Disruption is replacing discussion as the foundation of our legislative functioning. The passionate debate that should inform the country is taking place everywhere other than in Parliament. Last week, this newspaper reported that the government is considering curtailing the monsoon session of Parliament. If that happens, then all four sessions since last year would have been cut short. The first two because of Covid, this year’s budget session because of campaigning in state elections, and the ongoing session on account of disruptions.
Political parties understand what causes disorder and the changes required to prevent it. In 2001, a day-long conference was held in the Central Hall of Parliament to discuss discipline and decorum in legislatures. A galaxy of political leaders including the then Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha, Sonia Gandhi, and leader of the All-India Trinamool Congress, Mamata Banerjee, weighed in on the subject. Their inputs and those of parliamentarians like Arun Jaitley, Pranab Mukherjee, and former prime minister Chandra Shekhar helped identify four reasons behind the disorderly conduct by MPs.
The first was dissatisfaction in MPs because of inadequate time for airing their grievances. The second was an unresponsive attitude of the government and the retaliatory posture of the treasury benches. The third was political parties not adhering to parliamentary norms and disciplining their members. Finally, the absence of prompt action against disrupting MPs under the legislature’s rules. Two of the conference suggestions to curb disorder in Parliament were enforcement of a code of conduct for MPs and MLAs and an increase in the sitting days of legislatures.
These ideas are not new. For example, the Lok Sabha has had a simple code of conduct for its MPs since 1952. Earlier, the rules required MPs not to interrupt the speech of others, maintain silence and not obstruct proceedings by hissing or by making commentaries during debates. Newer forms of protest led to the updating of these rules in 1989. Accordingly, members should not shout slogans, display placards, tear away documents in protest, play cassettes or tape recorders in the House. A new rule empowers the Lok Sabha Speaker to suspend MPs obstructing the Houses’ business automatically. The conference also resolved that Parliament should meet for 110 days every year and larger state legislative assemblies for 90 days.
But these suggestions have not been enforced so far. The government decides when Parliament should meet, for how long and plays a significant role in determining what issues the House should discuss. Successive governments have shied away from increasing the working days of Parliament. When a contentious issue crops up, the government dithers on debating it, leading to Opposition MPs violating the conduct rules and disrupting the proceedings of Parliament. Since they have the support of their parties in breaking the rules, the threat of suspension from the House does not deter them.
Breaking this pattern of parliamentary disruptions requires a few changes in the functioning of Parliament. As recommended by the 2001 conference, there should be an increase in the working days of Parliament. Our legislature should meet throughout the year, like parliaments of most developed democracies. But these increased days will not help prevent disruptions if opposition parties don’t have the opportunity to debate and highlight important issues. Currently, government business takes priority, and private members discuss their topics post lunch on a Friday.
In the United Kingdom, where Parliament meets over 100 days a year, opposition parties get 20 days on which they decide the agenda for discussion in Parliament. The main opposition party gets 17 days and the remaining three days are given to the second-largest opposition party. Usually, decisions of the House passed on opposition days are not binding on the government and are an opportunity for the opposing parties to focus national attention on issues that it deems crucial. Canada also has a similar concept of opposition days.
More strengthening of our Parliament is the solution to prevent disruption of its proceedings. There should be a deepening of its role as the forum for deliberation on critical national issues. It is the only mechanism to ensure that disrupting its proceedings or allowing them to be disrupted ceases to be a viable option.
This column first appeared in the print edition on August 3, 2021 under the title ‘Setting new House rules’. The writer is head of outreach, PRS Legislative Research.