Dialogue July-September, 2012, Volume 14 No.1
Parliament – Time for Reform
A. Surya Prakash
Like many of the sessions in the past, the Monsoon Session of Parliament in 2012 was also substantially washed out by disruptions and acrimony – which are part of the standard leitmotif of democratic engagement in India over the past two decades. Such is the extent of the breakdown of the democratic system in recent years, that public expectation from representative bodies has also declined substantially.
However, despite many negative features that have undermined its prestige and authority, the people of India continue to repose faith in the country’s parliament because of their innate faith in democracy but the country’s apex legislative body would be committing a fatal error if it were to take the people for granted and do nothing about its declining standards. Some course correction and reform is needed, if parliament is to redeem itself in the Public eye.
While there are many reasons to feel disappointed with the working of the two Houses of Parliament, some recent developments including the outbreak of scandals has put a question mark on the quality of MPs and the ability of parliament to police its members. Side by side, there is a visible reluctance on the part of parliament to improve the institution’s functional efficiency and to take a fresh look at its practices and procedures in order to meet the aspirations of the people. Equally disappointing is the fact that the decline has been apparent for a long time but there has not been a single initiative by the country’s political parties to stem the rot. If anything, every political party has done its bit to undermine the importance of parliament.
India has witnessed much political, social and economic change since the first general elections in 1952. All these developments have had both a positive and a negative impact on the working of parliament. For example from 1952 to 1967, we had general elections once every five years and at these elections we elected a new Lok Sabha and new state assemblies. The elections to parliament and state assemblies were held simultaneously on the same day. All this changed when Indira Gandhi as Prime Minister decided to delink the two when she opted for early elections to the Lok Sabha in 1971. Once this cycle was broken, no one has been able to put it back and now we are saddled with elections in some part of the country or the other almost every year, thus causing political instability both at the Centre and in the states. This has also led to a crisis of governance in many states and at times at the federal level also because of what Atul Kohli, the author of ‘Democracy and Discontent’ describes as dissipation of mandate. In his view, political leaders in India generally find that their mandates evaporate within 18 to 24 months after an election. From that point onwards, governance becomes difficult because the voters are just waiting for elections to dislodge the incumbent. Another thing that has happened with the delinking of these elections is that MPs have lost their anonymity. Earlier they were riding piggy-back on the state assembly candidates of their respective parties. This is no longer the case. People now know whom they are sending to parliament and therefore demand a lot from their MPs. With the building up of constituency pressures, an MP’s work in parliament has begun to suffer.
Another matter of concern is the mushroom growth of political parties based on region, religion and caste. While there were just 12 political parties in the Second Lok Sabha, there are 42 political parties today and we have not seen the end of this phenomenon. This splintering of political parties has begun to affect political stability and is certain to have a negative impact on governance.
There is now damning evidence of the growing irrelevance of parliament. For example, until the late 1970s parliament devoted 23 per cent of its time to discussing the union budget and this gave MPs enough time to focus on budgetary allocations and governmental performance in every sector. These days parliament devotes just 10 per cent of its time to scrutinize the budget. MPs argue that some of the load has since shifted to the standing committees but even if this be so, there is no doubt that there is a sharp decline in the time spent by the two Houses to budget-related debates.
Yet another troubling statistic is the decline in the number of sittings of parliament per year. In the 1950s, parliament had an average of 127 sittings, in the 1960s it rose to 138 sittings. This had declined drastically to just 78 sittings in the year 2003. In 2011, the two Houses met for just 73 days. The irony is that while the work of government is expanding, the work of parliament, which has oversight responsibilities, is declining. Even if one were to take into account the 15 working days set apart for scrutiny of the demands for grants of various ministries in the standing committees, parliament’s sittings per year is down by over 30 per cent. In fact since 1988, Parliament has never met for 100 days or more. The last time it came close to this mark was in 1992, when the Lok Sabha met for 98 days. Several MPs have exercised their concern over the decline in sittings/per year. On May 13, 2012, when both the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha met for a special sitting to mark the 60th anniversary of the first sitting of the two Houses on May 13, 1952, MPs sought immediate remedial measures. Mr. Sitaram Yechury told the Rajya Sabha that day that Parliament had not met for 100 days in a year for over two decades. The 14th Lok Sabha, Yechury observed, was marked by the least number of sittings in the history of Parliament with 332 sittings averaging just 66 a year. He said unless Parliament had more sittings, it cannot perform its oversight duties effectively. He suggested that 100 sittings per year should be made mandatory for the two Houses of Parliament.
