Parliament can take certain steps to reduce disruptions

Parliament was disrupted yet again and almost no work could take place. This session has seen almost no deliberations, and even the Railway Budget had to be tabled midway through the minister's speech. In the last five years, unprecedented amount of time has been wasted due to disruptions, leading to poor output by Parliament on many different metrics. The current Lok Sabha has seen 38% of the scheduled time lost to disruptions (13% in the previous Lok Sabha). More importantly, over 40% of the Question Hour was lost, which implies lower accountability of the government to Parliament. The big question is whether any reform can be done that can reduce such outcomes in the future.

It is important to understand why parliamentarians disrupt the proceedings. In an article written in August 2012, Mr Arun Jaitley had justified disruptions as a weapon of last resort: "If parliamentary accountability is subverted and a debate is intended to be used merely to put a lid on parliamentary accountability, it is then a legitimate tactic for the Opposition to expose the government through parliamentary instruments available at its command." One way forward would be to address the root causes that deter Parliament from working in a smooth manner.

The way Parliament decides its daily agenda gives an indication of what can be done. There is a weekly meeting of the all-party Business Advisory Committee to decide the agenda for the following week, and this committee also meets every day to fix next day's plan. The decision is made through consensus. This means that every party has a veto on any topic suggested for inclusion in the list of business. Even if the process is modified to a majority decision, the government can block any topic as it has the highest number of MPs. This leads to an interesting conundrum: Parliament has the role of holding the government to account, but the government can control what topics may be taken up for discussion. As this process is used to decide whether a discussion will be followed by a vote, the government can control that decision too. This contradiction highlights Mr Jaitley's point that parliamentary accountability may be subverted by the government and in such cases, the opposition has no other choice but to resort to disruption unless the government agrees to discuss certain topics. We have seen this behaviour several times in the last few years, for example, when the entire winter session of 2010 was disrupted until the government agreed to the formation of a Joint Parliamentary Committee to inquire into the process by which 2G telecom spectrum was allocated.

Several steps can be taken to address this problem. One way is to say that any motion or discussion has to be taken up if a certain number of MPs gives a written notice. The noconfidence motion requires just 50 MPs (slightly less than 10% of the strength of the House) to be admitted. The threshold can be increased, and suitable thresholds fixed for discussions without a vote and voting motions. For example, there could be a new rule for discussion if a certain percentage of the strength of the House (say 20%) asks for it, and a voting motion if a certain percentage of MPs (say 30%) gives a written notice.

Another approach is to guarantee some time for the opposition. The British Parliament allocates 20 days a year when the agenda is decided by the opposition. It also requires Parliament to meet more frequently. In the 1950s, the Indian Parliament met for 120-140 days every year; now the number ranges between 60 and 70 days. Also, the parliamentary schedule is decided by the government, which means it can postpone or curtail a session if faced with uncomfortable issues. It can be fixed in two ways. First, a calendar of sittings should be announced at the beginning of each year for limited flexibility. Second, the rules should be amended to ensure that House is summoned if a significant minority (say 25% or 33%) of members gives a written notice.