The Speaker’s authority to suspend or expel errant members is seldom used without government support. Indiscriminate disruption should have defined penalties. Lok Sabha Rules of Conduct offer enough direction, enjoining members to not interrupt another and speaking only when asked by the Speaker, while prohibiting protests in the well. Penalties ought to apply, with no work leading to no pay, and preventing the opposition from disrupting Parliament.

Parliament needs to be time-bound, offering sittings for debate and forensic audits. Its number of sittings needs to be fixed to a bare minimum, instead of leaving this to government’s discretion.

A body that can convene itself without government’s permission will be more independent in legislative matters. Question Hour should be kept mandatory and held at a more frequent pace, holding ministers accountable. Ministers who often come under-prepared ought to be censured.

No Parliament should stay standing on its age-old traditions and functions. Canada is looking at including elements of proportional representation for parliamentary constituencies, potentially rendering every seat competitive. The British parliament introduced a day every week for general debates, with no voting required. It also empowers various committees to offer policy advice, produce reports or alter legislation. MPs discuss and debate without overwhelming background noise and un-parliamentary language is not allowed.

Public committees, once defunct and without expertise have been empowered, with most government bills required to go through public hearings, with provisions for oral and written evidence, thus improving potential to inform members, boost public participation and bolster parliamentary scrutiny. Briefings by outside organisations and experts inform and shape legislation. Moves to create permanent expert legislation committees, providing practical experience, are now taking shape.

The irrelevance of our parliamentary standing committees is breathtaking. Originally designed to improve legislative expertise, they lie mostly ignored. They ought to be symbols of power, real checks and balances on government working. As in the US and UK, we should consider attaching experts to support such committees, while opening up deliberation to public record. Lawmakers should be upholders of the law as well.

Non-ministerial MPs have little leverage, with the anti-defection law and limited intra-party democracy narrowing issue movement. No private members’ bill has been passed by Parliament since 1970. Any MP has to divide his/her time between his constituency and the national legislature, responsive to the needs of development and actual election. Why can’t MPs be offered a full week every session to discuss issues of concern? UK and Canada offer about 20 days each every year for this purpose.

Private member bills should be given due consideration for voting, without requiring consensus among major parties. MPs also need high quality policy research staff to help them debate legalese and audit policies. Voting on bills should be tabulated, analysed and put online, allowing citizens to know how their MP voted on issues.

The anti-defection law needs to be revisited, with the whip perhaps limited to no-confidence motions and financial bills. Allowing freedom for political and policy expression will encourage debate. A “conscience” vote will not impede the party line.

Over the past decade, the Supreme Court has become the epicentre of legislative activity, with Parliament fading into the background and its dysfunction leading to policy paralysis. Parliamentary scrutiny needs to increase, particularly on non-constitutional bodies like Planning Commission and on public-private partnerships. Debates over financial matters must increase, with taxation and budgeting debated, instead of a simple vote.

India’s electorate has rising aspirations, which only well-thought out public policies can achieve. Lawmaking, with debate and deliberation, without inaction and misdemeanour, is the least that they deserve. Sanctification without performance is no longer enough.

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