Talk shop or temple: Why do we need Parliament?

With parliament working for only 56 percent of its scheduled time in winter session, a look at what the ‘temple of democracy’ has been reduced to — and how to we need to pay obeisance for the sake of Indian democracy — ahead of the budget session

manisha

Dr M. Manisha | February 2, 2013


Despite all disruptions, and `disrespect` shown to it, to debunk parliament as “talk shop” may be detrimental to the health of democracy in India.
Despite all disruptions, and `disrespect` shown to it, to debunk parliament as “talk shop” may be detrimental to the health of democracy in India.

The Budget session of Parliament is round the corner. As parties — both the opposition and ruling alliance — gear up for shrill debates, walkouts and adjournment, and the media begins to highlight the unruliness of India’s political elite, several important question about parliamentary functioning come to mind.

  • Why don’t MPs participate in parliamentary proceedings on a regular basis?
  • Why do they actively obstruct parliamentary work?
  • Has the inefficiency of parliament led to the rise of alternative forums of deliberation?
  • If so, what are these and, are they capable of building legitimate democratic consensus?

It is popularly believed that MPs are least interested in parliamentary work. It is equally common to blame the attitude of MPs and question their respect for democratic institutions, particularly parliament. Such beliefs have contributed significantly to the overall impression that parliament is an inefficient, if not ineffective, institution.

While such views may not be completely incorrect, it is imperative to look into the objective conditions that make legislative work less rewarding. After all, politicians, like all other human beings, are guided by a structure of incentives and disincentives and direct their efforts only where there are adequate rewards.

Elections: means to an end?

The parliamentary system of governance in India has evolved certain distinct characteristics over the last 65 years. One such characteristic is the importance attached to elections, which is a cause for much celebration. Such is the importance of elections that democratic institutions in general and parliament in particular, has been shaped around and shaped by the representative process. More specifically, it has responded to the rigors of the electoral process. The ultimate purpose of elections, which is to mould the political process to achieve common goals, has been sub-served to the electoral process. This has meant that the ‘means’ rather than the ‘end’ has become the ultimate end.

Political parties, irrespective of their dispensation, have emphasised on the popularity of candidates in terms of electoral outcomes rather than their suitability or parliamentary performance, for selecting their candidates ( Devesh Kapur and Pratp Bhanu Mehta). In particular parties are guilty of paying least attention to parliamentary performance while distributing tickets. Nor do parties insist on parliamentary attendance. But for occasional instances where voting on important bills takes place and absence of members may bring embarrassment, party whips do not have any rules to ensure attendance of members. There is no a penalty for non performance of parliamentary duties either. For individual MPs there is neither any incentive for parliamentary performance nor any disincentive for failing to perform parliamentary duties.

That political parties do not give importance to parliamentary work is also clear from the fact that there are no set procedures within political parties to allot parliamentary work to MPs — such as asking questions on different issues or raising a matter during the zero hour. Parliamentarians are free to take or not to take part in parliamentary discussions. There is no mechanism within political parties to provide assistance to members who want to participate in parliamentary work. The MPs are free to decide on issues they would like to take up and procedures that they would like to use for it.

While the Lok Sabha secretariat does hold orientation courses for new MPs to acquaint them with the parliamentary procedures, members need more than mere technical knowledge of parliamentary procedures. Given the fact that nearly three-fourth of India’s MPs are generalists and do not have in-depth knowledge of either the law-making process or bills being debated upon, educating them on different issues is an essential requisite to effective participation.

Not only are political parties are more equipped to perform this function, they are also obliged to do so for their members. 

The maximum participation in parliamentary debates comes from two sets of members: the national-level leadership and the middle-level leaders.
During a debate on national issues, experienced national-level leaders of every political dispensation express their views. With wide media coverage given to these, much of the debate in public domain centres around the views of these national-level leaders. The middle-level leaders, however, has limited parliamentary time to make their mark, especially as the number of actual sittings of parliament has declined significantly over the years.

