Designing a House that works

Some non-political changes could help resolve factors that lead to parliamentary disruption

Parliament has yet again got into a non-functional mode. Is there a way out of this gridlock? More important, can we design systems that will help prevent such logjams?

The main reason for many disruptions (not necessarily true in the current instance) is that there is limited space for the opposition parties to get their agenda on the table. Three complementary approaches can address this issue: build greater consensus on bills; create systems that empower the opposition parties; create better time management.

Parliament now consists of more than 30 parties, and any small group can disrupt the proceedings. This implies that there is a need to build a broad consensus on issues before taking them up. Indeed, this means that majority rule has been effectively replaced by consensus rule. While this change may not be bad for the long-term stability of policies — a new government is less likely to reverse its predecessor's policies — it implies that only those issues that have a broad consensus can pass muster. Indeed, over 80 per cent of all speeches by opposition members have supported government bills, indicating that only bills that had wide support reached the final phase of discussion.

Therefore, the question is whether such consensus can be built on a wider range of issues. This would require detailed consultations with the opposition as well as wider public debate ahead of the final bill. A pre-legislative protocol will help, which could mandate that the government place the outline of all legislative proposals in the public domain, and ask for public feedback and suggestions. Structured consultations with the opposition parties to get their inputs will also help the process for passage of bills.

The standing committee system helps in detailed examination of bills and building cross-party consensus. However, some important bills have not been referred to the committee — for instance, the recent amendments related to rape laws. The committee process should be made a mandatory step — as it is in the British Parliament. The committee's recommendations are purely advisory in nature, and governments have often ignored them. When the government differs from the views of a standing committee, it should be required to give reasons for doing so.

The government may want to avoid debate on certain issues that the opposition wants to raise. Given that the business advisory committee that decides the agenda list works on the basis of consensus, the government can block such discussions. In such situations, the opposition parties say that they have no recourse but to disrupt proceedings until such issues are taken up. Often, the disagreement is on whether the discussion will be a mere debate or if it will be followed up with voting.

A few changes can fix this problem. Jay Panda, a Lok Sabha MP from the BJD, has suggested a change to the rules to state that any motion proposed by a significant minority (say, 25 per cent or 33 per cent) has to be discussed. Second, all important discussions should be followed by recorded voting — after all, it should be the right of citizens to know how their representatives voted on each issue. (This, of course, raises the larger issue of the anti-defection law which requires MPs to vote on party lines on all issues. The answer is Manish Tewari's lapsed bill to amend that law and restrict it to confidence motions and money bills). Third, we can follow the system of the British Parliament that permits the leader of the opposition to determine the agenda for a certain number of days (20 days in the UK).

The third approach is to increase the number of sittings every year. The British Parliament meets for about 150 days a year (averaging 7.5 hours on each of these days); the Indian Parliament used to sit for 120 to 140 days in the 1950s and 1960s; now it meets for 60 to 70 days a year. Having more time will enable more topics to be debated, and reduce the competitive politics of prioritising the issues to be discussed. Again, following the British example, Parliament should announce a calendar at the beginning of each year. This could include the dates on which Parliament should meet as well as the government's proposed legislative business. Such a system will allow better planning and coordination. One could also build in the rule that Parliament will sit late, or on weekends, to make up for loss of any scheduled time.

These changes could help resolve several factors that lead to disruption. However, these are an engineer's solution to a political problem. Tuesday's events — when the speaker overruled the demand of some MPs for a discussion on the budget — do not lend hope. What is needed is that parliamentarians adhere to their own oft-repeated resolutions that they will not disrupt proceedings. The two-millennia old question — who will guard the guards themselves — remains unanswered.