Who’s the boss?

In the two sessions of the 15th Lok Sabha so far, Parliament has asserted its authority over the executive on a few occasions. In the July-August budget session, Rajya Sabha MPs forced the law minister to withdraw the motion to introduce a bill that had weak provisions for declaration of assets by judges. Later, Lok Sabha MPs refused to permit a discussion on the rubber amendment bill in the absence of the relevant minister; they also insisted that a bill on the Delhi Metro not be passed without discussion. Significantly, some Congress MPs joined hands with the opposition on these occasions. In the recently concluded winter session, Rajya Sabha did not allow the lotteries prohibition bill to be withdrawn without the introduction of a replacement bill. Also Rajya Sabha formed a select committee to examine a bill that Lok Sabha passed without discussion.

These actions, however, are few and far apart. The Constitution requires that the government be responsible to the legislature. This implies that Parliament has the duty to oversee the functioning of the government and hold it accountable for its work. However, in practice, Parliament has often been unable to fulfil this responsibility. Here are a few instances to illustrate the different ways in which the government escapes parliamentary scrutiny.

Parliament met for just 46 days in 2008, the lowest ever for a calendar year. MPs do not have the power to convene Parliament unless the government concurs. Parliament sessions are called by the president on the advice of the prime minister; the only requirement is that there should not be a gap of more than six months between two sessions. An attempt was recently made to wrest back control: Mahendra Mohan of Rajya Sabha introduced a bill that proposed a minimum of 120 working days for Parliament and 60 for state legislatures. The minister for parliamentary affairs said it would not be practical to implement the bill, and on his request the bill was withdrawn.

The anti-defection law also works against the ability of MPs to examine government proposals. For most bills, political parties issue whips directing their MPs to vote in a particular manner. MPs cannot vote according to the interests of their constituency or their conscience if those contradict the party directive; the price for disobeying the whip is disqualification from the legislature. To take a recent example, this law would have deterred ruling party MPs from voting against the bill that lowered sugarcane prices even if they wished to represent the interests of cane farmers. Some experts have suggested amending this law to strike a better balance between the case for stability of the government and that for independence of MPs. This newspaper recently published an article on the Op-Ed Page by Manish Tiwari suggesting that the anti-defection law be restricted to confidence motions and financial bills.

At a recent conference, N.K. Singh, a Rajya Sabha MP, highlighted two issues. All expenditure of the government needs parliamentary sanction. However, the five-year plans are not discussed in Parliament. Only the annual component is approved by Parliament every year; however, as these are components of a larger five-year programme, annual scrutiny is neither an effective nor an efficient process. Second, Parliament has not established effective mechanisms for regular oversight of sectoral regulators such as the RBI, SEBI and TRAI.

In various other areas, our MPs have missed the opportunity to hold the government to account. On November 30, Question Hour was curtailed on account of the absence of several MPs whose questions were listed. Indeed, for the full session, as many as a third of the questions called in Lok Sabha were not answered as the relevant MPs were not present. MPs have also permitted the government to pass bills without any discussion. In the winter session, eight of the 15 bills passed by Lok Sabha were not discussed in the house.

Other democracies have evolved methods to strengthen legislative oversight. For example, the British government announces the annual calendar of sittings. It also publishes a draft legislative plan at the beginning of the year to elicit public feedback. The British Parliament also has a Prime Minister’s Question Hour in which MPs may ask any policy questions that the PM has to answer. In every session, 20 days are reserved for business that the opposition may choose. In the Australian Parliament, all ministers have to be present during the question hour. MPs may ask questions of any minister without prior notice; this ensures that ministers are held accountable.

The government of the day must be held accountable at a more frequent interval than the five-year election cycle. Our elected representatives are entrusted with this task. They need to strengthen systems — more research staff for MPs and committees, reviewing financial planning and functioning of regulators, amending various laws and rules — that enable them to effectively fulfil this responsibility. The credibility of the democratic system to achieve development and governance goals is at stake.