Parliament: Case For Reform

article

Prime Minister Narendra Modi (C) listens to Lok Sabha Speaker Sumitra Mahajan (R) in the central hall of Parliament in New Delhi. AFP PHOTO / Prakash SINGH Parliament needs drastic reform. Too many sessions have been reduced to farce by bad behavior from MPs, acting obviously at the instigation of their parties. An expert panel could generate ideas for reform and accountability. BY R. C. RAJAMANI

India’s Parliament has suffered an image damage like no other constitutional institution in recent times. However, one must hasten to add that part of the sullied image is in perception, promoted by an overheated media that chooses to see only the negatives, reluctant to highlight parliament’s good work because that is ‘unglamorous’ and does not titillate readers.

It is pertinent here to consider what former Lok Sabha secretary general and expert on constitutional issues Subhash C. Kashyap, wrote in a newspaper article:

“Representative democracy and parliamentary institutions have endured in India for five decades and more. It is a great tribute to their strength and resilience. To say that Parliament of India is not effective would be a gross overstatement. Bashing Parliament and parliamentarians has become a fashion with self-proclaimed intellectuals. This has to be deprecated because other institutions have perhaps declined more. Parliament in our polity is the supreme representative institution of the people. And, for that very reason, public perceptions about the functioning of Parliament are very important.”

COST OF BAD BEHAVIOUR

The shockingly unparliamentary behaviour of MPs, motivated largely by political reasons, has caused immense harm to parliament’s functioning, reducing its legislative work to the bare minimum and eroding its credibility in the public eye. However, by the very nature of its constitution, politics cannot be avoided completely. The cut and thrust of exchanges between the treasury benches and the opposition enlivens proceedings.

But injection of politics must ideally be incidental and not the dominating aspect of day-to-day proceedings. It was so in the early years of the country’s parliament after independence. Stalwarts sat on both the government and the opposition chairs. The debate was decent and informed. Deterioration set in gradually over the years and politics and polemics pushed serious legislative business to the back burner.

Today, things have come to such a sorry pass, one wonders if legislation had not become incidental instead of Parliament’s main function! Rival politicians find the floor of Parliament a safe place to wash dirty linen. For Parliament gives immunity to members from libel and defamation laws. The much harassed Morarji Desai, the former prime minister, used to challenge his political rivals to go out of the House and repeat the allegations they were making inside about his son’s ‘wrong-doings’.

Another major casualty of politics on the floor is the Question Hour with which parliament begins its day. Every day, 20 questions each are listed for oral answers in both houses. This is an opportunity for the MPs to let their voters know how they are faring and how they are serving their constituencies. Today, the time loss in Parliament amounts to a colossal national waste.

On Feb. 24, 1951, a member, R. K. Sidhwa, had stated that Question Hour then cost Rs 6,000 per hour or Rs 1,000 per minute. In April 1963, the House was told during a discussion that a day’s sitting of the Lok Sabha cost Rs 25,000. The then prime minister Indira Gandhi, told the Rajya Sabha in December 1966, that every hour of Parliament cost the nation Rs 18,000 per hour or Rs 300 per minute.

Today, after 50 years, the cost has gone up thousands of times given inflation. It has been computed that today every minute of parliament session costs Rs. 2.5 lakh. If no work is done during a day’s sitting (six hours). it would mean an estimated Rupees 9 crore going down the drain. An unforgivable waste of money.

Strangely, a media obsessed with the financial costs, has focussed little on the intellectual costs. Countless man-hours go into the entire gamut of conducting a day’s session. Staff of various ministries and departments pore over MPs questions, trying to prepare the answers. Members themselves and their supporting staff burn midnight oil to prepare the questions, special mentions, notices of calling attention motions and various other parliamentary devices to elicit vital information from the government on behalf of the people they represent.

All this stupendous effort comes to a naught when the House stands adjourned without transacting any business. The despair and disappointment of MPs whose questions were listed for the day can be easily imagined. In these days of live telecast, the MPs know that their voters would be watching their performance. This is an image boosting prospect that each member legitimately looks forward to.

