Restoring law and order in Parliament

The Hindu Business Line, August 21, 2015

Government and opposition must jointly devise a set of conduct rules, putting an end to cynical obstructionism

?The monsoon session of the parliament was washed out due to flooding of the well of the house,? says the contemporary weekly hoarding of Nana Chudasama on Marine Drive in Mumbai. This hoarding, carrying thoughtful remarks on contemporary issues, is an icon of Mumbai broadly reflecting the public sentiment.

This sentiment has been echoed by none else than the President. The President is empowered, under Article 86(2) of the Constitution, to send specific or general messages to either house of Parliament.

During his address to the nation on the eve of Independence Day, the President noted that our legislatures look more like combat arenas rather than forums that legislate.

In fact, many concerned citizens, including myself, had signed an online petition urging MPs to let Parliament function. Even combat is governed by certain accepted rules and principles.

Unfortunately, our parliamentarians have shown blatant disregard for the rules they are supposed to comply with while discharging their functions as representatives of ?We the People of India?.

That this has been a standard feature needs to be revisited; two wrongs don?t make one right. The Prime Minister, acting like a statesman, could call a meeting with opposition leaders and do a confessional session i.e. accept that his party too has indulged in obstructionism in the past, but in future will desist from such actions in return of an acceptable formula (legislation also) on how future sessions of the parliament should be conducted in peace.

He must assure that credit for economic reforms is publicly given to all parties. This is also a chance for seniors in different parties to play a useful role in breaking the deadlock by initiating informal discussions.

Code of conduct

In fact, the Lok Sabha rules prohibit members from raising slogans, wearing badges, displaying flags, emblems, exhibits, or coming to the pit of the house as a measure of protest.

Similarly, a Rajya Sabha member is not expected to interrupt any other member who is speaking. The rules even prohibit two members from standing at the same time!

The rules authorise the Speaker to suspend disruptive members for five consecutive sittings, in the event of grave disorder, such as an MP coming into well of the house. Speakers have hesitated from using their powers.

As a result, the chaotic scenes in Parliament have increased, preventing passage of critical legislations, and stalling the much needed reforms agenda. It was perhaps after a long time that this rule was rightly invoked by the Speaker in suspending 25 MPs for five sittings, which was criticised unfairly.

While India might not be alone in establishing a code of conduct for its law makers, one could safely assume that it would be a frontrunner in non-compliance. The code of conduct for members of UK Parliament requires compliance with seven high level principles.

These include selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty, and leadership. UK does not stop at setting out principles, but these are taken into account when considering investigation against a member.

Resolving differences

In 2001, the Conference of Presiding Officers of Legislatures tried to identify the reasons behind MPs? frequent disruption of parliamentary proceedings.

It found that non-availability of adequate time and consequent frustration of MPs in not being able to raise matters on the floor of the House were major reasons for MPs disrupting Parliament.

Another reason was the absence of prompt action against MPs responsible for disrupting the proceedings of the House. The Conference recommended automatic suspension of MPs guilty of misconduct for specified periods.

The Fourteenth All India Whips Conference held in 2008 recommended that one full day in a week should be set aside for discussion on matters that were of concern to MPs. In the UK Parliament, 20 days of each Parliament session are reserved for opposition parties to determine Parliament?s agenda.

Of these 20 days, 17 are allotted to the principal opposition party and three to other opposition parties. Similar measures could be adopted in India to ensure matters critical to opposition are taken up for discussion.

Another solution to frequent disruptions could be mandatory dialogue between ruling and opposition parties, presided by the Speaker, should the disruption continue for a specified continuous period, of say, three days.

The parties must be forced to sort out differences via discussion and the measures suggested by different parties, including rationale thereof, must be made public.

Preventing U-turns

The major cause of disruption in the Parliament has been the volte face by leading political parties on critical legislations, citing minor issues. FDI in insurance or multi-brand retail was first mooted by the NDA government but was stalled by them for ten years when in opposition (2004-14).

Goods and Service Tax was promoted during the UPA regime, but these very parties are now obstructing its passage. The Land Acquisition Act was passed in 2013, with NDA?s consent, and soon after change of government, the ordinance route was adopted to supersede its onerous provisions.

Such a U-turn culture, which appears to be a result of the desire of a ?particular regime? to take credit for economic reforms, and prevent the ?other regime? from doing so, is harmful for our progress.

BR Ambedkar, in his address to the Constituent Assembly before adoption of Constitution advocated for constitutional methods for achieving social and economic objectives. He cautioned that unconstitutional methods are nothing but grammar of anarchy and must be abandoned.

Given the frequent disruptions of Parliament, without any regard to codified rules, it seems his fears are coming true. This must be corrected at all costs.

As observed by the President, a seasoned Parliamentarian himself, the Parliament must be conducted in a spirit of cooperation, harmony and purpose. It high time the political parties heed to his suggestion, and walk an extra mile to ensure Parliament functions.

The writer is secretary general of CUTS International.

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