Towards the end of the Monsoon Session of Parliament, it was heartening to see deliberations in both Houses on important issues as well as key bills. However, it wouldn’t be wrong to question the “disrupt-and-devour-attention” drama during much of the session. The inability of Parliament to transact any business and the lack of serious deliberation must be a matter of grave concern for all. In a deliberative democracy, Parliament works as a special purpose vehicle for the legislative scrutiny of bills, grievance redressal and debate on policies and related governance issues. Its failure to transact business is a sad commentary on three aspects — Members of Parliament, the presiding officers as well as the rules and regulations that define the functioning of both Houses.
Let’s start with the first. For any parliamentarian, it is extremely disappointing to be unable to speak in the House for which he or she has — in most cases —given notice and come prepared. And when this happens too often, their enthusiasm evaporates. This reflects in the quality of interventions as a majority of them, as observed often, bring precious little to the table. In such a situation, members are often tempted to make a popular intervention than a substantive one. Such interventions often appear as formulaic speeches heard in university-level elocution competitions. An adequate amount of fire, a bit of humour, some poetry, some emotional appeal and one or two philosophical quotations – it’s all mostly ornamental. This certainly impacts the quality of debates negatively.
When it comes to bills, on several occasions, Opposition members argue vehemently that for better scrutiny the bill is sent to the relevant standing committee. However, a close look at the percentage of members attending the meetings of these committees —their duration, quality of deliberations and also the outcomes — makes one doubt the sincerity behind their demands. Sadly, all this amounts to noise creation rather than any sincere desire to scrutinise the bills.
For the presiding officers too, preventing disruptions is a serious challenge. One way of dealing with the issue is to reform and strengthen the system in such a way that the designs of those who are out to disrupt fail. Perhaps presiding officers can emulate the courts of law. Like in courts, can’t the presiding officers conduct what is called in-camera proceedings in their chambers to insulate at least the Zero Hour and Question Hour from getting washed out? This may help save at least these two most precious instruments. While the House remains force-adjourned, presiding officers can order in-camera hearing of questions of MPs and replies of ministers. Zero Hour submissions could also be dealt with similarly. Some tweaking of existing rules and regulations may facilitate this. The current practice of sacrificing Zero Hour and Question Hour at the altar of rule breakers smacks of perversion of the worst kind. In-camera conduct of Zero and Question Hours will be a smart way to prevent punishing those who observe discipline.
In any polity, systems work effectively when wrongdoers are punished and rule-abiding people are rewarded. What happens currently is exactly the opposite, especially in the context of coverage of parliamentary proceedings in mainstream media. Firstly—perhaps as a consequence of the depleting interest of readers— the space allocated for parliamentary proceedings in both, print and electronic media is shrinking fast. Rarely does one finds adequate coverage of Question Hour or Zero Hour compared to the past. Debates on bills are also subject to brief and sketchy reporting. What grabs headlines is the politics of pandemonium. Although disruptions have become common, they continue to get reported without fail and disruptors often bask in the media limelight. As against this, those who make a reasonably good speech — well argued and supported by statistics, examples or case studies — rarely get adequate attention. This too hampers the interest of parliamentarians.
Last but not least, any discussion on the politics of pandemonium often ends up in whataboutery. However, it is high time we rise above the temptations of this tendency and think seriously about systemic reforms. As the Parliament of independent India enters the eighth decade of its history and prepares to enter a new, more well-equipped and modern Parliament House, it is the right time to think about how we can add value to our deliberative democracy.
The writer is MP, Rajya Sabha and former national vice-president of the BJP