While sittings per year and time allocated for budgetary matters is down, there is a sharp rise in the time lost in disruptions and in the cost of parliament. The 11th Lok Sabha lost 5 per cent of its time to disruptions. This rose to over 10 per cent in the 12th Lok Sabha and 22.40 per cent in the 13th Lok Sabha. In the 14th Lok Sabha, parliament met for just 66 days per year on an average and even these sittings were not effectively utilized to keep a watch on the executive because as much as 24 per cent of Parliament’s time was lost in disruptions.
Similarly, there has been a phenomenal rise in cost of parliament. It has risen from Rs 36,000 a day in the 1950s to over 1.23 Crore per day in 2004. In 2012, it is close to Rs 2 crore per day. If the people do not get value for money, the efficacy of the parliamentary system is certain to be called into question. Cutting across party lines India’s political leadership must understand the gravity of the situation and take measures to restore public confidence in parliamentary democracy.
A beginning can be made with a review of the practice and procedure of parliament. This has never been more pressing. Though the two Houses have been in existence for 54 years, we have not had an honest audit of the working of parliament and this has contributed in no small measure to the growing hiatus between this elected body and the people. A look at the quality of debates and the efficacy of parliamentary instruments will give us an idea of how far removed we are from that ideal parliament that we all thought we would have after independence. Right till the 1980s, the Question Hour was an extremely productive hour in the two houses. MPs came armed with razor sharp questions and ministers called upon to respond to questions faced this hour with much trepidation. The MPs not only drafted their own questions but also had a string of supplementaries in hand to corner ministers and to cause much embarrassment to inefficient or dishonest members of the government.
The Speakers, though originally from the ruling parties, had a non-partisan approach and joined the opposition in grilling ministers or pulling them up when they failed to come up with credible replies to the queries from MPs. Those were also the days when members of the ruling party pilloried ministers with as much gusto as members of the opposition, so much so that ministers at times would plead with their party MPs to stay away from the House, allow the "inconvenient" question to lapse, and thus save the government from embarrassment. But all this has changed over the last two decades. Now many MPs have question-making factories as it were. They hire secretaries and office staff who prepare questions on their behalf. The focus is now on volumes so that the MP can tell his constituents that he has asked a large number of questions in parliament. Since this activity is now outsourced, questions no longer have the vigour of the 1950s. The bigger problem is that since the MPs have not framed the questions, they are as much surprised to see their questions on the agenda as the ministers. As a result, because of their un-preparedness MPs now stay away from the house and ministers get away lightly. The same is true of other parliamentary devices like call attention motions, short-duration questions etc. Since the MPs do not come prepared to parliament, their ability to keep a close watch on the working of government suffers.
The committee system is another area that is crying out for reform. The introduction of the committee system was a great idea because it was meant to encourage specialization among MPs but we have the capacity to wreck the best of ideas. As a result, the standing committees have come into being with several congenital problems. First of all the committees are too large (45 members) and carry a lot of dead weight by way of disinterested members. Average attendance levels are around or below 50 per cent and even among those who turn up for meetings, only 10 per cent of the members are serious about committee work. If the committees are to work efficiently, presiding officers and leaders of political parties must become more choosy while nominating members to committees. The committees need to become more compact and once an MP is attached to a committee, he should remain in that committee for the entire term of five or six years as the case may be. By recasting standing committees every year, the basic idea of promoting specialization is negated. The Speaker must prohibit committee-hopping and end the current merry-go-round of committees which makes a mockery of the committee system. Further, standing committees must have wider powers and must get in specialist advisors from outside government and government-owned companies. These advisors should be entitled to attend meetings and to advice the committees on areas of inquiry. Attendance at committee meetings must be monitored and MPs who play truant must face the prospect of losing membership of their committees. Finally, committee deliberations must be thrown open to the media.
