The Indian Parliament: Frozen in time?

India is widely lauded as a model for emerging democracies around the world.  An unlikely survivor as a democratic nation, it has managed to maintain and strengthen its democratic traditions over the past six decades. However, the Indian Parliament, which is expected to reflect and give shape to the aspirations of a billion people, has been under some strain in recent years. There are several concerns ranging from persons with criminal charges becoming Members of Parliament (MP), to the undue influence of money power in politics, to a more fundamental question of the effectiveness of Parliament as an institution.

The question of effectiveness of Parliament has several dimensions. However, a proxy yardstick, which is in many ways a pre-condition for Parliament to be effective, is whether Parliament can function as a place for civil discourse on critical national issues.  The repeated disruptions of Parliament proceedings, bills being passed with no discussion and by voice vote amidst pandemonium in the House, are all symptomatic of a larger problem. In recent years, the Speaker of the Lok Sabha and the Chairman of the Rajya Sabha have repeatedly lamented about the poor way in which the two Houses function. The Rajya Sabha recently decided to change the timings of Question Hour in a bid to address the problem of disruptions, but disruptions continue to plague Parliament. It is becoming increasingly obvious that such poor functioning of Parliament has serious implications for our policy process.

What is of even greater concern, however, is when Parliament as an institution becomes less relevant for national policy making. It is well documented that in the initial years after independence, Prime Minister Nehru took Parliament seriously and sought to engage with the institution on all important national issues. Consequently, Parliament would meet for about 140 days a year.  Subsequent political leaders have not invested in Parliament with the same sense of dignity and respect, and gradually started convening for fewer days each year.

In the post-emergency period, two major developments have had a significant impact on the role of Parliament. One is the passing of the anti-defection law in 1985, and the other is the introduction of the Departmentally Related Parliamentary Standing Committee system.  As several scholars agree, the anti-defection law has certainly made it less necessary for MPs to prepare for their work in Parliament, because no matter what they think about an issue, they will need to heed the party whip or risk losing their seat in Parliament. Also, there is little incentive for an MP to be present in Parliament even when important pieces of legislation are passed because India does not record the votes, thanks to the practice of passing legislation by voice vote. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that MPs have no research staff, nor does the Parliament library provide research support beyond newspaper clippings. On a somewhat positive note, the introduction of Standing Committees in 1993 has been seen as an innovation aimed at enhancing the ability of Parliament to scrutinize legislation, and to oversee the work of the executive.

However, over the past two decades there have been several important changes that have occurred in India’s polity and society that have failed to reflect in the evolution of Parliament as an institution. The first is the growth of coalition politics, and the presence of a number of small parties that represent the country’s myriad voices. When a small number of political parties dominated the voice in Parliament, it was possible for intra-party mechanisms to manage what was articulated and how the issues were brought up. With the growth of political parties being represented in Parliament, it is now impossible to predict when and how issues might be brought up.

The second important trend is the fewer number of sitting days of Parliament. The number of sitting days has come down from about 140 days a year in the 1950s to an average of sixty-five days over the past five years. So, while on one hand, we have more voices in Parliament that want to raise issues, there is much less time. This results in a number of challenges for MPs and the presiding officers of the Houses in managing expectations.

The opening up of Parliament to live telecasts is a third significant factor that has a bearing on its functioning. While live telecasts of proceedings arguably brings Parliament closer to the people by making it more transparent, it also increases the incentives for groups of MPs to grandstand on issues, knowing well that it will be widely covered in the media, beyond the live telecast.

Outside of the domain of Parliament, there have been other important changes that have fundamentally altered how citizens connect with Parliament. The access to twenty-four hour news channels has become widespread; technology advances have put mobile phones in the hands of hundreds of millions of people; Internet penetration is growing, even if somewhat gradually. The Right to Information Act has taken root; civil society groups have grown in numbers and in the range of issues on which they work.

Given these and other changes, both inside and outside of Parliament, some MPs have begun to find new and effective ways of making their point. Many have come to realize that they will not be punished for disrupting Parliament, and that there are times when causing a disruption will make greater news on the issue that they care about – and sustain it in the national media for a few days – than if they just debated the issue in the House. The challenge for Parliament is to make space for any meaningful representations that are brought in by MPs, even if at short notice, and then enforce rules for all those who break them.

In a parliamentary democracy where the government is constituted by the party that has a majority, there is an even greater need to make way for the opposition and smaller parties to articulate their views on issues of concern. The ability to develop mechanisms to adapt to the changes in the environment is an essential feature of vibrant institutions.

Public institutions, by their very nature, are likely to ossify unless there is leadership that comes in from time to time and shakes things up in order to become relevant and sensitive to the changes within and outside the institution. The Indian Parliament, by any yardstick, has not gone through the changes that recognize the new circumstances in any major way. This is an opportunity for the current leadership to put into motion a process which can lead to the finding of new ways to make it all that a well-functioning Parliament must be.