UNHEARD VOICES

Ideally, under parliamentary democracy every member should get an opportunity to express his views. But it is difficult to see that in practice. Naturally, the members of the ruling party and the main opposition are given the floor to speak most of the time. By the nature of its functioning, it is often seen that the ruling party and the main opposition sets the agenda. With is majority, the ruling party or coalition has its say on the legislative work of the day. And the main opposition has the vocal power to derail the day’s proceedings on some contentious issue or the other.

What about the voice of hundreds of others, members of smaller parties and those who are independents? Don’t their opinions count while the chair decides to adjourn the house for the day in the face of opposition uproar? They do not want frequent adjournments of the House.

Well, it is not always that a member gets his chance to speak on the strength of the party he belongs. Any member, if alert and active, can manage to speak on many issues. All one needs to do is to give the relevant notice in time. One can give notice to speak on a number of issues through calling attention motion, short duration discussion, special mentions, apart from Questions.

It is frustrating to such serious minded members when they find the House adjourned on the day they are listed to speak on their notices. When this writer asked one such member NK Premachandran of the RSP for his opinion, the Left member from Kerala sounded sad, but realistic. He said the basic responsibility of Parliament is legislation.

Today, after 50 years, the cost has gone up thousands of times given inflation. It has been computed that today every minute of a parliament session costs Rs. 2.5 lakh. If no work is done during a day’s sitting (six hours). it would mean an estimated Rupees 9 crore going down the drain. An unforgivable waste of money

“The important legislations are not well scrutinized. The Members who are competent from both sides are not getting adequate opportunity to perform due to lack of time and disruption. In the parliamentary system of governance, the agenda will be set by the government and the main opposition. That is ok. For the smooth functioning of Parliament we need a national consensus. If Parliament fails to function properly, democracy will be rendered meaningless. It will lead to anarchy and unrest. Government and the opposition have a joint responsibility to improve matters.”

Mr Premachandran was only reflecting the collective mind of mature members who would like to give of their best to enrich parliamentary democracy.

No doubt, the ruling party or the government is never happy when legislative work is hit by disturbances. The present NDA government never misses an opportunity to say that opposition is preventing development and progress of the country by their lack of cooperation in passing legislation meant for the welfare of the people.

MODI’S MESSAGE

While replying to the discussion last month on the motion of thanks to the President’s address, Prime Minister Narendra Modi threw up some ideas to improve the performance of Parliament. In fact, they are in the nature of reforms worth pursuing.

Speaking a few days before International Women’s Day (March 8), Modi suggested giving Parliament’s floor exclusively to women members. His suggestion was acted upon as both Houses gave opportunity to every woman member who wanted to speak.

Modi’s another suggestion was to give the whole floor for an entire day to first time members. This is a good idea, given the fact that there are still a number of first time members who are yet to take the floor though the current Lok Sabha is nearly two years into its five year term.

In his reply, Modi pointed out that President Pranab Mukherjee has said that Parliament is meant for discussion.

Building a better image of Parliament as belonging to the people and not to MPs and establishing a new rapport between the people and Parliament

“When the House is stalled, the treasury benches stand to suffer less but the country suffers a lot. I invite all the parties to assist in smooth passage of important Bills. All these Bills are for the good of people. Our former Speaker SomnathChatterjee said that stalling the House on important issues is completely counterproductive.

“Parliament is responsible for the destiny of huge population of this country. Some of the important Bills were passed among ruckus in this Lok Sabha but they could not make further headway. I do not find any rational being impeding the passage of such citizen centric Bills. I would like to present some ideas before this House. We celebrate 8th March as International Women’s Day and in this regard I am of the opinion that let us decide whether only women Members will speak on the matters included in the agenda for the day. I would like solicit guidance from all the veteran members of this House, on whether we should determine one or two sessions in a year during which only first time MPs should be invited to speak for a week. I am saying this only because they are taking much interest in new programmes and hence they should be provided opportunities.”

