Empowering parliamentarians

The recently concluded 15th Lok Sabha performed poorly on many parameters: few sittings, low number of Bills passed and a significant proportion passed without deliberation, the higher proportion of time wasted on disruption etc. As the 16th Lok Sabha assembles in a couple of months, the big question is whether one can hope for an improvement in its performance.
Are there structural factors that led to the low effectiveness of Parliament in the last five years? If that is true, one can then look at ways to address these factors. Two aspects come to mind immediately: the anti-defection law and the lack of recorded voting. There are three other, key, functions of Parliament that merit attention: making laws, holding the government to account for its actions and policies, and the power of the purse.
The anti-defection law was made by inserting the Tenth Schedule to the Constitution in 1985 to combat “the evil of political defections”. The provisions require every member of Parliament (MP) and of state legislative assemblies or councils (MLA or MLC) to abide by the party’s command on voting or abstaining on every vote. If a legislator fails to do so, he may be disqualified from his membership to the legislature.
The provisions apply not only to votes that affect the stability of the government, i.e., no-confidence motions and money Bills. They are applicable to all votes. Also, they are applicable to members of Rajya Sabha and legislative councils, who have no say in the formation of the government.

The effect is that each member is converted into a mere number at the beck and call of the party leadership. This goes against the basis of a representative democracy in which the elected representative is expected to act in public interest (as understood by him) which would usually be a combination of his ideology, political party membership and constituency interests. Instead, the current system forces him to blindly obey the instructions of the party leadership.

This system weakens the checks and balances inherent in parliamentary democracy. The government can get any of its policies and Bills approved by issuing a whip to its party members and through backroom deals with the leadership of other political parties. It does not need to convince individual MPs of the merits of the proposals. Thus, our system strips the incentive for an MP to understand and think through any issue, as he has to finally just obey the party. For example, in December 2012, the government had to face a vote on permitting foreign direct investment in the retail sector. The members of all political parties voted (or abstained) on party lines. Contrast this with a system without the anti-defection law such as the British Parliament, in which, the prime minister was unable to win the vote in the House of Commons on going to war in Syria, despite the government having a comfortable majority.

The irony is that the anti-defection law does not appear to be very effective in preventing defections that lead to the fall of the government. During the confidence motion in 2008, about 20 MPs defied the party whip. Also, this provision does not apply when the party leadership decides to change its affiliation—as the Dravida Munnettra Kazhagam (DMK) and Trinamool Congress did in the last two years—for a mass-defection from the coalition. Furthermore, the anti-defection law breaks the link between the elected representative and his electors. Citizens vote for their candidates on a combination of the person and the party—this is evident from the discussions on “winnability” of various candidates and the care with which parties allocate the tickets for elections.

The elected representative is accountable to his voters for his actions, and this accountability is enforced when he contests for re-election from the constituency. However, the anti-defection law provides him with an excuse for his stand on any issue—that he had to obey the party’s diktat. Compare this to the system in other democracies, such as that seen in the electoral debates in the US, where candidates have to justify their past actions on various legislative votes, often those taken decades earlier.

This brings us to a related issue—we do not have records of how MPs voted on most issues. Most motions are decided by a voice vote, with the Speaker determining whether the majority supported or rejected the motion. Though any member can challenge this decision and demand a division (recorded vote), it is rarely done. Of the 175 Bills passed in the 15th Lok Sabha (not counting Constitutional Amendment Bills), only 11 had a recorded vote. This implies that citizens do not know whether their MPs were even present in the House during the vote.

This is an easy fix as every seat is provided with a voting machine. Indeed, in the British Parliament, where MPs have to physically walk out into the lobbies for their votes to be recorded, most Bills see such action.
To sum up, we need two reforms urgently: repeal the anti-defection law, and require that all Bills be passed only through recorded voting.