How to make House work?

The pillars of the Parliament House have stood the test of time but are crumbling, writes Chakshu Roy

The last five years have witnessed Parliament’s inability to discharge its constitutional responsibilities. There is an urgent need to overhaul the functioning of this important institution lest law-making may suffer, the Government’s work may go unchecked and the views of a billion people may go unrepresented.

Urgent changes under three broad heads need to be made to rejuvenate parliamentary functioning. These are:

Constitutional changes

Indian Parliament is in a peculiar position. The Constitution entrusts it with the responsibility of holding the Government accountable, yet it does not have the power to convene itself to keep checks on Government functioning. In some Commonwealth countries, the yearly calendar of  Parliament is determined in advance and the dates of its sittings are known for the entire year. Unlike in India where the President convenes and prorogues the Parliamentary sessions, in these countries Parliament is in session for the entire year and takes scheduled breaks in between. Such mechanisms ensure that the Government does not escape Parliamentary scrutiny.

Another Constitutional change is with respect to the anti-defection law. Currently, MPs are required to vote in the Parliament on party lines. If they vote against the party whip they stand to lose their seat in Parliament. This impinges upon the concept of MPs as lawmakers and reduces them to a “headcount”. The Vice President has suggested that the MPs should be required to vote on party lines only when the fate of the Government hangs in balance. On legislative and other debates, they should be allowed to vote according to their will.

Procedural revamp

Parliamentary procedures have not seen major changes over the last 60 years. Parliament is a self regulating body that can easily change its procedures for smooth and effective functioning. While a number of Parliamentary procedures could use some updating, there are three aspects which need immediate attention.

The first one is the business that is conducted in Parliament. Currently the business that is transacted is dictated by the Government and the Opposition has a limited say in setting the agenda for debate. This leads to disruptions, when the Government is reluctant to debate contentious issues. In other Parliamentary democracies this is handled in two ways. The first is by giving the Opposition parties a fixed number of days in a week where they are free to decide the day’s agenda. The second is that a debate on a topic is taken up if a minimum number of MPs are in favour of such a debate. Recommendations to this effect have been made in conferences of whips and presiding officers that are regularly organised by the Ministry of Parliamentary Affairs.

The second area of focus should be departmentally related parliamentary committees. These were constituted in the early 1990s to scrutinise Bills and the work of Ministries. However Parliamentary procedures limit their effectiveness to a certain extent. For example, the rules do not make it mandatory for all Government Bills to be referred to a standing committee. The referral of Bills depends on the discretion of the presiding officer. This results in ministers requesting presiding officers not to refer Bills to committees on grounds of urgency. A recent example of this was a Bill that was introduced by the Government with respect to that of bringing political parties under the ambit of RTI. Sustained public pressure and request made by MPs led to the Bill being referred to a committee. This is despite the fact that with respect to the Bills, the committee’s recommendations are not binding and the Government is not required to provide reasons for refusing to accept the committee’s recommendations. While bureaucrats testify before these committees, Parliamentary procedures prevent the calling of ministers to appear before these committees. These committees are entrusted with the task of examining technical and nuanced policy issues. However they do not have access to subject matter experts who can support their work.

The third aspect is with respect to voting in Parliament. Almost all of the business of Parliament is transacted by a voice vote, which means that MPs shout “ayes” or “nayes” expressing their stand on Bills and motions. Recorded voting by pressing of buttons only takes place during a no confidence motion or when an MP asks for it and the presiding officer accedes to the request. Keeping a record of how an MP voted is important because, not only does it incentivise an MP to be present during debates in Parliament, it also makes his stand on issues clear to people.

 The pillars of the Parliament House have stood the test of time but are crumbling, writes Chakshu Roy

 

The last five years have witnessed Parliament’s inability to discharge its constitutional responsibilities. There is an urgent need to overhaul the functioning of this important institution lest law-making may suffer, the Government’s work may go unchecked and the views of a billion people may go unrepresented.

Urgent changes under three broad heads need to be made to rejuvenate parliamentary functioning. These are:

Constitutional changes

Indian Parliament is in a peculiar position. The Constitution entrusts it with the responsibility of holding the Government accountable, yet it does not have the power to convene itself to keep checks on Government functioning. In some Commonwealth countries, the yearly calendar of  Parliament is determined in advance and the dates of its sittings are known for the entire year. Unlike in India where the President convenes and prorogues the Parliamentary sessions, in these countries Parliament is in session for the entire year and takes scheduled breaks in between. Such mechanisms ensure that the Government does not escape Parliamentary scrutiny.

