Hurrying through a legislation: on reservation quota

Parliament ended the penultimate session of this Lok Sabha with both Houses passing the Constitution (124th Amendment) Bill, 2019, that enables 10% reservation in education and employment for economically weaker sections. The process by which this was done illustrates the collective failure of parliamentarians to review the government’s proposals and hold it to account.

Hasty steps

Let us review the sequence of events. On Monday (January 7), it was reported that the Cabinet had approved a Bill to provide reservation to poor candidates regardless of their caste, and that this would be introduced in the Lok Sabha on Tuesday, the last day of the winter session. News reports also suggested that the Rajya Sabha would extend its session by a day, so that this Bill could be discussed on Wednesday. There was no formal press release by the Press Information Bureau.

The rules of procedure of the Lok Sabha require every Bill to be circulated at least two days ahead of introduction. This is to give time for MPs to read the Bill and discuss it (or make objections) when the vote on the motion to introduce the Bill is taken up. This Bill was not circulated, even on Tuesday morning. At 11 a.m., when unstarred questions are tabled, one question concerned whether the government was “exploring the scope of providing reservation for poor candidates from forward communities for education and employment” and the details. The Ministry categorically denied that there was any such proposal under consideration. Then at 12.46 p.m., the Bill was introduced, with copies having been circulated to MPs a few minutes earlier.

The usual practice is to refer Bills to the respective standing committee of Parliament. This step allows MPs to solicit public feedback and interact with experts before forming their recommendations. In the case of this Constitution Amendment — clearly one with far-reaching implications — this scrutiny mechanism was bypassed.

The debate started around 5 p.m., just a few hours MPs had been given a copy. The debate ended around 10 p.m.

Meanwhile, the Rajya Sabha hardly functioned that day due to repeated disruptions. Finally, the chair adjourned the House till the next day — the first official indication that the sitting was extended by a day. The next day, Wednesday, the Rajya Sabha took up consideration of the Bill around 2 p.m. and ended the debate just past 10 p.m. A motion was moved by some members to refer the Bill to a select committee, but this motion was defeated by a wide margin, and the Bill was then passed.

Let us summarise the number of ways in which due oversight was skipped. The Bill was not circulated ahead of being introduced, it was not examined by a committee, there was hardly any time between its introduction and final discussion. Barring a few small parties, none of the larger Opposition parties asked for the Bill to be carefully considered by a parliamentary committee — even in the Rajya Sabha where they might have been able to muster the numbers to ensure this.

The British contrast

Contrast this with the incidents in the British Parliament the same day(Wednesday) when the Speaker ensured parliamentary supremacy over the government. A member of the ruling Conservative Party wanted to move an amendment to set a deadline for the Prime Minister to put forward new plans if she loses the Brexit vote next week. When the government objected that such amendments to set the business of the government in the House can be moved only by a Minister, the Speaker differed. He said that every member had a right to move an amendment. The motion was won by 308 votes to 297.

This case highlights three important ways in which the British Parliament works better than ours. First, the absence of an anti-defection law, so that each MP can vote her conscience. Note that the motion that put the government in a spot was moved by a former attorney general and a member of the ruling party. Second, it is known exactly how each MP voted. In India, most votes (other than Constitution Amendments that need a two-thirds majority to pass) are through voice votes — just 7% of other Bills had a recorded vote over the last 10 years. Third, the Speaker insisted on the supremacy of Parliament, and allowed a motion against the wishes of the government. Unlike in India, the independence of the Speaker is secured in the U.K. as no party contests against the Speaker in the next general election.

Parliament has a central role to secure the interest of citizens. It is the primary body of accountability that translates the wishes and aspirations of citizens into appropriate laws and policies.

Falling short

However, our Parliament often falls short of these goals due to some structural reasons. These include the anti-defection law (that restrains MPs from voting according to their conscience), lack of recorded voting as a norm (which reduces the accountability of the MP as voters don’t know which way they voted on each issue), party affiliation of the Speaker (making her dependent on the party leadership for re-election prospects), frequent bypassing of committees (just 25% of Bills have been referred to committees in this Lok Sabha), insufficient time and research support to examine Bills, and the lack of a calendar (Parliament is held at the convenience of the government). We need to address each of these issues to strengthen Parliament and protect our democracy.

M.R. Madhavan is the President and co-founder of PRS Legislative Research