December 24, 2008 12:46:03 am
The executive rules. And Parliament seems to be unable to do anything about it. Whatever happened to the delicate balance of power that is supposed to exist between the executive and the legislature? In India, Parliament can be convened when the executive wishes to do so, and our MPs can do almost nothing about it. At the fag end of December amid the winter chill in Delhi, we are still witnessing the monsoon session of Parliament, which is usually held between the end of July and the end of August each year. In the ’50s, we started off with about 130 days a year of sittings on average. We have hit a record low this year — with just 46 days of sittings, which is lower than even election years in the entire history of the Indian Parliament. This is despite a decision in a whips conference in 2005, when it was decided that the Parliament should meet for at least 100 days in a calendar year.
The Parliament is weaker today as an institution in many more ways, and our MPs are a disenfranchised lot. They have no individualised research staff to back them up, they have no individual office spaces in Delhi to do their work or hold formal meetings. They have no way of getting independent estimates on whether the expenditure mentioned in a bill for implementation of its provisions is accurate. And the anti-defection law has crippled the ability of our MPs to represent their constituents’ interests in the Parliament. No MP can vote against a party whip irrespective of his conviction about the provisions of a certain bill, lest he lose his seat in the Parliament. The anti-defection law reduces the MP to a head count that will determine whether a motion in Parliament is carried or not.
The executive can push through almost any piece of legislation, sometimes by circumventing the normal institutional procedures laid down by Parliament, except perhaps when coalition partners are opposed to it. There are a number of instances over the past couple of years in which bills have been passed without following the full procedure for scrutiny and deliberation as laid down by Parliament. But here is the most recent and glaring example: The South Asian University Bill was introduced in Rajya Sabha on Friday, and on Monday it was passed in the Upper House with absolutely no debate. Is there some unknown national crisis for this bill to be passed in such great hurry with no scrutiny or deliberation whatsoever?
Our MPs know fully well that any bill they initiate will not be passed in Parliament. After 1970, there has not been a single private member bill, introduced by an MP who is not a minister which was actually passed. There is a notion that if the Parliament passes a bill that has been introduced by a private member, then it is somehow a comment on the government. So, when an MP brings in legislation which is seen as necessary, the government takes up the issue and brings it in as a government bill. This takes away even the small incentive for an MP to propose new legislation, because there is no obvious recognition of his contribution to the process. This is one more way the Parliament has ceded space to the executive.
Contrast this with the British system, which is often invoked when we talk of parliamentary procedure. The parliament in the United Kingdom meets for an average of over 200 days a year. The calendar of sittings is not decided on the whim or political expediency of the ruling party, but is decided once a year for the whole year. Voting across party lines on bills does not lead to disqualification of the MP from the parliament. The British parliament keeps a record of how MPs voted on issues, rather than the medieval system of voice votes that we follow in India.
Referring to our Parliament at a recent conference, a senior MP said that we are “witnessing the extended last rites of an institution.” For the institution to regain its place as envisioned in our Constitution there is a need for real leadership to take charge. This is a time for major revamping to undo the damage to the institution that has weakened it over the years. Resorting to minor tinkering with the system, if at all, will only lead to further weakening of an institution that is expected to keep up the faith and hopes of a billion people across the nation.
The writer is director of PRS Legislative Research, New Delhi
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