Parliament needs to find its voice

It is the house of the people, but it can’t convene itself. MPs are the voice of the people, but they can’t even talk out of party line. This needs immediate fixing. Good news is, it’s not impossible.
Over the past few years, parliament and MPs have faced continued criticism. There are a number of things that ought to be better with our national law-making body. But before launching into a tirade, it might be useful for us to pause and understand some of the issues and constraints that prevent parliament and MPs from delivering to their fullest potential.

The constitution framers created a democratic system wherein the legislature would make laws, the executive would implement laws and be accountable to parliament and an independent judiciary would enforce and interpret the laws. They also put in systems of checks and balances among these three organs of the state. However, over the years, these three organs of the state have pushed the boundaries of their relationship with one another.

There have been several instances over the last decade when the judiciary was seen as pushing the limits of its relationship with both the executive and the legislature. From ordering the use of CNG and cleaning of rivers to directing the convening of a legislative assembly and deciding its agenda for the day, the judiciary tested the extent of its powers in both the executive and legislative domains.

The executive has also not been far behind in testing the equilibrium of its relationship with the judiciary and legislature. The passing of the Delhi sealing laws each year to provide protection from the sealing orders of the apex court is one example. While the passing of laws is a function of the legislature, in the last three decades only laws introduced by the government have been passed.  Another example of the executive pushing its relationship with the legislature is the continuation of the monsoon session from July to December in 2008.

It is in this context that it would be useful to look at the effectiveness of parliament as an institution of governance. The backseat that parliament has taken over the years is highlighted by recent statistics across the spectrum of parliamentary functioning —  some examples being the least number of working days and eight bills passed in 17 minutes in 2008 and 28 MPs being absent during question hour in 2009.  If numbers are an indication of the performance of an institution then on the face of it, parliament has fallen short in discharging its constitutional duty of effectively scrutinising laws before passing them and overseeing the work of the government.

MPs have primarily four functions: (i) scrutinise every piece of legislation that is introduced both in the house and in standing committees, (ii) oversee the functioning of the government of India, (iii) debate the budget and demands for grants and (iv) represent the concern of their constituents in parliament.

Let’s look at the two sets of issues that parliament has to contend with in discharging these duties. The first set of issues is structural in nature or pertains to the capabilities of parliament/MPs. The second set of issues pertains to how parliamentary practice has evolved in the last 60 years.

The structural issues are a mixed bag, some easier to fix than the others. A good place to start the discussion on them would be the power to convene   parliament.

Article 85 of the constitution empowers the president to summon parliament. And the president follows the advice of the council of ministers. So, effectively, the government decides when parliament is going to meet to oversee its functioning.

Statistics show a sharp decline in the number of sitting days of parliament.  Between 1952 and 1972 the Lok Sabha worked for an average of 120 days in a year.  In comparison it worked for an average of 70 working days in the last decade. Parliament’s inability to convene itself and a decline in the number of working days of parliament has been a cause for concern for MPs and presiding officers of both houses.

In light of the fact that parliament does not have the power to convene itself, a solution that has been attempted is to fix a minimum number of working days for it in a year. The National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution had recommended that a minimum number of working days for Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha should be fixed at 120 and 100 respectively. Vice President Hamid Ansari while inaugurating the Whips Conference in 2008 had suggested an increase in the number of sittings of parliament to 130 days per annum.  In 2008, Rajya Sabha MP Mahendra Mohan introduced a private member bill to amend the constitution to specify a minimum of 120 working days. In the winter session of parliament that concluded last month, the government opposed the concept of a minimum number of working days.

Some state legislative assemblies have addressed this problem by specifying a minimum number of working days in their rules of procedure. The Orissa assembly has a mandatory provision specifying the number of days that it would meet and the Uttar Pradesh assembly has a provision which states that best efforts would be made to work for a specified number of days. Since the constitution empowers parliament to make its own rules for functioning, it can make a rule to the same effect.

A second issue parliament faces is that of resources for its members. Critics would point out that parliament has an ample budget at its disposal. The parliament secretariat is staffed with highly skilled and professional officers and the library in parliament house is possibly the best in the country. MPs have access to a typing pool inside parliament and are given a computer and internet at their homes and a mobile phone with free call facility. They are also given an allowance of Rs 10,000 per month to hire secretarial help and another Rs 20,000 per month as an allowance to maintain their constituency office.

Given the role that MPs need to perform the question that needs to be asked is whether they have the resources available to them to effectively discharge their duties.

To scrutinise legislation they have to examine bills on a wide range of subjects, technical and nuanced in nature and full of legalese. To debate the general and railway budgets they should be able to understand concepts of macroeconomics, taxation and other financial matters. To represent their constituents they should have a good understanding of the needs of lakhs of people spread over a large geographical area. In keeping the government accountable they are up against a minister who has the entire resources of the government of India at her/his disposal.

Without competent research staff it is impossible for any MP to comprehend the complex policy questions that come up for debate in parliament. Similarly without adequate staff in the constituency they cannot understand or respond to the issues faced by their constituents. The press often highlights the amount of money spent on MPs’ salaries and allowances. The cost of providing these resources is nothing compared to the benefits that the country would reap by having laws and policies which have been deliberated by informed MPs who keep the government on its toes by asking the ministers tough questions. Not providing these resources to MPs and still expecting them to perform their functions effectively is a prescription for failure.

