With parliament and state legislatures disrupted by the opposition and sidelined by the executive, the political unanimity keeping them that way needs to be countered
Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay | January 6, 2014
As parliament prepares for the monsoon session, it is now certain that the 15th Lok Sabha, whenever it is dissolved, will end up as the least productive house in history. Researchers have logged the number of hours lost due to disruption of parliamentary proceedings. They argue that by failing to ensure proper functioning of the two houses, an opportunity has been lost to hold the government accountable and conduct discussions on important legislative and policy issues. Stemming from this is a natural conclusion: it is the opposition which has prevented the normal functioning of parliament and in the process eroded the stature of the legislature.
The media routinely reports the extent of disruption and the loss to the exchequer. This evokes exasperation among the urban middle-classes – mainly among those who form opinions on the basis of media reporting. In most cases, the ire of the people is targeted at not just the opposition or the government, rather the target is the ‘system’ and the moment the conversation moves further, democracy is seen as the root cause. Soon, there are conclusions in such middle-class discussions that India has had enough of democracy and it was time we had a political leadership which was “not so weak”.
It is nine years that the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) has been in power. In the era of collective amnesia, it is natural that most people would have forgotten the track record of the Congress and other constituents of the present coalition in precipitating disruptions in parliament when the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) was in power. It is also not that disruption of parliamentary proceedings began only after the Congress occupied the opposition benches. In the late 1980s, the opposition – despite being a small group in the Lok Sabha – blocked parliamentary proceedings for long periods after the Bofors controversy erupted during the tenure of Rajiv Gandhi.
As the situation continued for more than a decade, in November 2001, more than 300 lawmakers – including prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, vice-president and Rajya Sabha chairman Krishan Kant, Lok Sabha speaker GMC Balayogi, leader of opposition in Lok Sabha Sonia Gandhi, several chief ministers and presiding officers of state legislatures along with many other leaders of parties and chief whips gathered in New Delhi for a day. Their purpose: to deliberate on ‘discipline and decorum in parliament and state legislatures’ because of declining standards and frequent disruptions.
The meeting adopted a unanimous resolution. Among other things, every party agreed that a code of conduct would be laid down whose violation would result in automatic suspension from the house for a certain period. Other issues on which there was complete agreement included:
Maintain inviolability of question hour.
Most importantly, the resolution mooted the idea of making the sitting of 120 days for parliament and 100 and 60 days for legislatures of big and small states mandatory. It was endorsed that immediate steps must be taken for necessary amendments in the constitution to introduce this.
In the 30 months that NDA remained in office after this, the resolution remained a lofty commitment and no effort was made to implement it. In the nine years that UPA has been in office, the resolution has been forgotten. What makes the matter more worrisome is that this was not the first such effort to stem the rot of parliamentary institutions.
The presiding officers conference has been a forum in existence since the 1920s and is to meet regularly to discuss these matters. There was reference to repeated disruptions in recent years but the conference has not been summoned since September 2011, indicating the absence of a political desire. A reason behind this could be that most important legislative businesses are transacted in any case so the rest can be left for the political realm.
The committee system, which was involved during PV Narasimha Rao’s tenure by Shivraj Patil as Lok Sabha speaker, was an admission that the house would not be able to debate budget and the demand for grants of various ministries, so the work was ‘sublet’ to a smaller body. The committee system is today seen as a bulwark to a parliamentary system that has become more of an extended TV debate than a forum for meaningful discussion on policy issues and matter of public concern.
Let us look at the scenario in the states. According to available figures, no state assembly sits for more than 50 days in a year – majority of them meet for far fewer days. Except during budget sessions, most assemblies meet for less than one week. Governments in majority of states introduce and pass most bills on the same day and barring odd occasions, bills are not referred to the committees set up for this purpose.
For decades ‘guillotine’ has been routinely applied for both the union and state budgets – when the demands for grants of various ministries/departments are clubbed together and passed without any discussion. In effect this means that the executive, irrespective of whether it is in the centre or in the states, functions without virtually any legislative scrutiny. This suggests a conscious decision of political parties as none has made any serious effort to change this when it has been in power.
This includes the Left Front in West Bengal (though its record is somewhat better), the JD(U)-led government in Bihar and, of course, the BJP’s showpiece – Gujarat. Haryana has been a Congress-ruled state for most of the recent years. The government there introduced and passed a slew of bills in one day – a fact that shows that the party’s record in the states is no better than at the centre.
Clearly, it is not a party matter. It is a malaise of the system where the executive feels ‘constrained’ by a vibrant legislature and thereby it does not allow parliament or the state legislature to function in the manner it should. This has resulted in the elections becoming less of a parliamentary character and more ‘presidential’ in nature.
In the era of coalitions, most ministries are also run on the whims and fancies of leaders of constituent parties. With no defined structure of debating policy issues within government, decisions are taken in ‘little boxes’.
The Indian system, though structured on the lines of the Westminster model, cannot be expected to function like the British system. Indian socio-political mosaic makes for a more ‘turbulent’ legislature. But to manage this, effective steps have to be taken. Important decisions – like under Balayogi’s stewardship – on which there was political unanimity must be followed up by the government. If that does not happen, political parties will continue reversing roles, depending on who occupies the treasury benches and who sits across. The initiative for this has to come from the executive and the party which exercises control over it. If the opposition does not respond then, it will stand exposed.
(This story appeared in the August 1-15 edition of the print issue)
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