When the House works

There are at least three positive outcomes in this last session of Parliament that can be attributed to the Jan Lokpal movement. First, there are now many more citizens across the country who have become aware of the existence of parliamentary standing committees and other details of the law-making process. The endless, and sometimes painful, television debates where the process of law-making was being discussed provided a window for the wider public to understand and engage in the process.

Second, the debate on the Lokpal “resolution” was a fine hour of substantive discussion on issues, statesmanship, and a display of our Parliament’s collective political intelligence, all at once. Much of the debate was sharp — sometimes witty, at other times cutting — but, more importantly, was watched by thousands of people across the country who would have otherwise formed opinions about Parliament only based on the scenes of disruption that are shown by our news channels.

Third, thanks to the increased awareness and the great anxiety about corruption, thousands of people appear to have sent in their written comments on the Lokpal bill to the standing committee. Even though standing committee reports are often of very high quality, much will be expected from the report on the Lokpal bill where the work of the committee will be scrutinised and dissected by a relatively large number of people across the country. The standing committee will also likely strive to drive the elusive consensus across political parties, while at the same time trying to meet the aspirations of civil society in reasonable measure.

But these positive externalities notwithstanding, it is disappointing to see that Parliament is being increasingly perceived to be functioning far below its expected levels. The reality of Parliament is somewhat masked by the intensity and frequency of the turmoil in the Houses that is shown by our television channels. In the 15th Lok Sabha thus far, Parliament has functioned for over 80 per cent of the scheduled time, without taking into account the extraordinarily poor showing in the winter session last year. This is not to condone the loss of any time in Parliament, or the holding up important legislation because of repeated disruptions.

Citizens have the right to expect more from our Parliament. They want to see an orderly discussion of issues of an otherwise chaotic nation. They want their elected leaders live up to the highest standards and maintain the dignity of the House they belong to. So when disruptions happen, and are projected in way that gives the impression to the people that this is the only thing that happens in Parliament, there is a great sense of disappointment amongst people. Fortunately, a significant number of MPs too share this sense of disappointment, but somehow seem unable to find a way to articulate their frustration.

In February 2008, some Rajya Sabha MPs who were unhappy with the poor functioning of the House issued a joint notice of breach of privilege to the chairman alleging that some MPs did not allow the House to function, thereby preventing them from getting responses to their questions during Question Hour. They argued that this was a breach of their privilege as MPs to fully participate in the scheduled discussions in Parliament. This was referred to the privileges committee, which examined the matter and urged “the members to be more circumspect and respect the rules of the House and abide by the directions of the chair so that such incidents do not recur in future.”

What would it take for Parliament and state legislatures to function well even when Anna Hazare is not being persuaded to break his fast? There is no doubt that there are a number of contentious issues that come up where the opposition parties may be upset with the lack of an appropriate response from the government. The challenge for political parties on both sides of the aisle is this: How do you communicate to the masses that in all the contestations in Parliament leading to disruptions, that the high ground of national interest is not being sacrificed at the altar of narrow political opportunism by our political leadership?

The scourge of political defections started in the late ‘60s, and it took the Parliament almost two decades to come up with the anti-defection law to curb this malaise. One only hopes that Parliament will take much less time to address the reality and perception of its poor functioning of the last few years. The only way for Parliament to come out stronger from the current spate of lows is to find an amicable way to address these contentious issues, without having to regularly disrupt Parliament. If this means that the rules of engagement in Parliament need a complete overhaul, the process must begin at once.