The penultimate session of the 16th Lok Sabha started on a sombre note. Members stood in respectful silence in memory of former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, former Speaker Somnath Chatterjee and four other sitting MPs who passed away late last year. It was one of those fleeting moments in which the House witnessed respect for the rules. The majority of the session was fraught with disruptions. The regular disruption of parliamentary proceedings and inadequate debates on bills are the two things that have stood out in this winter session and during the term of this Lok Sabha. Forty-three bills were on the Parliament’s legislative agenda for discussion and passing over 20 days of the session. But unplanned leaves (three days) and clockwork disruptions left the Parliament with little time to deliberate.
Disruption of parliamentary proceedings is not a new phenomenon. MPs have disrupted House proceedings from the early days of Parliament. But disruption which was an exception earlier, seems to have become the new normal. In the last decade, MPs have raised slogans, snatched papers from ministers and used pepper spray in the House. During this session, both houses witnessed coordinated sloganeering and display of placards. In the Lok Sabha, MPs threw paper planes and a protesting MP, dressed in costume as a former chief minister, and played music to disrupt the house. During the session, Lok Sabha lost about 60 per cent and Rajya Sabha about 80 per cent of its scheduled time.
However, what was different during this session was the firmness of the presiding officers. Disrupting MPs were warned by the Chair and then suspended from the proceedings of Parliament. The presiding officers of both Houses also initiated steps to change the rules of procedure of the Parliament to better deal with disruptions.
Former president K R Narayanan, who also chaired Rajya Sabha from 1992-97, explained the difficulty involved in dealing with disruptions. He said, “In most cases, disorders in the House arise out of a sense of frustration felt by members due to lack of opportunities to make his point, or clear his chest of grievances of the people that move him or out of the heat of the moment. They are perhaps easier to deal with. What is more difficult to tackle is planned parliamentary offences and deliberate disturbances for publicity or for political motives. ”
Disruptions also derailed the legislative agenda. Of the 10 Bills passed by Lok Sabha till January 7, nine were discussed for less than an hour-and-a-half. These included bills like Consumer Protection, Surrogacy Regulation and Transgender Rights Bill. The Triple Talaq Bill was discussed for approximately five hours. Many bills were debated while disruptions continued to take place inside the House, and a few were passed in the din. In the Rajya Sabha, disruptions leading to adjournment resulted in only one bill being passed by it till January 8. The problem of inadequate legislative deliberation was compounded in the session by non-reference of bills to parliamentary committees for detailed scrutiny. Of the 11 bills introduced in the session till the January 7, only one bill so far has been referred to a parliamentary committee. In the 16th Lok Sabha, fewer Bills (26 per cent) are being referred to Parliamentary Committees as compared to the 15th Lok Sabha (71 per cent) and the 14th Lok Sabha (60 per cent). Disruptions also did not leave any time for discussions on any national issues in the Parliament. Other than debate on legislation, the only other debate in the session was on the Rafael defence deal for approximately six hours.
Parliamentary debates are recorded for posterity. They offer an insight into the thinking of our elected representatives. Disruptions ensured that no such insights are available to future generations. An inscription on top of the gate of the inner lobby of the Lok Sabha reads: “Truth has been said to be the highest duty.” When we look at the work done by the Parliament in this session and during the 16th Lok Sabha, our MPs might have fallen short of their constitutional duty.
— This article first appeared in the January 10, 2019 print edition under the title ‘A House in Disorder’