A third but perhaps the toughest structural issue that is faced by parliament is that of the anti-defection law.  It was passed in 1985 through the 52nd amendment, which added the 10th Schedule to the  constitution. The main intent of the law was to combat “the evil of political defections”. The anti-defection provisions provide stability to the government by preventing shifts of party allegiance. These provisions also ensure that candidates elected with party symbols and on the basis of party manifestos remain loyal to party policies.

Dr Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan, the first chairman of the Rajya Sabha, had observed that, “parliament is not only a legislative but also a deliberative body.” The provisions of the anti-defection law have a significant impact on the way MPs are able to express their views inside parliament. Their freedom of speech and expression is curbed because even though they can voice the concerns of their voters, they cannot vote according to their conscience in opposition to the official party position. The impact of the anti-defection provisions can be seen in the fact that in the 14th Lok Sabha there were only 20 instances when recorded voting took place and almost all legislative business was conducted by voice vote.

In the UK, parties at times announce something called a “free vote”. What it means is that for a particular legislative agenda MPs are free to vote as they wish and are not controlled by whips issued by parties. Rajya Sabha Chairman Hamid Ansari made a similar suggestion recently.  He said, “We need to build a political consensus so that the room for political and policy expression in parliament for an individual member is expanded. This could take many forms. For example, the issuance of a whip could be limited to only those bills that could threaten the survival of a government, such as money bills or no-confidence motions. In other legislative and deliberative business of parliament, this would enable members to exercise their judgment and articulate their opinion.”

Having examined some structural/capacity issues it would now be useful to look at the evolution of parliamentary practices over the last six decades.

Let us take the example of the passage of multiple bills while the house witnesses a disruption. In 2008, 16 bills and in 2009, nine bills were passed with less than 20 minutes of debate on each of them. Passage of bills with little or no debate is an area of concern. Parliament watchers attribute this phenomenon to the fact that bills get scrutinised in committees, so debate in the house becomes redundant. The role of the standing committee is to scrutinise the bill carefully and thereafter submit a report which would assist the house in its debate. Examination of a bill by the committee is not a substitute for debate in the house. Laws made by parliament affect the lives of every citizen and such responsibility should not be taken lightly. By letting the government push through a bill without debate MPs are surrendering their own authority as legislators. 

A close scrutiny of parliament’s functioning would show that the first hour in both houses is often disrupted. The first hour is reserved for MPs to ask questions to ministers. This is one occasion when MPs cutting across party lines can hold the government accountable for its actions. Question hour also allows other MPs to ask supplementary questions to ministers. While time lost due to disruptions can be made up by working late in the evening, the time lost in question hour cannot be made up. As a result every disruption of question hour is a lost opportunity for MPs to oversee the functioning of the government. Similarly, when Lok Sabha MPs are not present during question hour a golden opportunity to cross-question ministers is lost. The Rajya Sabha has, however, responded to the situation. It recently amended its rules of procedure so that even if the MP asking the question was absent, the minister would still have to respond to the question. This would open the door for asking supplementary questions to the minister.

Another practice in parliament is that of the non-passage of private member bills. All MPs other than ministers and the presiding officers are referred to as the private members. Besides the bills introduced by ministers private members are also entitled to introduce bills in parliament. The second half of every Friday, when parliament is in session, is reserved for debating private member bills and other business raised by private members.  Over the years, MPs have introduced numerous private member bills.  However, the last time a private member bill was passed was in 1970. Till date only 14 private member bills have been passed.

The problem is two fold; the first is that since only half a day is reserved in a week for private member business a majority of private member bills do not even get debated in parliament. This is something that can be easily addressed by changing the rules of procedure of both houses. The second is that even after a debate is held, an MP does not press for his bill to be taken up for consideration and passing by the house. Instead of having the house decide whether the bill should be passed or not, by a voice vote or a recorded vote, the MP withdraws the bill at the request of the minister. The withdrawal of the bill would have made sense if the MP did so after extracting an assurance from the minister that the government would introduce a similar bill. However, when a bill is withdrawn without such an assurance, it robs the house of an opportunity to consider a piece of legislation which was debated in the house. Voting on every private member bill for consideration and passing would force the government to take notice of the legislative intent of MPs.  This is something that would only change when MPs start asserting themselves as legislators.

Parliament currently faces a number of issues. However, it has not lost focus of its responsibilities. The institution may be ailing but can be nursed back to health. In 2009, parliament spent more time scrutinising the budget than the previous couple of years. The year also witnessed members cutting across party lines opposing the introduction of the Judges (Declaration of Assets and Liabilities) Bill forcing the minister to not introduce it. Rajya Sabha’s amendment of its procedure related to questions is also a step in the right direction, something which the Lok Sabha speaker is also considering.

Strengthening the institution of parliament is not an impossible task – it requires better imagination and a sustained effort to build consensus. Research staff and adequate office resources to MPs, ensuring that parliament is convened for a minimum number of days, giving MPs the right to vote according to their conscience on issues which do not affect the fate of the government can go a long way in ensuring that parliament functions in a manner that the constitution framers intended it to do.