House that?

It’s time to consider ways to make the next Lok Sabha more articulate

Written by The Indian Express | Published: February 28, 2009 12:03 am

In the closing days of the 14th Lok Sabha,Speaker Somnath Chatterjee undertook an audit of the stormy House over which he presided. It was mostly a record of absences. A House that started its term with all 545 vacancies filled ended a full term on Friday with 505,reflecting not merely resignations but also a flurry of expulsions and suspensions on account of,mostly,a cash-for-questions scandal and cross-voting. For a Lok Sabha that lived out a full term,it had just 332 sittings. The speaker spoke of 423 hours wasted “in disruptions and adjournments due to disorderly scenes”. In the end,as the stocktaking became a larger exercise,there were lists of MPs who never participated in a debate,and others who chose not to ask a single question during Question Hour. Before the story passes to the start of the election campaign,it is instructive to linger a while on the 14th Lok Sabha. Yes,this has been a House that’s exasperated,amidst bursts of charged engagement,for instance,in the nuclear deal and terrorism debates. But it was also a House made acutely conscious of its shortcomings. The exercise of lamenting its record would be worthless if it did not include suggestions to make the next Lok Sabha more deliberative.

Analysts are agreed that the legislature is increasingly dominated by the executive’s will. As long as the government of the day has the adequate numbers in the Lower House,it can easily impose its will on legislative business without considering the inclusiveness of debate. This is,in part,because of anti-defection legislation that allows for the disqualification of MPs in defiance of the party whip. Earlier hopes that coalitions would compel Parliament towards more debates too have been belied. There is a sense that the give-and-take between coalition partners on key issues is conducted in back-room talks,and is not articulated on the floor of the House. It is important to recognise that the same anti-defection law that makes the treasury benches so comfortable also impacts the opposition. There too the whips hold,and the dynamic makes their members oppose for opposition’s sake. The onus thus is on parties to find ways to allow a range of views to be expressed.

In response to criticism,MPs point to the odd debate that’s been constructive. But these are often big-issue discussions. Their challenge is to make articulation a part of the daily fabric of parliamentary life. It could be by harnessing the instruments that are already available to them in their parliamentary responsibilities of legislative work,oversight and representation. It could also be done by considering reform,such as question hour for the prime minister or parliamentary hearings,that brings the debate from committee work to the floor of the House.

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