Putting the House in order

The Hindu, December 25, 2015

M R Madhavan*

Urgent steps are needed to restore Parliament?s role as a deliberative body
rather than as one prone to disruptions

The winter session that ended on Wednesday followed the trend of the previous session, with very little work done. The statistics are stark: just eight Bills passed, half the scheduled time lost in the Rajya Sabha, with just 13 per cent of Question Hour being productive. Major bills including the Goods and Services Tax Bill were not taken up for discussion. Few bills were introduced ? the only major one was for a new bankruptcy law.

The previous Lok Sabha had been the worst performing one till then in terms of time lost to disruptions ? about a third of the total scheduled time was lost in its five-year term. Some senior Opposition leaders had justified disruptions as a legitimate tactic stating that they had no choice if the government refused to discuss alleged incidents of large-scale corruption. The situation is different now ? the government has stated that it was willing to discuss all issues permitted under the rules. Despite such an assurance, the Rajya Sabha repeatedly saw Members of Parliament (MPs) entering the Well and shouting slogans.
Parliament is an institution designed to allow voicing of diverse views on various national issues.

The underlying assumption is that members discuss issues and convince others through persuasive arguments. Indeed, the rule book even prohibits members from reading out speeches, except with express permission of the Chair. The rationale for this rule is that members are expected to listen to others, and to respond to their arguments.

Weakened process

Several structural constraints have weakened this process. For example, the topic to be debated and the rule under which the debate would happen (effectively determining whether there would be a vote at the end of the discussion) are determined in all-party meetings through consensus. This process enables the government to block the discussion on any issue that could embarrass it. Various suggestions have been made to address this aspect. These include marking out days when the Opposition determines the topics to be taken up ? the model followed by the British Parliament, which earmarks 20 days a year for this purpose. Another suggestion is to include a topic if a significant minority (say, 20 per cent or 25 per cent of the membership) demands a discussion through a written notice. However, such changes in rules of procedure are unlikely to make much impact under current circumstances.

The reason is that rules of procedure can only work if members are willing to follow such rules. The members of the highest lawmaking body of the country are expected to follow certain norms of conduct and decorum. This includes allowing other members to speak and express their opinions, raise issues through due procedure such as during Question Hour, Zero Hour, and longer discussions. If members do not follow the rules, there is unlikely to be a change in behaviour if the rules are tweaked.

\Would stronger disciplinary action make much difference? I do not think so. If there are one or two recalcitrant members, they can be suspended. However, if all the members of a major opposition political party disrupt proceedings, can the Chair suspend them? Can Parliament retain its legitimacy if a major opposition party is excluded? And would such a precedent lead to suspension of members when a government attempts to stifle dissenting voices? These are tough questions. We have seen the Chair taking such decisions, including expulsion of 25 members of Lok Sabha during the last session, and there has been little change in behaviour.

Indeed, the Chairman of the Rajya Sabha expressed his anguish in his valedictory address on Wednesday: ?This state of affairs is at times attributed by sections of opinion to lack of disciplinary control over the proceeding. Forgotten in the process are the limitations of the rules of procedure, the operative assumptions on which they were framed, and the various Rulings and Observations from the Chair pertaining to the requirement of decorum and dignity. Vehemence in language or behaviour resulting in obstruction of proceedings, apart from interruption and neglect of listed agenda, also results in violation of the privileges of individual Members themselves. It reflects adversely on the parliamentary process and our commitment to it. There is an imperative need to dispel this impression.?

What is at stake here is the very foundation on which our republic is founded. Parliament is expected to fulfil the critical role of representing the aspirations of citizens, and guiding the nation towards social and economic justice. If Parliament?s performance continues to deteriorate, citizens could lose faith in it to perform these functions.

Changing power equation

Is there a way out? Perhaps, the route lies in changing the power equation between the leadership and members of political parties. Few parties have internal democracy ? at best, some of them have an oligarchy that takes decisions. The leadership allocates electoral seats to party candidates, so the member is beholden to the party boss(es) for being given a ticket to contest. After getting elected, the MP is subject to the party whip and the anti-defection law, which means that he or she cannot form an independent view on any issue. This power structure also results in MPs having no option but to obey the leadership?s diktat to disrupt Parliament.

Some possible reforms may be imperative. Political parties need to be regulated. It should be mandatory for them to elect their leadership in a transparent and credible manner ? perhaps, the Election Commission could be tasked with conducting elections for all recognised political parties. Candidates need to be determined by bottom-up processes such as local committees or through primaries. After all, similar requirements exist for even private bodies such as private limited companies. The anti-defection law should be repealed, and an MP elevated back to being a decision-maker rather than a number for the party to count for a vote.

Will these steps work? One doesn?t know. All one can say is that urgent steps are needed to restore Parliament?s role as a deliberative body rather than as one prone to disruptions.

*President and Co-founder of PRS Legislative Research

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