How to ensure Parliament always works as well as it did to pass GST
The monsoon session of Parliament that concluded last week has shown remarkable productivity, with a number of pending Bills including the GST Bill being passed. Over the last decade or so, there have been few sessions of Parliament as productive as this one. In fact, proceedings within Parliament are usually characterised by widespread disruptions and adjournments, with negligible legislative activity.
In a recent report on ?Disruptions in the Indian Parliament?, we at the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy have analysed the activities of two randomly selected sessions of Parliament: the winter session of 2013-14 during the tenure of the previous UPA government and the monsoon session of 2015 during the tenure of the present NDA government.
Our findings show approximately 70% of the total time of both the sessions studied was wasted on disruptions and forced adjournments. Of the 30% of total time spent on the transaction of business, merely 6% was spent on legislative business. Around 24% was spent on discussing various contemporary issues, such as debate over the ill-treatment of the Indian Deputy Consul General in the US and the issuance of travel documents to former IPL chief Lalit Modi. Productive time in Parliament is thus usually scarce; even when productive, Parliament is scarcely occupied in its primary activity of enacting and amending laws.
Several structural and substantive issues incentivise disruptions. First, debates reveal discontent among members of opposition parties, who feel deprived of adequate opportunity to raise policy issues. This often leads to planned and unplanned disruptions in order to grandstand and create impact. Such an impasse is aided by antiquated parliamentary procedures.
The time allotted in Zero Hour is not enough for all members, including MPs belonging to the opposition, to raise issues of importance. In the winter and monsoon sessions of the Lok Sabha, Zero Hour saw 127 and 253 matters raised respectively. Both times, members resorted to disruptions as these matters could not be taken up during the designated time. It is thus time that Zero Hour is reconceptualised entirely and replaced by Opposition Mondays: every Monday should be allocated to opposition-led discussion on germane issues of governance.
This is not uncommon in other jurisdictions. Parliamentary procedure in the UK has provision for backbench debates, where junior members of all parties can raise issues for discussion. Debate time in the US House of Representatives is normally divided equally between proponents and opponents under the rules governing the House. In the German Bundestag, the provision for raising matters of topical interest is designed largely as a right for the minority parties. A simple tweak in procedure of this nature creates ownership for all, disincentivises disruptions and above all builds trust between government and opposition.
Second, over the course of time, the political party has become the focus of all parliamentary activity, trumping its individual members. This is demonstrated through the practice of issuance of whips on most voting and expulsion of an individual member from her party for indulging in an anti-party activity. Thus, when political parties take a strategic call to disrupt the House, individuals must toe the line thereby allowing disruptions to achieve scale. Protests by BJP members over the JPC report on the 2G scam during the winter session of 2013 or the raising of anti-government slogans by Congress members during the monsoon session of 2015 are examples of this.
While protests may be a legitimate form of dissent, to not allow Parliament to function at all through continuous disruptions is protest taken too far. Inner party democracy and limiting the use of party whips to no-confidence motions have potential to severely limit the scale and success of disruptive activity.
Third, disruptions are significantly lower when the PM is present and answers questions in the House. MPs have often expressed their wish to directly engage with the PM during discussions over matters of national importance, such as issuance of foreign travel documents to the BCCI chief or the arrest of Tamil Nadu fishermen by Sri Lankan authorities. But in the absence of a convention that requires the presence of the PM within Parliament on a designated day, MPs resort to disorderly conduct to get the PM to attend Parliament or draw attention to their issue.
In the UK, the PM is required to attend the debates in the House of Commons every Wednesday. An analogous convention in India would have an exponential effect in building trust and reducing disruptions.
Finally, it is imperative to recognise that the last session of Parliament was relatively disruption-free since there was passage of a major reform in national interest that was top of the governmental agenda. However for such disruption-free proceedings to become the norm and not remain the exception, several easily achievable structural and substantive changes in parliamentary procedures need to be carried out.
This will ensure that irrespective of whether the issue for discussion is the widely debated GST or the seldom-debated issue of Indian fishermen detained by neighbouring countries, Parliament functions as it should, treating all issues and Indians before it as equally worthy of its time and deliberations.
*The writers are research fellows, Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy