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The challenge in the House

Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha have to find ways to make themselves more engaged and engaging.

Published:February 28, 2014 1:06 am
politicians have recommended a relook at the blanket denial to an MP to vote according to her conscience, but as an institution Parliament has yet to be seized of the debate. Politicians have recommended a relook at the blanket denial to an MP to vote according to her conscience, but as an institution Parliament has yet to be seized of the debate.

You don’t have to catch up on the statistics to know how dismal this, the 15th, Lok Sabha was. Certainly not when it left us with the question, however much different political parties choose to stress plausible deniability, how corrosive or beneficial is the effect of live telecast on the conduct of MPs? It will be a matter of more than just academic interest to determine how there was a sudden “glitch” in the routine broadcast from the Lok Sabha, not least because it facilitates a line of inquiry on whether we are asking the wrong question when we take stock of the deadlock gripping Parliament. That is, how sound is the routine excuse that live telecast of Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha sessions brings out the most partisan instincts of MPs? Or, how much of the crisis gripping Parliament — and even more severely, state assemblies — can be explained away by their presumed temptation to play to the gallery?

Partisan deadlocks are rampant across the democratic world. In the life of the 15th Lok Sabha (2009-14), they have appeared in diverse ways. And the exercise of comparatively considering how different countries have reformed (or not) to get past deadlocks may yield the realisation that India cannot afford to keep postponing a necessary reform of its legislative processes. Especially not when the UPA government was expected to push through its last bunch of marquee legislations by the ordinance route, just days before the announcement of the election schedule.

Cast your gaze around the globe. In the United States, hit by a debilitating deadlock, with the Republicans using the filibuster reflexively to contest, delay and even deny routine executive appointments, the Democrats voted last year to simply disallow their opponents — and potentially themselves, should they lose the White House — the option. It is a telling measure of the breakdown of once common legislative courtesies that though it requires a supermajority (60 in the 100-member Senate) to avert a filibuster, the Democrats could, with a 52-48 vote, rule to protect judicial and executive nominations (other than to the Supreme Court) from filibuster.

In the subcontinent, Pakistan and Bangladesh hit different tracks on reassuring opposition parties on the credibility of election mechanisms. In Pakistan, an elected government finally completed its full term and handed over power directly to another in May 2013, in part by firewalling the process by forging bipartisan agreement on the extraordinary measure of a caretaker government during the election period.

In Bangladesh, on the other hand, the ruling Awami League used its majority to abandon the mandated caretaker mechanism, predictably provoking a boycott by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party of the general election this January — and undermining its own mandate in its second consecutive term. Something will have to give, and it is bound to be a valuable case study on how critical it is to secure the opposition’s confidence to rule effectively.
Britain has perhaps undertaken the most extensive appraisal of parliamentary reforms, heeding in part the now-ruling Liberal Democrats’ manifesto and the general public revulsion after the MPs’ expenses scandal of 2009. The referendum on tempering first-past-the-post majorities with the alternative vote (which would allow a voter to rank her preference, so that a candidate would be declared elected only upon getting at least 50 per cent of the vote) was ultimately defeated. But with hectic campaigning by political parties for and against the reform, there was a renewed public appreciation of the inherent merits of FPTP.

Other reforms adopted in Britain are more interesting, for how they have reduced the power of party bosses to determine appointments to parliamentary committees (with voting by secret ballot) and the business of the House. For instance, ignoring party whips, enough Labour and Tory MPs voted to give backbench members of the House of Commons greater say in forcing debates “of  their choice”.

What chance of Indian MPs doing so? Nil. The anti-defection act has removed all power from an Indian legislator to vote according to her understanding of the merits of a particular law if there is a party whip. In various forums, politicians have recommended a relook at the blanket denial to an MP to vote according to her conscience, but as an institution Parliament has yet to be seized of the debate. For all that we miss the parliamentary debates of the early years of the republic, there hasn’t been a commensurate look at the inhibiting role of the anti-defection law.

When an MP’s vote is already pre-determined by the party whip, how can she push the envelope in shaping the debate within her party and, equally importantly, across party lines on changes she’d recommend? When she is not allowed to stray from the party diktat, what nuance can she bring to a debate? Then, what possibility of purposeful cooperation across the aisles? Any such cooperation will, of necessity, be between party managers operating behind the scenes and not on account of MPs cutting across party lines to temper their party’s positions. The debate on the floor of the House, when it is allowed to proceed without disruption, will just be a contest for higher eloquence.

If a global overview indicates that a capacity for cross-party cooperation and intra-party contestation of views strengthens legislatures — and allows a stronger line of accountability between voters and the MP’s conduct — the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha have to find ways to make themselves more engaging and engaged. The campaign for a general election should be the occasion to force the debate: by examining the effects of the anti-defection law, by considering the merits of introducing prime minister’s questions  (by setting aside a designated time each  week for MPs to seek clarifications from  the PM), by lengthening the duration of Parliament sessions, etc. The breakdown hinted by the record of the 15th Lok Sabha demands it. Parliament cannot remain an arena only for contesting and asserting majorities.

The writer is a contributing editor  for ‘The Indian Express

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