Is parliament really supreme?

In the weeks since the agitation on the Lokpal Bill began, there have been several assertions by a range of opinion leaders that Parliament is supreme. On paper, there is no doubt that Parliament is supreme as far as lawmaking is concerned. But a closer look at recent experience actually raises doubts as to whether Parliament has indeed lived up to this responsibility adequately-right from the way it has scuttled itself structurally to the way it has allowed several Bills to be passed with no discussion.

In our parliamentary system, the government has a dominant role in the lawmaking process. The Bills are drafted and introduced by the government. Parliament is expected to scrutinize these Bills and take a view on whether and in what form they will be passed. The first time that members of Parliament (MPs) actually get to see a Bill is a couple of days before it is introduced in Parliament. There is no demand from our MPs for a deeper consultative pre-legislative process in which draft Bills are circulated for wider public comment, and where MPs may also have the opportunity to study the proposed law and seek public feedback.

Once tabled in the House, most Bills are referred to standing committees. After several consultations, a standing committee produces a report suggesting changes to the Bill under its consideration. The report of the standing committee is recommendatory and the government is under no obligation to explain why the committee's suggestions were not accepted. The least Parliament must demand of the government is an explanation as to why it won't consider the recommendations of a committee of the House. If Parliament does not assert itself and demand from government what can be argued as a basic courtesy, if not a legitimate right, this erodes the power of Parliament in a very fundamental way.

When a Bill comes up for discussion on the floor of the House, there are many occasions when even the little time that may be allocated for debating it is not utilized, and even critical Bills are allowed to be passed with no debate. There are any number of occasions in recent years when Bills being passed with no debate has hit the headlines. So the power of lawmaking, which is one of the primary responsibilities of Parliament, is frittered away, thereby allowing the government to pass Bills without adequate scrutiny by the legislature.

Our parliamentary process allows individual MPs to introduce Bills in Parliament, independent of what the government might do. These "private member Bills" are allotted time for discussion on Friday afternoons, when most MPs are heading back to their constituencies for the weekend. If one looks at the number of private member Bills that have been even discussed in the 15th Lok Sabha, it stands at five (of the 173 introduced). The last time a private member Bill was actually passed was in 1971. There is no visible clamour by MPs to take private member Bills more seriously and allocate more time for this. If MPs don't assert themselves in seeking space to discuss Bills where they themselves have taken the initiative, then who is to blame if people do not understand that Parliament is supreme?

To add to this, we have the Anti Defection Law, which basically reduces MPs to a headcount. Back in 1985, the Anti Defection Law was passed to prevent horse-trading. But while passing this, MPs have also signed away their right to act independently while voting on legislation in Parliament. They now have to compulsorily follow the stand of party bosses on any Bill. If they choose to vote in a way other than the party diktat, they stand to lose their seat in Parliament.

For a moment, let us forget all discussion about legislation and ask the more basic question about who has the power to convene Parliament. The Constitution has vested this power with the government. So the government chooses to convene Parliament for as little as or as much time as it wants. A good case in point on this is when the India-US nuclear agreement rocked Parliament in 2008 and a trust vote was held. The government convened Parliament for as little as 46 days that year-the lowest in the history of Parliament. And our parliamentarians have no say on this.

And then we have people reminding us that Parliament is supreme. At each step of the legislative process, when Parliament fails to claim and utilize its legitimate space, it is voluntarily eroding its supremacy. Going by the long list of ways we have seen so far, it is not surprising that it takes several opinion leaders to remind everyone that Parliament is indeed supreme. It is actually time that Parliament woke up and took back the power that it must have, to be, in fact, supreme.

C.V. Madhukar is a director at PRS Legislative Research, New Delhi.