Insights into Editorial: The unmaking of Parliament
Disruptions have become an endemic feature of the functioning of the Indian Parliament. This has led to widespread public outcry that has focused on two elements— first, the waste of taxpayers’ money on a perpetually disrupted and consequently, non-functioning Parliament; second, the legislative paralysis that has stultified governance. However, little attention has been paid to what the underlying causes for such disruptions are.
Most of the discussion surrounding disruptions revolve around a few issues—how the Speaker handles the disrupters, how much is the cost to the exchequer in terms of losses and why the government is unable to manage the floor and coordinate properly with Opposition members. There is also a view that this is business as usual for any party in the Opposition since it gives them the excuse to play to the galleries. There is a lot of chest beating about the inability of the ruling party to do proper floor management or build consensus across parties on important issues.
Who gains the most due to these disruptions?
Conventional wisdom says it is the Opposition which gains because it can grand stand on issues to grab voter attention, not let crucial bills get passed and force the government to take action (or not) on certain issues. The government and the Opposition generally blame each other for the stalemate, each pointing to the adamant attitude of the other.
But is that really the case? In India, the executive has the upper hand in deciding the timing of a Parliamentary session and the agenda of a session. The legislature, by abdicating its responsibilities of oversight and representation, actually plays into the hand of the executive.
Then, what are the main reason behind disruptions?
One of the problems pointed out by experts is the lack of avenues for the Opposition to either force the government to convene a parliamentary session or set the agenda of Parliament (the government decides the bills it wants to introduce; the schedule of a day in the Lok Sabha is thereafter decided by the Business Advisory Committee whose members represent all major political parties).
Also, the increase in the number of political parties and the challenge of coalition politics since the 1980s has diversified demands and competing interests. During the years of one-party majority governments, house management was comparatively easy and primarily the task of the minister for parliamentary affairs. With the increase in representation of other political parties—the 16th Lok Sabha represents 37 parties, a jump from the first Lok Sabha where there were 27 parties—and fall in the number of treasury members, house management became a shared responsibility. Time allocation for debates on legislation and speeches on other issues is decided as per party strength. The increase in the number of parties has adversely impacted the time allotted to each party to represent its interests, aggravated by the decrease in the number of annual sittings of Parliament.
What the rules say?
The Rules of the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha instruct all MPs to:
- Not interrupt any member while he or she is speaking, by disorderly expressions or noises or in any other disorderly manner.
- Not pass through, between the Chair and any member, while he or she is speaking.
- Not leave the House when the Speaker is addressing the House.
- Maintain silence when not speaking in the House.
- Not obstruct proceedings or interrupt and to avoid making running commentaries, when another member is speaking.
- Not shout slogans in the House.
- Not tear off documents in the House in protest.
- Not display flags, emblems or any exhibits in the House.
- Not sit or stand with their back towards the Chair.
- Not approach the Chair personally in the House, but to, instead, send chits to the officers at the Table, if necessary.
Role of speaker and chairman in preventing disruptions:
To curb such disruptions and deter MPs from indulging in conduct that causes such disruptions, the Speaker of the Lok Sabha and the Chairman of the Rajya Sabha have also been vested with certain disciplinary powers under the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha Rules respectively. These powers allow the Speaker and the Chairman to either impose minor penalties such as naming of MPs within official records, or major penalties that require the members engaging in disorderly conduct to immediately withdraw from the precinct of the House for the remainder of the day’s sitting.
- The members, who persistently abuse parliamentary rules, disregard the authority of the Speaker or the Chairman, and wilfully obstruct the business thereof, are also liable for suspension from the service of the House for the remainder of the session.
- In addition to these, Rule 374A of the Lok Sabha Rules also allows the Speaker to automatically suspend certain members of the Lok Sabha, who instigate grave disorder by coming into the well of the House, abuse the Lok Sabha Rules persistently, or wilfully obstruct the business of the House by shouting slogans.
- To initiate automatic suspension, the Speaker is required to identify the relevant member and name him before the House. Thereafter, the member stands suspended from the service of the House for five consecutive sittings or the remainder of the session, whichever is less.
What can be done now?
- 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. The government should utilize this tool effectively.
- Any motion or discussion has to be taken up if a certain number of MPs gives a written notice. The no-confidence 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.
- Another possible solution is to have Parliament meet round-the-year, Monday to Friday, instead of the three sessions for which it meets, as is the current practice. Episodic meetings are bound to create episodes, so to speak. Parliamentarians want to appropriate time to raise issues they think are important. These are not necessarily the priorities of the government, which might be keener on creating a legislative framework for executing its policies in the limited time it has than, say, discussing a railway accident.
- It is this divergence of views which lead to deadlocks. Britain, whose democratic traditions India follows to a great extent, has five 12-month sessions over every Parliament, which, from 2010, begins and ends in the spring. The Speaker lays out the entire annual calendar as soon as a new government is formed, marking the periods of recesses, the hours of meetings on every day of the week, and on which day the Opposition gets the preference to raise issues.
If India wishes to hold on to her democratic credentials, parliamentarians must recognise that the task of representing the opinions, interests and needs of citizens is their paramount responsibility. Nehru, in a famous speech he made in the Lok Sabha on March 28, 1957, had said that historians will not pay much attention to the time expended on speeches, or the number of questions asked and answered in Parliament. They will be interested in the deeper things that go into the making of a nation. There is no higher responsibility than to be a member of this sovereign body responsible for the fate of vast numbers of human beings. “Whether we are worthy of it or not is another matter.”
Also, a parliamentary government is described as government by discussion. Therefore, by allowing for wider and more impactful participation in parliament, it is possible that some of the causes of disruptions would get addressed. Simultaneously, it may improve the quality of debates if members with more expertise on a given subject are allowed to speak longer in the House. All of these measures would have to be coupled with other capacity building activities such as providing office space to all MPs, access to institutional research support and quality training programmes in order to both deepen and broaden our democratic polity.