How to move beyond disruptions in Parliament

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The demand for a JPC has been accepted by the government. But disruptions in Parliament continue to plague its functioning. The speaker of Lok Sabha and the chairman of Rajya Sabha routinely ask the members who rush into the well to return to their seats, but if the members do not heed their pleas, the House is adjourned. This kind of behaviour by MPs, and the reaction of the House’s presiding officers, raises some very fundamental questions.
Every well-functioning institution has a set of rules that are designed to ensure its effective functioning. Thus our Parliament is governed by detailed rules meant to enable the smooth functioning of both Houses. The speaker is endowed with enormous powers to enforce discipline. For a variety of reasons, the speaker may choose not to use the measures at her disposal. But such a lack of enforcement of rules makes the rulebook irrelevant, and gives the impression that any group of MPs can hold Parliament to ransom. And all this is to the detriment of the institution, and a weakening of the authority of and respect for the office of speaker. There have been suggestions to move Question Hour to a later time. But that may turn out to be a mere band-aid if core issues remain unaddressed. The real question is this: Do MPs feel that there is adequate opportunity for them to raise issues they are concerned about? Do they feel there is enough opportunity for them to oversee the work of the government, or to be effective as policy-makers? If the answer is yes, then there is a strong case for the rulebook to be used effectively to discipline disrupting MPs. But if there is a general acknowledgement that there is not enough opportunity for MPs to raise issues, then there is a need to change the rules of the House. Many of the rules that are currently in the book were framed at a time when Parliament met for an average of 140 days a year. They were also mostly framed at a time when there were just a handful of political parties, and Lok Sabha TV did not telecast Parliament proceedings live and countrywide. But since then some things have obviously changed, which have also altered the incentive structure for some MPs, and thus how they behave in Parliament. And our rules of procedure have not woken up to this changed environment. It would be naïve not to acknowledge that “politics” plays a big role in why MPs disrupt proceedings. In a healthy democracy, it is to be expected that parties might opportunistically exploit whatever chances may become available to them. But that would become a very costly habit indeed if the proceedings of the House are brought to a standstill every so often, and no solution is found to change this behaviour. At another level, it can be argued that disruptions are actually symptomatic of a larger problem of effectiveness. Instead of just looking at the issue of disruptions in isolation, there is a need to take a fresh look at the multiple roles of Parliament, the changes in the internal make-up of Parliament, the changes in India’s external environment, and the changes in citizens’ expectations from their representatives. This will result in a more comprehensive solution and will help build systems that will increase the effectiveness of the institution in every possible way. The idea is not to attempt to solve problems that are intensely political in nature, by throwing technocratic solutions at them. So perhaps an appropriate thing would be to first find a way to collectively acknowledge and articulate the frustration of several MPs, of the presiding officers, and of millions of people across the country. This will take us an important step forward. It would indeed be a terrible collective failure if Parliament cannot find a way out of the mess it appears to be in, and other arms of our governance system feel the need to step in to stem the decline. There is no time to waste, not on the floor of the House, and certainly not in finding a solution to Parliament’s ongoing paralysis. Fortunately, we will also be able to learn from the experiences of any number of other well-functioning parliaments around the world. It is hoped that the speaker and the Rajya Sabha chairman come together soon to find a viable process that will bring in the changes urgently needed to enable Parliament to become a more effective institution. This post appeared as an article in the Indian Express on March 3, 2011 as 'Speaking out of turn'.