17/07/2017 Editorial Simplified 0 comment

Vibrant Democracy, Dormant Parliament | Livemint

As an institution, Parliament is central to the very idea of democracy and was assigned a pivotal role in our Constitution by the founding fathers of the republic. Yet, so many decades later, it has neither evolved nor matured as it could, might or should have. If anything, slowly but surely, it has diminished in stature and significance

Role of Parliament

There are three designated roles for Parliament in a democracy

  1. It is responsible for legislation—laws of the land—by which people govern themselves.
  2. It must ensure accountability of governments—on policies or actions—to the people.
  3. t should engage in discourse and debate on issues that concern the nation and the citizens.

Qualitative decline in Parliament’s performance in recent times

  • The process of legislation is slow and lagged.
  • There are times when it extends from one Parliament to the next.
  • Laws are often passed in a rush through loud voices or large numbers.
  • There is little scrutiny of draft legislation.
  • There is almost no follow-up on rules when laws are put in place.

Reasons for decline

There are two reasons for this decline –

  1. Parliament does not meet or work long enough – The duration for which Parliament meets in India, compared with other democracies, is short. In the UK, both the House of Commons and the House of Lords meet for more than 150 days per year. In the US, both the House of Representatives and the Senate meet for 133 days per year. In Japan, as a norm, the Diet meets for 150 days per year and this is often extended.
  2. Institutional constraints 
  • The allocation of time for MPs to speak is proportional to the strength of their political party in the house and its leadership decides who gets to speak and for how long. The only other opportunities for MPs are during question hour or zero hour. Answers to unstarred questions are simply laid on the table of the house. Starred questions are too many. Only a few come up for discussion. And these are just not taken up if the concerned MP is not present at the time. In zero hour, the speaker or the chairman have the discretion to invite an MP to speak, but time is too little and speeches are often drowned out in pandemonium.
  • It is not only time. MPs do not quite have the freedom to speak in our Parliament as in other democracies. For one, they are afraid of what the party leadership might think, which could affect their future. For another, party whips, of three types, are a problem. A one-line whip is non-binding, informing members of the vote. A two-line whip requires attendance in the house for the vote. A three-line whip is a clear-cut directive to be present in the house during the vote and cast their vote in accordance with the party line. Any violation of this whip could lead to an MP’s expulsion from the house.
  • In India, the anti-defection law stipulates that a three-line whip can be violated only if more than one-third of a party’s MPs do so. This is the unintended consequence of a law that might have mitigated one problem but created another, which is emasculating our Parliament as an institution. 
  • The standing committees and select committees can be diligent and are often not partisan. Alas, these committees are often used in form than substance. Moreover, their recommendations are not binding. 

Way forward

The answers lie, inter alia –

  • in electoral reform through public funding of elections,
  • political reform that mandates disclosure on the sources of financing for political parties, and
  • set rules for elections within political parties to foster intra-party democracy that has been stifled not only by dynasties but also by oligarchies.

Conclusion

Almost 70 years after we began life as a republic, there is a clear and present danger that we could be the world’s most vibrant democracy with the world’s least effective, and perhaps most dormant, Parliament. It is time for MPs in India to reclaim their rights in Parliament as representatives of the people.

Raj Malhotra IAS Study Group.