IDEAS FOR REFORM

Mr Kashyap has also suggested reforms that include among others:

  • Building a better image of Parliament as belonging to the people and not to MPs and establishing a new rapport between the people and Parliament;
  • Improving the quality and conduct of members; reducing expenditure on Parliament and making membership financially less attractive and more motivated by the spirit of sacrifice and service; quashing forthwith the unconstitutional MPLAD Scheme; improving information supply and efficacy of committee scrutiny; legislative planning and improving the quality of laws; setting up standing committees on the Constitution and on the economy
  • subjecting constitutional amend-ments to closer committee scrutiny and raising economic policy to non-party levels; codifying privileges; improving working of parties, floor management and parliamentary time table; and rationalizing and modernizng rules of procedure to meet today’s needs.
  • Reforms would have to be a part of an integrated approach to reforms in all sectors- in education, judiciary, legislature, administration and the rest.
  • In today’s situation, there is every case for appointment of a Parlia-mentary Reforms Commission or a Study of Parliament Group (as was done in the UK) to consider the various issues and policy options to make Parliament a more effective instrument of socio-economic development and national rejuvenation.
  • A Parliamentary Reforms Commission is an idea that needs to be given serious thought by the present speaker of the Lok Sabha Ms Sumitra Mahajan and Chairman of the Rajya Sabha Hamid Ansari. To start with, an all India conference of presiding officers may be called to consider the appointment of the commission. It may debate on the mandate, terms and conditions of the commission and also identify suitable individuals to head and be members of the commission.

    There are a few areas where reforms can be effected through administrative actions by the speaker and chairman.

    The system of standing committees was the idea of former speaker Shivraj Patil, while Somnath Chatterjee, another Speaker, introduced the live telecast of proceedings through administrative decisions.

    Bashing Parliament and parliamentarians has become a fashion with self-proclaimed intellectuals. This has to be deprecated because other institutions have perhaps declined more. Parliament in our polity is the supreme representative institution of the people. And, for that very reason, public perceptions about the functioning of Parliament are very important.”

    Subhash C. Kashyap, Former Lok Sabha secretary general and expert on constitutional issues

    Hamid Ansari shifted the Question Hour to 12 noon instead of at the start of the day at 11 am. The idea behind this move was to save the Question Hour from becoming a casualty of any uproar at the start of the day. Though it has not ensured 100 per cent trouble free QH, the move has improved matters considerably.

    Earlier during Atal Bihari’s Vajpayee government in 1998, the colonial drill of presenting the annual budget at 5 pm was changed to 11 am as the first and only item of the day. For more than 50 years after Independence, successive governments were following the colonial timing that the British chose to coincide with the start of the day’s operations at the London Stock Exchange!

    Under the present system, the Question Hour in either House is not able to see even half of the 20 questions answered orally. This is because, the members as well as the ministers concerned are not brief and effective in their articulation. Besides, a lot of politics is injected by members while asking questions and supplementaries. Some members tend to make speeches rather than sharp questions. Under the present system, each question should be disposed of within three minutes to complete all the 20. This is not practical because of supplementaries to be answered. There is a good case for extending the QH beyond 12 noon till such time as all questions are answered but before 1 pm.

    There have been suggestions to include a few more communities, apart from the two Anglo Indians, to be nominated members of the Lok Sabha. This may be done to increase the number of nominated seats from the current two to four. To include more members, the term of each can be reduced to one year. Parsis, Jews and Chinese-origin Indians may be considered for nomination. The practice can be followed by the Rajya Sabha too, by creating another nominated category apart from the current one comprising 12 members, experts from different fields. A term of one year each may be given to such groups as mentioned for the Lok Sabha.

    These are only selective suggestions and not exhaustive to cover every conceivable area crying for reforms. That onerous responsibility may best be left to a commission or an expert committee.

    Summary

  • At a time when gover- nance and development are the need of the hour, Parliament has been reduced to a zero sum game
  • Adjournments, shouting matches, entering the well of the house are now the standard of every Parliament session
  • Prime Minister Modi has made some suggestions including giving first term MPs sufficient time to have their say
  • Other reforms could be initiated by the Speaker or an expert committee be set up to enhance Parliament’s efficiency and accountability
  • For the smooth functioning of Parliament we need a national consensus. If Parliament fails to function properly, democracy will be rendered meaningless. It will lead to anarchy and unrest. Government and the opposition have a joint responsibility to improve matters

    NK Premachandran, MP, RSP

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