Is The Indian Parliament Losing Its Relevance?
The functioning of the two Houses is a study in contrast. The Lok Sabha had 20 sittings, worked extra hours, scored 100.46 per cent in terms of the number of hours it functioned and passed 14 bills. The Rajya Sabha, on the other hand, worked 60 hours and scored barely 46 per cent. It lost as many as 47 hours in disruptions and passed a mere nine bills.
Pandemonium, bedlam and pell-mell – such is the terminology used by the mainstream media to describe the proceedings in the Indian Parliament that has lately become more a place of sound and fury than one of sensible discussions and sedate action, which it used to be till not very long ago. Intermittent light-hearted banter and bonhomie, which used to mark serious discussions between the opposition and ruling party members on the floor of the Parliament, now seem to have given way to a frosty chill between the two. Nor is there the traditional camaraderie of the past any longer to bind the lawmakers of conflicting ideological orientations together in the name of their common avowed goal of service to the nation.
Palpable is the animus between groups of members who seem to be intent on settling political scores on the floor of the legislature and those who are serious about legislation. A healthy rivalry between the members to bring about radical changes, by means of legislation, to the existing conditions that impede the nation’s advancement and progress, seems to have given way to personal animosity and party-based claims of monopoly over honourable intentions to serve the nation. Ideological differences never seemed perilously sharper and more pronounced in the past than they are now. In both the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha, the well of the House has become the scene of frenetic action where honourable members converge to demonstrate their lung power.
Over the smallest of differences in matters and issues of tremendous significance and importance to the nation, dissenting members jump to their feet, rush to the well, wave a fistful of papers in the air and vie for the attention of the Chair. In the process, the arguments of the members who introduce bills and those who support the bills are drowned. The upshot of the ensuing bedlam is the stalling of the session and the staging of political drama. Over some perceived injustice or other meted out to a member of the opposition albeit outside the Parliament or the unwillingness of the ruling party to accede to the opposition’s demand for the ouster of a minister or disciplinary action against a member of the ruling party, entire sections of the opposition stage a walk out.
In winter session 2015, disruptions were caused on account of excuses such as the raging nationwide debate on intolerance, alleged political vendetta of the government against Congress President Sonia Gandhi and her deputy Rahul Gandhi in the National Herald case and alleged involvement of Finance Minister Arun Jaitley in what the Aam Aadmi Party claimed were corrupt deals of the Delhi and District Cricket Association. In the monsoon session of 2015, disruptions were caused by the opposition parties seeking the ouster of External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Chief Ministers Vasundhara Raje and Shivraj Singh Chauhan. In such an oft-repeated scenario, healthy debates become well nigh impossible. When emotions rule the roost, reason takes a back seat, and the Parliament becomes dysfunctional. With the lawmakers being hardly inclined to pass bills and enact laws, people who elected them to carry out the onerous task cannot help wondering if the colossal amounts of money being spent by the nation on the holding of the sessions are worth the exercise since it does not serve the intended purpose of the legislation.
The winter session of the Parliament that ended recently is a case in point. The functioning of the two Houses is a study in contrast. The Lok Sabha had 20 sittings, worked extra hours, scored 100.46 per cent in terms of the number of hours it functioned and passed 14 bills. The Rajya Sabha, on the other hand, worked 60 hours and scored barely 46 per cent. It lost as many as 47 hours in disruptions and passed a mere nine bills. In the words of the Chairman of the Upper House, the just-concluded Rajya Sabha session seemed “singularly unproductive in terms of legislative work” and had “redeemed itself somewhat” in the last three days. Expressing distress over repeated disruptions, he called upon the members of the House to “introspect on this state of affairs” and to abstain from practices and approaches that lower the stature of the Rajya Sabha.
Since a functioning legislature is an essential concomitant of the principles of the Constitution to which the members are committed, and disruptions of the sessions negate these principles, recourse to disruptions for stalling the sessions is in violation of the spirit of the Constitution and commitment of members to that sacred text of the premier democratic institution of our country. Furthermore, since the rulings and repeated exhortations of the Chair to the members for observing decency and decorum are ignored during such interruptions, they tend to lower the dignity of the House in public perception.