As several political leaders have pointed out, MPs attempt to make their mark by either disrupting House proceeding or raising local issues. This helps garner some public recognition, which may bolster their recall value during elections. Walkouts and adjournments are often strategically planned for maximising political gains.

Thus, it is not the desire to hold the government accountable that motivates an MP; rather, it is the publicity he/she gets, and which contributes to his/her electoral prospect, that has become the incentive for parliamentary work.

Whither opposition?

In a heterogeneous and multicultural society like India, where the opposition to government comes from a variety of sources, the task of consolidating the opposing views and putting them forth in an institution forum rests collectively on the opposition. But the opposition has, over the years, developed a strategy of critiquing the government not with a view to improve the quality of governance, or ensuring governmental accountability, but to remain in public memory.

The techniques have changed over the years from heated arguments of the 1950s to slogan-shouting in the ’60s and ’70s, to walkouts, agitating in the well of the House, and complete boycott of House proceedings in this millennium. All of these are determined by the level of public attention they draw.
As eminent sociologist Andre Beteille (2011) remarked, “The tone of civility has all but disappeared from parliamentary debate. Interruptions are frequent and noisy, and it has become a matter of routine for several persons to speak at the same time. Rushing to the well of the house is no longer an uncommon event, and the speaker has a difficult time in maintaining order and has to adjourn the house repeatedly… its members now spend so much of their time in disputes that appear to be both endless and fruitless.”

The focus on developing long-term constructive alternatives has been conspicuously absent from the agenda of opposition politics. Both national opposition parties such as the BJP and regional parties like the Shiv Sena or BJD have adopted the same strategy. Data relating to parliamentary functioning brings to fore this picture of an aggressive but perhaps ‘dysfunctional’ opposition. In the 15th Lok Sabha, for instance, the opposition has had numerous occasions to criticise the government. However, the strategy seems to have been to disrupt parliament rather than hold it accountable.

In 2010-11, 417 hours were lost due to disruptions. Interestingly, 18 percent of the bills were passed in less than five minutes the same year.
In the just concluded winter session of 2012, parliament worked for only 56 percent of its scheduled time and lost nearly 106 hours.

In Rajya Sabha, the question hour could only be conducted on four days, which prompted Hamid Ansari, the upper house chairman, to comment that it should be scrapped from the business of the House. Only 49 out of 400 starred questions listed in Lok Sabha and 43 of 300 in Rajya Sabha could be orally answered.

A qualitative analysis of the discussions within the parliament also reveals that even when issues have been discussed the tone and tenor of discussions, as well as the modes of address, are designed to attract maximum media attention with an eye on polls. Discussions have almost always been along party lines and are in the nature of critique of the government.

However, what has gone unnoticed in the entire debate is that while the top-level leadership of parties organises widely publicised boycotts, the middle-level leadership has used the available parliamentary space to raise issues of their constituency and local concerns through short discussions, zero hour and the likes. A survey of MPs has shown that they believed that representing the constituency through both parliamentary or unparliamentarily methods improve their chances of re-election. The 14th Lok Sabha spent nearly 20 percent of its time discussing such issues, almost the same as legislative discussions.

Media: the alternative forum for deliberation?

The inadequacy of parliamentary debates has given an opportunity to the other institutions, particularly the media, to occupy the space that traditionally belonged to parliament. In the early years after independence, the media sourced news from parliamentary proceedings — several news items in almost all newspapers centered on speeches made by MPs in the House, while English newspapers carried columns that encapsulated major issues discussed in the House.

The media, thus, functioned as an extension of parliament — a forum for rational debate.

However, the media has over the years substantially reduced coverage of parliamentary proceedings. While policy announcements made by the government, both inside and outside the House, are widely reported, most reporting about parliamentary proceedings relates to disruptions, loss of time and cost to the exchequer and so forth.

Now, many leaders of opposing political parties often confront each other more in television studios to debate the same issues that could have been dealt more exhaustively in parliament. It is almost unanimously agreed that the media, particularly the privately owned and run audio-visual media, is driven by commercial consideration. They are intermittent in coverage of public issues, without much follow-up and their choice of issues and method of discussion is governed by commercial interest. They have also been criticised for reducing complex and multi-layered issues to simplistic proportions.

