As we approach the next polls, citizens and the media can ask prospective candidates about what they will do to strengthen the institution
The last session of India’s 15th Lok Sabha (Lower House of Parliament) brings to an end one of the most disappointing periods in the short parliamentary history of India. The numbers tell part of the story: this Lok Sabha saw over 800 hours, or almost 40 per cent of its scheduled time lost to disruptions; the least number of bills were passed in a full term, and some important ones without any discussion; the budget was passed last year without discussing the expenditure allocation for ministries; over 40 per cent of Question Hour was lost to disruptions, implying that ministers were not held accountable for their actions. The images include that of pepper spray, blackout of proceedings, and an important bill on creating a new state passed through a voice vote. What is of even greater concern is that parliament continued to slide in the performance of some of its core roles. In a parliamentary democracy (and indeed, as per our constitution), the government is formed by the group of people (party or coalition of parties) who have the confidence of the majority of the members (in our case, the Lok Sabha).
This majority can be tested from time to time, by any group of members of Parliament. Indeed, this is one of the fundamental roles of parliament — to confer legitimacy to the government. The last session of parliament saw an event when the legitimacy of the government was challenged but was not tested. A number of MPs brought a notice for a no-confidence motion against the government. The rules of procedure state that a minimum of 50 MPs are required to move a no-confidence motion — this ensures that frivolous attempts are thwarted.
Also, the no-confidence motion takes priority over all other business because the government’s legitimacy has to be established before it proposes policies or undertakes any executive action. The speaker counts the number of MPs to ensure that there are indeed at least 50 of them who want to move the action. Though the motion was sought to be moved in mid-December, the Speaker was unable to take the count for over three weeks of sittings, as the house was not in order and MPs were not in their seats. Another important role of parliament is as a body that holds the government accountable for its actions. This is done in three main ways: asking questions in the Question Hour, through parliamentary committees, and through debate on key issues on the floor of the house. On all three counts, there could have been a much better performance. Over 40 per cent of Question Hour time was lost to disruptions. Rajya Sabha experimented for one session with a change in the timing of Question Hour to the afternoon but was not successful in reducing disruptions.
Parliamentary committees were also not very effective in bringing clarity and fixing accountability after allegations of wrongdoing — we still do not have clarity on issues such as the 2G telecom spectrum allocation or the allocation of coal mining leases — despite reports of the Comptroller and Auditor General pointing out lapses. As for deliberation in the house, one can count the few debates in which MPs brought out divergent perspectives and had a constructive debate. Parliament is the only body that can make national laws. This parliament did pass some laws with far-reaching implications. These include the Right to Education Act, the new Companies Act, the Sexual Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act, amendments to the IPC and CrPC to protect women against sexual violence, the Pension Act, the Land Acquisition Act, the Food Safety Act, the Lokpal Bill, and the Whistleblower Act. However, several important bills were not passed and will either lapse or will be in the pending list including the women’s reservation bill, the mining bill, a set of bills related to higher education, another set related to corruption, the insurance bill, the forward contracts amendment bill, the micro-finance bill and the seeds bill.
Are there any lessons to be learnt and corrective action taken? Parliament must start reasserting its position as that of the body that holds the executive accountable, and not be subservient to the wishes of the executive. Perhaps, the most important step that needs to be taken is to repeal the anti-defection law. Though the original purpose of the law was to reduce the instability of governments, it has ended up being a tool for party bosses to determine the way MPs vote on each issue.
Thus, it has the perverse effect of stemming dissent and debate on key national issues. The government needs only to discuss issues with opposition leaders, and can avoid making a case to all MPs, and through them to the nation, for its legislative and policy agenda. As we approach the elections for the next Parliament, citizens and the media can ask prospective candidates about what they will do to strengthen the institution of Parliament. After all, this is one of the key institutions that protects our freedoms and can enable us to achieve our aspirations. Asking the right questions and pushing for institutional reforms can help us move towards a more deliberative and constructive democracy.