Tyranny of the Minority
The legislation was no cakewalk in Lok Sabha either. The Lower House also witnessed vociferous members of the principal opposition party trooping to the well of the House time and again in a bid to stall the proceedings. It was in spite of such not-too-infrequent disruptions that the House saved the day by working overtime to pass bills. The Parliamentary Affairs Minister described the repeated attempts of the opposition parties to cause disruptions and stall proceedings in the Lower House as “tyranny of the minority”.
The principal casualty of the non-functioning of either House of the Parliament is legislation. The frosty winter session of 2015 had the dubious distinction of seeing the lowest number of bills passed since the winter session of 2010. As part of an apparently well-thought-out strategy conceived even before the session begins, the opposition parties, which do not have sufficient numbers, try to stall the proceedings by causing repeated disruptions. The ruling party bills and private member bills become casualty alike.
During the zero hour, members find themselves unable to raise questions that impinge on the nation in general and their constituencies in particular. In the case of lapses and failures in the implementation of policies, it becomes impossible for members to hold the Establishment and their political masters responsible. Out of the nine bills cleared by the Rajya Sabha in the just-concluded session, four were passed on the last day without discussion. How truly representative and meaningful would be the laws that are passed without discussion albeit for want of time?
Why the Disruptions?
Why do political parties resort to disruptions in our Parliament? The answer lies in the answer to a counter question, namely, what do these parties gain out of a stalled session? Evidently, the opposition parties want, out of spite, to paralyse the Parliament and reduce the ruling party’s ability to get crucial bills passed for implementation of their policies and programs. Such an eventuality would inevitably result in stagnation of developmental work promised by the ruling party in its pre-poll campaigns. Out of peevishness, cussedness and callous disregard to the development and progress of the nation, the opposition parties engage in such counter-productive activities albeit through means, which are on face value not inadmissible in terms of the parliamentary rules and norms.
Money No Consideration!
It costs the exchequer Rs 2.5 lakh per minute to conduct a parliament session, which translates into a loss of Rs 1.5 crore for every wasted hour. Our Rajya Sabha lost 47 hours in the winter session this year, causing the nation a loss of Rs 70.5 crore, which is indeed a lot of money for an earful of gobbledygook! This is nothing but taxpayers’ money going up in smoke to the accompanying cacophony of the protesters!
Malice and Methodology
Colossal amounts of money have thus been lost in session after session of washed-up parliamentary proceedings, which add up to missed opportunities to pass much-needed legislation of crucial bills like the General Services and Tax (GST) Bill, Land Acquisition Bill, etc. And the mainstream media (MSM) has been ranting and raving about the insensitivity of the lawmakers to the need of the hour, which is to shore up the gains of economic reforms the common man’s way. Every move proposed by the government to introduce economic reforms is a backup measure to vindicate in legislative terms Prime Minister Modi’s repeated assurances to potential foreign investors about the nation’s preparedness to welcome them to do business in India. Every such wasted opportunity is a setback to our nation’s goal of expanding the parameters of its economic policy for the purpose of pitchforking business opportunities in modern India to international standards.
Meanwhile, the whole world has been waiting to see how Prime Minister Modi captures the mood of the nation and garners its collective preparedness to upgrade India’s economy to a higher level. The world’s expectations and the nation’s hopes have been repeatedly belied not on account of a lack of merit of the case, but on account of lack of fortitude on the part of some elected representatives who do not deem it fit to subjugate their own personal or party’s agenda to the common good of the nation. Another wasted session, another dream dashed to the ground! After ten years of misgovernance by a scam-ridden coalition that seemed totally fazed in the face of the daunting tasks ahead and was hopelessly immobilised, the people had voted en masse for a party that spoke the refreshing language of developmental politics and hoped for a breakthrough in the impasse the country had found itself in.
