The president has made repeated pleas for the proper functioning of Parliament. In 2012, at the platinum jubilee celebrations of the Tamil Nadu Vidhan Sabha, he highlighted the need for collective thinking to avoid disruption. On multiple occasions, he has referred to debate, dissent, and decision being the three Ds of democracy and called the disruption of parliamentary proceedings unacceptable. His comments, over the years, critique the decline in debate in Parliament.
Washout of parliament sessions has resulted in the weakening of government accountability and ineffective legislative scrutiny. The situation has reached a stage where, on a few occasions, presiding officers have used the word anarchy to describe proceedings in their house of parliament.
In 2009, a committee was set up to suggest structural reforms to the House of Commons in England. The first paragraph of the report of this committee reads, “We have been set up at a time when the House of Commons is going through a crisis of confidence not experienced in our lifetimes… Public confidence in the House and in Members as a whole has been low for some time, but not as low as now.” The situation is no different in India. There is an urgent need to overhaul parliamentary functioning. It will require changes to the Constitution and the rules of procedures of Parliament.
Disruptions in Parliament are symptoms of a fractured political environment where bipartisanship is hard to come. Individual MPs have a greater role to play in such situations. But in our constitutional framework, individual lawmakers have limited involvement in Parliament’s functioning. They neither control the convening of Parliament nor have the freedom to vote on issues. It means that government has no incentive to engage with individual MPs.
The first constitutional change that we need is to empower our legislators to call for a session of Parliament. In many democracies (the US and UK) legislatures meet for an entire year with prefixed calendars. Our Parliament meets for a limited number of days decided by the government. Empowering MPs to call for a session of Parliament will ensure that they can summon Parliament and hold government accountable on their terms. In some countries, the president can convene a session of parliament on a request of a specified number of MPs.
Another change that is needed urgently is the repeal of the anti-defection provisions specified in the Constitution. Over the last three decades, these provisions have gagged the individual voting voices of our parliamentarians. Leaders of political parties do not have to convince MPs either from their party or other parties about the merits of a discussion on a policy issue or legislation. They only negotiate with leaders of other parties who have the power to regulate the vote and voices of their MPs. It defeats the purpose of ideas and debate in a legislature. The events in Uttarakhand and Arunachal Pradesh this year have highlighted that anti-defection law will not guarantee political stability. Its removal will bring the vibrancy of debate back to our legislatures.
Over the years, we have only undertaken minor tweaking of the rules of procedure of Parliament. We have now reached a stage where these rules require significant structural changes to keep up with the changing political environment. The government exploits the discretion available in these rules to complete its legislative business at the cost of debate and parliamentary scrutiny. They need to be changed to ring fence the legislative process so that passing of bills without parliamentary scrutiny becomes impossible. The rules are also designed to focus on government business and do not give opposition parties the opportunity to set the agenda for discussion in Parliament. The rules require changes to prevent Parliament from becoming a forum for debating issues agreeable to, and on terms of, the government.
At the beginning of this century, a commission was appointed to review the working of our Constitution. Now is the time to examine our parliamentary system. If we fail to do so, the world’s largest democracy will be left with a hollow institution.