Another area that needs attention is the issue of ethics. Our MPs have been obsessed with their privileges for too long. We now need to get them to turn their attention to ethics and duties. This issue has been pending since 1951, ever since the provisional parliament decided to debar a member – H.G. Mudgal – who had misused his office. The parliamentary committee that probed this case suggested a code of conduct for MPs but even after 50 years we are yet to see an enforceable code of conduct. This issue was as good as lost until Speaker Shivraj Patil revived the idea when he circulated a draft Code of Conduct for MPs at a meeting of presiding officers in 1993. As expected, the idea took some time to germinate. Thereafter, in 1996 the Privileges Committee of the Lok Sabha endorsed the code and recommended its adoption. It also suggested that the Committee of Privileges be renamed the Committee of Privileges and Ethics. Thereafter, the Lok Sabha established an Ethics Committee. This committee included the Code of Conduct in its report and suggested measures to make MPs accountable to the people. It said citizens should be empowered to write to the Speaker about unethical conduct of members and such complaints should be referred to the Ethics Committee. Secondly, as in the U.K and the U.S, a Register of Members’ Interests must be opened and all MPs must be directed to disclose their assets, liabilities and interests. The committee also said that the Code of Conduct must be incorporated in the Lok Sabha’s Rules of Procedure. The rules must also be amended to empower the Ethics Committee to receive complaints against MPs and examine the same. We must see all this happen now if we are to have a parliament that commands the respect of all citizens.
As regards declaration of assets and liabilities, this got an impetus after the Representation of the People (Third Amendment) Act came into force on August 24, 2002. Despite public clamour for such a declaration by every MP, Parliament was dragging its feet on the issue. Some judicial decisions, however, forced the hand of the government and the election law was amended to say that such declarations must be made by all MPs. This law has made it mandatory for all MPs to submit a declaration of assets and liabilities within 90 days of entering parliament. The declaration has to be submitted to the presiding officer. This applies to all those elected to parliament after the law came into force. However not all members have complied with the requirement of this law. Until recently, some members of the Rajya Sabha had declared their assets and liabilities while some others were yet to comply with the law. The declarations furnished by members will be maintained in the Rajya Sabha’s Register of Declaration of Assets and Liabilities.
While a lot still needs to be done, there are a couple of positive developments over the years. The first and most important development is that over the last 50 years, we see a lot more balance in the social composition of the Lok Sabha. Unlike the first few Lok Sabhas, the Lok Sabha of today is a far more representative body. We now see the occupational democratization of the House and the political empowerment of large sections of the Indian population which were not empowered some decades ago.
Equally welcome is the positive impact that sustained public pressure has had on parliament in regard to jumbo Cabinets. After years of dithering, parliament passed the Constitution (91) Amendment Act that prohibits governments at the Centre and in the states from having ministers in excess of 15 per cent of the total strength of the lower House of Parliament or of the state legislature. The demand to limit the size of the council of ministers was first made after the sub-committee of the first administrative reforms commission headed by K. Hanumanthaiya suggested in the 1960s that there be a cap on the size of the ministries. This has finally become a reality. The 91 Amendment has also put a welcome bar on the grant of ministerships to defectors and has also completely prohibited splits in political parties. These are positive developments.
Only public vigilance and sustained pressure on Parliament can bring about the necessary changes and improve the efficacy and prestige of parliament.