A lament, now disturbingly commonplace, followed the winter session of Parliament. Amid the uproar over demonetisation and demands that Prime Minister Narendra Modi answer the Opposition in the House, the actual business of Parliament — legislation, questions and answers, reasoned debate — suffered. The “least productive” session of both the Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha in 15 years understandably provoked public scrutiny and criticism. Unfortunately, however, public discourse does not accord the same attention and space to the crisis of the state legislatures.
Just over the last week, three incidents occurred in three different state assemblies that should be cause for concern. On Wednesday, a BJP MLA sat on the Speaker’s chair in the Himachal Pradesh assembly and proceeded to adjourn the House. The treasury benches stared as the Opposition filed out. On Monday, in Tripura, Trinamool Congress MLA Sudip Roy Barman absconded with the Speaker’s mace after the latter did not allow a heated discussion on charges of molestation against a state minister to continue. In Punjab, last Friday, the SAD-BJP government called a day-long special session of the legislature to hurriedly pass nine populist bills with an eye on the upcoming assembly elections — including a Bill to regularise 30,000 contract, adhoc and daily wage employees from various government departments, which will cost the next government about Rs 2,438 crore. That a step of such consequence could take place without extensive debate, or that the office of the Speaker can be so easily disrespected, is deeply disturbing.
Data backs up the anecdotal evidence from last week. According to data compiled by PRS legislative research, the Tripura state assembly met for an average of just 12.4 days per year from 2011-2015 and Himachal Pradesh for just 31. The best performing state, Kerala, also met for an average of a mere 46.7 days a year. The legislatures of federal units face the same difficulties as their Parliament counterparts: Performance in the House has little, if any, bearing on the electoral prospects of a candidate. Acrimonious, polarised debates make smooth functioning and order more difficult and the publicity of a disruption may be more useful than the fruit of a reasoned give-and-take. Unlike Parliament, however, state assemblies face little public scrutiny, and the moral pressure to act in accordance with their purpose and mandate.