What has ensued is only a valiant jump from the political quagmire to a logjam in the Parliament! The opposition parties, led by Congress, obviously could not reconcile to their collective defeat in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Hence, they seem determined to sabotage the attempts of the NDA government to stabilise itself by means of good governance. Narendra Modi’s successful foreign policy forays and the consequent worldwide goodwill and support for his landmark initiatives, especially on the economic front, from leading economic powers as well as the extremely positive forecasts from the international rating agencies, corporate giants and business honchos, have had their unintended share of exacerbating the sense of acrimony on the part of opposition parties against Narendra Modi and his government.
Suffice it to say that Modi would be alienated more and more from the gullible sections of the masses, foreign governments and international business circles looking for lucrative openings for investments in a stable country that promises conducive economic and business climate, free from political bickering notwithstanding possible political upheavals in the country in the future. What better way to depict a nation in unflattering colours as a failed state than by painting its Parliament as a hostile and truncated law-making body and the Prime Minister as a partisan leader incapable of carrying progressive political forces along? That the image of the nation is bound to be castigated in the process is apparently immaterial and of no consequence to those who resort to the tactics of interruptions.
Reforms and Relevance
Consider the already dented image of the beleaguered Indian Parliament, which has been rendered dormant, in contrast to the House of Commons in Britain. The latter takes pride in its claim of having lost not a single day in any of the sessions in its long history. In the case of the Indian Parliament, any further damage to its battered image is likely to cause further dismay among the people of the country and accelerate the process of attrition of their faith in the efficacy of the legislature. Reforms to set the Parliament back on the rail is the need of the hour. Timely action to introduce reforms to strengthen the due role of the Parliament is crucial for the healthy growth of Indian democracy. The reforms should be based on the bedrock of the dictum that legislation is the raison d’être of the Parliament and the assemblage of the honourable members of the august body. Failure to carry out this onerous responsibility due to the tactics of some members should be viewed seriously. There is already a nagging doubt engaging the people’s mind regarding the need and usefulness of the Upper House, members of which are not directly elected by the masses.
There have been silent talks of considering presidential system of government in India where the executive wing will be independent of the legislative. Dr. Shashi Tharoor has also recently talked about the recommendation of one of the members of the Simon Commission for presidential system for India; to this the then leaders of the INC did not respond favorably. It is sure that if the makers of the constitutions and even the then members of the Indian National Congress would have envisaged such disrespect to the parliamentary system, they would have given a second thought to the system of governance. In the upcoming budget session, the Congress and other opposition parties are yet again equipped with the Arunachal Pradesh’s President Rule issue, which they will make a matter of alleged intolerance on the part of the ruling government. A recent survey conducted by one of the national new channels has depicted that the people of India view the Congress as the one to blame for the ongoing brouhaha and resultant legislative and economic defeat of the country. It is time for Congress and its partners to realize the same. Also is the time apt to think over either a fortified parliamentary system or take a tougher route of deliberating presidential system of government for India.
There is currently a proposal receiving the Government’s consideration to grant a hundred per cent hike in the salary of the honourable members of Parliament. The proposal further envisages enhancement in the other allowances and perks. All this should be linked to the good work that the lawmakers are supposed to do albeit in the service of the nation. Failure to work should entail a loss in pecuniary benefits. There should also be a system to monitor the persistent behavioral pattern of the members not conducive to the work culture. Further thought should be given by experts to hold the honourable members accountable for their performance, or the lack of it, and answerable to the people.
Unless such drastic redressal measures are brought about, without any further delay, to make our Parliament infallible, the relevance of the august body will only become more and more of a subject matter of a growing sense of skepticism and cynicism in public perception. After three long decades the people of India gave the requisite majority backing to the Modi-led government, disrupting its functioning and reforms agenda is an evident murder of people’s aspirations.
By Dr. Sunil Gupta
(The author is a Political ommentator & Chartered Accountant.)