Another Constitutional change is with respect to the anti-defection law. Currently, MPs are required to vote in the Parliament on party lines. If they vote against the party whip they stand to lose their seat in Parliament. This impinges upon the concept of MPs as lawmakers and reduces them to a “headcount”. The Vice President has suggested that the MPs should be required to vote on party lines only when the fate of the Government hangs in balance. On legislative and other debates, they should be allowed to vote according to their will.

Procedural revamp

Parliamentary procedures have not seen major changes over the last 60 years. Parliament is a self regulating body that can easily change its procedures for smooth and effective functioning. While a number of Parliamentary procedures could use some updating, there are three aspects which need immediate attention.

The first one is the business that is conducted in Parliament. Currently the business that is transacted is dictated by the Government and the Opposition has a limited say in setting the agenda for debate. This leads to disruptions, when the Government is reluctant to debate contentious issues. In other Parliamentary democracies this is handled in two ways. The first is by giving the Opposition parties a fixed number of days in a week where they are free to decide the day’s agenda. The second is that a debate on a topic is taken up if a minimum number of MPs are in favour of such a debate. Recommendations to this effect have been made in conferences of whips and presiding officers that are regularly organised by the Ministry of Parliamentary Affairs.

The second area of focus should be departmentally related parliamentary committees. These were constituted in the early 1990s to scrutinise Bills and the work of Ministries. However Parliamentary procedures limit their effectiveness to a certain extent. For example, the rules do not make it mandatory for all Government Bills to be referred to a standing committee. The referral of Bills depends on the discretion of the presiding officer. This results in ministers requesting presiding officers not to refer Bills to committees on grounds of urgency. A recent example of this was a Bill that was introduced by the Government with respect to that of bringing political parties under the ambit of RTI. Sustained public pressure and request made by MPs led to the Bill being referred to a committee. This is despite the fact that with respect to the Bills, the committee’s recommendations are not binding and the Government is not required to provide reasons for refusing to accept the committee’s recommendations. While bureaucrats testify before these committees, Parliamentary procedures prevent the calling of ministers to appear before these committees. These committees are entrusted with the task of examining technical and nuanced policy issues. However they do not have access to subject matter experts who can support their work.

The third aspect is with respect to voting in Parliament. Almost all of the business of Parliament is transacted by a voice vote, which means that MPs shout “ayes” or “nayes” expressing their stand on Bills and motions. Recorded voting by pressing of buttons only takes place during a no confidence motion or when an MP asks for it and the presiding officer accedes to the request. Keeping a record of how an MP voted is important because, not only does it incentivise an MP to be present during debates in Parliament, it also makes his stand on issues clear to people.

Empowering MPs

The last change is empowering our MPs with adequate resources which are commensurate with their role as national legislators. Currently our MPs have inadequate support to effectively discharge their role as law makers. Ministers have the entire Government machinery available to them and MPs are required to keep these ministers accountable without any proper office or staff. With legislation becoming technical and Parliament debating issues which require in-depth understanding of law and policy, our MPs can only be as effective as the research support they have. This would ensure that the MPs are effective in the interventions that they make in Parliament and are able to hold the government accountable for its functioning.

The changes outlined above are the bare minimum that can be done to ensure an effective and functioning Parliament. If these changes are not made, we can be assured that the next Lok Sabha would be as ineffective the present one.

The last change is empowering our MPs with adequate resources which are commensurate with their role as national legislators. Currently our MPs have inadequate support to effectively discharge their role as law makers. Ministers have the entire Government machinery available to them and MPs are required to keep these ministers accountable without any proper office or staff. With legislation becoming technical and Parliament debating issues which require in-depth understanding of law and policy, our MPs can only be as effective as the research support they have. This would ensure that the MPs are effective in the interventions that they make in Parliament and are able to hold the government accountable for its functioning.

The changes outlined above are the bare minimum that can be done to ensure an effective and functioning Parliament. If these changes are not made, we can be assured that the next Lok Sabha would be as ineffective the present one.