A veteran Member of Parliament, not from the treasury benches, asked a pertinent and provocative question recently: Does India even need a Parliament?
The central and state legislatures over the decades have diminished themselves both by their conduct and the hara kiri that was committed in terms of legislating the onerous provisions of the 10th Schedule of the Indian Constitution colloquially known as the Anti-Defection Law.
There was a time, even till the early 1980s, when Parliament, notwithstanding the odd aberration, distinguished itself as a chamber for both profound debate and high eloquence on matters of national concern and beneficial legislation. An MP knew his vote mattered and therefore there was an incentive to participate in making better laws for the country or even holding his own government to account if the need arose. The best example of that was Feroze Gandhi, who was the Nehru government’s greatest bete noire in the 1950s.
All that started changing with the passage of the Anti-Defection Law in 1985. The statement of objects and reasons of the said law eloquently avowed that “The evil of political defections has been a matter of political concern. If it is not combated it is likely to undermine the very foundations of our democracy and the principles that sustain it.”
However, in the past 35 years of its existence, it has only ended up raising the bar of defection from retail to wholesale. Conceived as a legal fiat to enforce political morality, it has ended up completely sucking out the essence of democracy from our legislative institutions. It has turned them into halls of whip-driven tyranny where MPs and MLAs are precluded from exercising their wisdom in terms of their conscience, common sense and constituency interests.
Today the political party that gives any person a ticket to contest on its symbol exerts complete control over their mind and soul. The ordinary Indian who stood in the queue on a blistering midsummer morning to exercise her franchise and elect each and every Member of Parliament becomes just an apparition.
Surely the founding fathers of the Indian Constitution, when they opted for universal adult suffrage, did not countenance a template whereby electoral preferences would be exercised by an individual elector but legislative power would reside in a political party? Beheld from this standpoint, the Tenth Schedule is an encroachment on the original canons of the Constitution if not the basic structure doctrine itself.
That is why at 2 pm in the afternoon when the House meets for government legislative business, on the days it is functioning, there is hardly any attendance, for every MP knows that legislation drafted by some joint secretary in the Government of India would be mechanically passed or opposed, depending on the whip issued. Hardly any bills get referred to the parliamentary standing committees. Even the parliamentary standing committees are being trampled underfoot by their own stakeholders. There is thus no motivation for MPs to make better laws for the country.
However, this is not the only problem. The conduct of Members of Parliament within the House has created a crisis of credibility for the institution. What was conceived as a battleground of ideas has been reduced to a contest of cussedness on part of the government and competing lung power on part of the Opposition now going back over three decades.
Recalcitrant legislators who have no interest in burning the midnight oil reading bills have an incentive in disrupting the House. Half an hour of screaming is a convenient if not easy way out. Once the House is adjourned, they go around handing out petitions to ministers till the next adjournment has to be obtained. They probably round up their day being dined by some businessperson looking for access to the central or state governments. This has been the norm and not the exception for the past over 30 years now both at the Centre and in the states. The state legislatures are worse. They barely meet for less than a month in a year.
As a consequence, what an MP or MLA does in the legislature has no bearing on their prospects of re-election. Constituents also do not want to look at the merits of any laws for they know they have no role in their formulation. They perceive an MP or an MLA as a middleman between themselves and the executive to access public goods for the constituency. Others are just interested in recommendations for transfers and postings and yet others in utilising the influence of their MPs to swing contracts for local developmental works towards their favoured backers. Parliamentary performance is a non-sequitur.
The question that should be seriously asked is: Does India need such a Parliament, or even legislative assemblies? Thousands of crores are spent on election cycles every year — towards what end? India can very well function with a directly elected executive and a judiciary to exercise oversight. The legislature has completely failed to hold the government accountable, the latest example being that Parliament has been disrupted for the past three weeks now. The government is obdurate that it will not discuss the Pegasus issue and the combined Opposition is unrelenting. There is no common ground. Yet vital legislation that has a bearing on India’s future is being cavalierly passed without any deliberation.
As a starting point to revitalise the legislative institutions, we need to relax the draconian provisions of the 10th Schedule. I moved a Private Member’s Bill in 2010 and again in 2019 in the Lok Sabha, envisaging that only contravention of the party whip on confidence motions, no-confidence motions, adjournment motions, money bills or financial matters should result in an MP or MLA’s disqualification. The rest of the legislative space must be freed up. Endemic disruptions need to be proscribed through a transparent rules-based procedure. Non-functional legislatures are of no use to the country.
This column first appeared in the print edition on August 7, 2021 under the title ‘The Parliament we deserve’. The writer is a lawyer, MP, and former I&B Minister.