But despite these drawbacks, it appears the media has been more successful in initiating debates on pressing national issues. The low level of trust that MPs enjoy has also indirectly contributed to greater public acceptability of media discussions.

Civil society: another voice for demand, debate

Citizen activism over the Jan Lokpal Bill, or the demand for better laws to deal with violence against women in the aftermath of the Delhi gangrape case, shows that besides the media, members of civil society have also emerged as participants in the deliberative process. It is not uncommon any more for civil society groups to initiate the process of legislative enactment. However, in most such cases members of such groups communicate the need for legislation. They also provide active assistance to the bureaucracy at the drafting stage of a bill by providing necessary data and information. However, the task of deliberating on proposed enactment necessarily rests with the legislature in view of its representative character.

Certain important trends in civil activism, though, need to be mentioned here:

  • There are voices, at least among some sections of the civil society, to bypass the legislature and proclaim legitimacy of their views on the basis of responses to activist meets, social networking sites and media attention.
  • Social activists proclaim legitimacy for their views at a stage when no significant debate on the issue at stake has taken place.
  • There has been intense pressure on the institutional set up to accept outputs of ‘civil society’ initiatives as final.

Thus, Anna Hazare and the India Against Corruption (IAC) team wanted parliament to adopt their version of the Lokpal Bill, transforming elected representatives and legislatures into mere “rubber stamps.” There is some merit in the argument of opponents of civil society initiatives that though leaders of such movement, like Hazare, are not democratically elected and are therefore out of institutional purview, so their representative character is questionable and their accountability difficult to enforce.

It may be argued that the popularity of civil society initiatives is largely on account of the government’s failure to enlist participation of people’s movement through existing institutional mechanism, such as political parties. It has, often mistakenly, been believed that these initiatives have the support of only urban middle classes, who do not constitute a significant impact on the electoral outcome and have adopted an ostrich-like approach towards civil society initiatives.

In most societies, civil society initiative finds an inlet into the political system through political parties. But the undemocratic nature of political parties and the limited nature of their recruitment have deprived political parties of fresh grassroots-level initiatives and leadership. Civil society initiatives have thus acquired an independent character and a group dynamics of their own, tapping into popular dissatisfaction with established parties. Political parties have also been guilty of side-stepping issues espoused by people’s movements into their own platforms. They have therefore been somewhat cut off from the popular aspirations. A growing middle class with myriad expectations from the political system have provided ready support to civil society initiatives rather than political parties.

Conclusion

But while these developments may not appear to be very positive, why do MPs, time and again, demand for special sessions of parliament? The answer may lie in the merits of deliberative democracy. Deliberative democracy, even of the most basic type, results in better and more rational decisions, as it is based on free, open and rational deliberation by popularly elected representatives,

Second, the representatives are chosen by people through a mechanism — election — which is estimated to be fair, explicitly for the purpose of representing them. Thus, parliament, constituted on the basis of universal adult suffrage, is by far the most democratic and representative of all the institutions of government: it can claim a legitimacy that no other institution can claim.

Third, decisions in the deliberative bodies are based on the principle of majority and are therefore generally estimated to be fair and legitimate. In all such discussions the views of both the majority and minority resonate by virtue of its composition. On account of this parliament in India has also emerged as a platform for ventilating issues of local significance, giving it a local character. Thus, despite being a national body the parliament today represents not just the macro-level, pan-India issues, but also issues at the regional, local and constituency levels.

Finally, in a diverse society such as India, parliamentary deliberation does help build a national consensus on contentious issues. Both the government and opposition parties recognise the merit of this multi-functional, deliberative mechanism. It is therefore not surprising that notwithstanding the declining efficiency of parliament, members across party lines tacitly recognise its importance. This also accounts for the growing concern about declining standards of parliamentary debates.

To debunk parliament as “talk shop” may be detrimental to the health of democracy in India.

(The writer is an associate professor of the Department of Political Science, Jain University-Bangalore)

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