Lazing about the House

The just concluded Budget Session of Parliament has been more raucous than the UPA government would have liked. In over 40 per cent of the days in Rajya Sabha, not a single question could be answered during this session due to interruptions. Despite working late hours on some days, Lok Sabha worked for less than 80 per cent of the sched- uled time this session, lower than in previous sessions. The majority of Lok Sabha’s bills were done so with little or no debate.

By far the most significant development of the session was the passage of the Women’s Reservation Bill in Rajya Sabha where the government does not have a majority. This also saw a temporary re-alignment of “allies”, which opened up space for the opposition to find its voice on a number of other issues during the session. And a series of controversies took away the energies of the government and the House from the business that they had planned to conduct during the session. Of the 64 bills the government had planned to introduce in the session, 28 were actually introduced. Similarly, of the 27 bills that the government had planned to pass, 6 were passed.

Another discussion during the session that can have far-reaching consequences, for generations to come, was on the question of including the caste of individuals in the latest Census. Despite strong pleas by a number of political parties, the government ended the session by assuring the house that due weightage will be given to the views expressed by the members. Clearly the government understands that this is a decision which can have many long-term implications, and has taken time to deliberate on the issue.

The price rise is the most frequently and extensively debated issue in Parliament in recent years. Several hours were devoted to the discussion this session and a number of MPs from across parties spoke on the subject. But if one observes the content of the discussion, there seems to be a tendency to raise the same issues — hoarding, black marketing, weak PDS, rotting of food grains, etc as the reasons for the rise in food prices. These broad themes have recurred in almost every debate on this issue in the past several years.

Indeed, if one were to erase the dates on the discussions it would be difficult to tell whether this debate was the latest one or something that happened 15 years ago. This is unfortunate because food inflation affects the poorest people in the country the most, a type of “taxation without legislation”. Parliament needs to develop a clear mechanism to monitor government actions to combat the price rise issue, well beyond a rather generic statement issued by the government on the floor of the House. In fact, if there is any case at all for MPs to set up a JPC, it would be to monitor in a systematic and thorough manner the issue of the rising price of food items, and the impact this has on the poor.

Overall for the UPA, its second term has thus far turned out to be somewhat different in comparison to its first term. For one, the Left parties are not supporting the government. Some have argued that this will allow the government to carry out financial reforms that the Left parties were opposed to. The fact is that without the supp- ort of the Left the government is on much more uncertain terrain on a range of issues. With the Left the government could predict with some reasonable degree of probability what policies they might be opposed to. But with the current set of allies, it is much more difficult to say which policies might get the support of which of its allies.

Beyond the politics and mechanics of floor management on specific issues, the deeper malaise of passing legislation with- out adequate debate continues to plague our system. The last week of the Budget Session also saw instances when some senior MPs across parties used words that were found to be objectionable and have been expunged.  This despite the Parliament Secretariat publishing a massive 900 page volume in Hindi and English entitled Unparliamentary Expressions.

Going beyond the necessary courtesies that MPs must extend to each other, it would be most useful for both citizens and MPs there were a focused effort to formally outline the role of an MP, and the specific mechanisms at his disposal to discharge his role effectively. On this, and several other counts, there is a serious need for Parliament to look inward and develop mechanisms of conducting the business of the House in an organised and civil manner, and do full justice to their role as representatives of a billion people.