Dialogue July-September, 2012, Volume 14 No.1
Parliamentary Democracy—More Negatives than Positives
1 At the outset it must
be noted that India is one of the very few developing countries in which
Parliamentary democracy has taken firm roots. Timely and free and fair
elections, and peaceful transfer of power, on each occasion, in keeping with the
mandate of the people, can be cited as some of the most noteworthy achievements.
Except for the aberration of the Emergency in 1975-77, and in spite of several
weaknesses in the electoral laws, no one has ever seriously entertained the
thought of jettisoning Parliamentary system. This speaks volumes of its
intrinsic strength and public acceptance.
Over six decades have elapsed since the Parliamentary system was adopted by India. This is long enough time to assess the working of these institutions.
While there is large scope for improving the functioning of Parliament2, its positive contribution to strengthening the democratic forces in the country and instilling some semblance of accountability and transparency in the governance must be recognised. This is more so in the recent years which have seen the emergence of coalition politics, both at the centre and in the states. The fact that the government is reluctant to face the Parliament is a convincing proof of its effectiveness. Every major scam has invited close attention in Parliament and discussions in Parliament, howsoever polarised they may be, have been instrumental in creating strong public opinion and awareness of the concerned issues. There are also issues on which Members of Parliament (MPs) have joined hands across the spectrum of political parties and this has put the government on the defensive. Without such a vocal and at times strident opposition, the government could not have been made accountable.
These endeavours have been actively assisted by the in depth analysis and bold stand taken by Constitutional bodies such as the judiciary, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (C&AG), the Election Commission of India and the newly established legislative bodies such as the State and Central Information Commissions. It is to the credit of the system that these bodies have been permitted to function without political interference. Any discussion on the contribution of Parliament will be incomplete without a reference to the role played by these bodies.
The role of Parliament in fostering the unity and integrity
of the country must be given due recognition. Several issues which fall in the
State List are often taken up for discussion in Parliament, thereby creating
pressure of public opinion on the government. These include law and order
situations, naxal violence, Singur agitation, farmers’ suicides, Adarsh housing
society scam in Mumbai, Godhra riots, and so on. Parliament has thus rightly
emerged as the national forum for debating the issues which are of country-wide
Stonewalling of Parliament has become a matter of serious concern. This was amply evident when the UPA government unreasonably refused the demand of opposition parties for setting up a joint parliamentary committee to enquire into the 2G spectrum scam. As a result, one whole session of Parliament was wasted. There are also disturbing recent developments of the government giving in to highly unreasonable demands in Parliament as was evident in the controversy surrounding some cartoons in the text books published by the National Council for Education Research and Training (NCERT) or to raise the amount under the Members of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme (MPLADS) from Rs 2 crore to Rs 5 crore per annum. In the same category are the hefty increases in pay and allowances sanctioned by the Members of Parliament to themselves from time to time.
We shall now turn to the functioning of Parliament which leaves a great deal to be desired. Though sixty years have elapsed since the setting up of Parliament, it has not been subjected to an independent scrutiny by stakeholders. Such a study would have brought to light several deficiencies and weaknesses in the functioning of Parliament. We shall briefly touch upon some of them in the following discussion.
The foremost of the concerns is regarding the short duration of the sessions. In the early years following independence, Parliament used to meet for over 120-130 days in a year. This period has come down steeply over the years and now Parliament meets for hardly 50-60 days in a year. As a result, business has to be rushed through the Houses, thereby leaving not just the members of the opposition parties but also the ruling party dissatisfied for having been deprived of the opportunity to raise many issues of concern. The primary reason for the curtailment of the Parliament sessions is the reluctance and diffidence of the government to face the Parliament and the onslaught of not just the opposition but also its own members on several points. A related unsavoury feature in recent years is the tendency of the government to curtail the session of Parliament to suit its own political ends. This was amply clear when the Bill pertaining to office of profit was to be discussed. Curtailment of session led to the disturbing development of the budget having to be passed without any scrutiny by the parliamentary committees. It is imperative that the discretionary powers of the government regarding the convening and continuance of the session of the Parliament are curtailed. The only way this can be done is by laying down by legislation the minimum number of days for which Parliament will have to meet and the broad timetable for the purpose. Under such a legislation, the power to advise the president of India on convening the Parliament sessions should vest in the speaker, as opposed to the government as at present. It can be laid down that the speaker should hold consultations with the leaders of all political parties before tendering his advice to the president. This single step will go a long way in strengthening parliamentary democracy in the country.
Traditionally the question hour is considered sacrosanct as it provides opportunity to MPs to cross examine the government closely and to hold it accountable. It is for this purpose that the question hour is considered inviolable. No other business, howsoever urgent it may be, is permitted to intrude in the question hour, unless the House passes a resolution to suspend the question hour in exceptional and rare situations. However, recent years have seen much dilution in the importance of the question hour and serious doubts are being expressed about the very need for the question hour. Often it is noticed that the members who had tabled the question had remained absent. Or there were hardly any supplementaries raised by members. On rare occasions, the entire list of questions has been exhausted in less than an hour which is earmarked for the purpose. This important instrument for ensuring accountability of the government to Parliament has thus been blunted. Unless efforts are made to revive the importance of the question hour, parliamentary democracy would be a serious loser.
The sessions of Parliament are presently marked by unsavoury and indisciplined behaviour of members. There is often a clamour for raising issues which MPs consider important but the government is in no mood to concede these demands due to the pressure of government business. This results in chaotic scenes day after day, marked by frequent adjournments and walkouts. In the process over 20% of the time in each session is lost without transacting any business. Solution must be found to ensure more productive use of the time of Parliament. One way of doing this would be to equitably divide the total time of each session between the government and the opposition parties. It could also be laid down that after division of time as above, if business in the House is disrupted and the House has to be adjourned etc the time lost thereby will be deducted from the share of the concerned parties responsible for it and added to the share of the other party. This would thus be an incentive for political parties to help transact business in an orderly manner and to make use of the available time most productively.
In the ultimate analysis it can only be the pressure of public opinion that can help in the orderly functioning of Parliament. Towards this end a number of steps could be taken. One, to prepare a report card of each member of his work in the House such as number of starred and unstarred questions asked by the member, short duration discussion proposed, participation in the debates on various subjects and sponsoring of private members’ legislation etc. If a member has disrupted the business of the House by his conduct or has taken recourse to walking out of the House or defying the speaker’s instructions, such matters should also be brought out in the member’s report card. An important aspect of the report card would be the extent of absenteeism of the member from the House. It is often noticed that the House is deserted after the question hour and hardly any members are present in the House when there are serious discussions and debates in the House. It has also been noticed that often members do not remain present in the House when the starred questions tabled by them are due to be taken up. At times this is ascribed to the pressure brought by persons whose interests are likely to be adversely affected by the discussion. Thus it can be a win-win situation for a member in that he can get paid for asking the question and later for remaining absent when the question is due to come up for a reply. These practices can be curtailed only by adopting the principle of ‘no work no pay’. If a member remains absent during the discussion, he should be made to forego the emoluments for the day. Successive speakers have made attempts to obtain the concurrence of the leaders of political parties to adopt the rule of ‘no work no pay’ but all these efforts have been unsuccessful so far. This is a sad commentary on the mindset of our lawgivers.
It is a matter of shame that on several occasions, the general budget has been passed by Parliament without any discussion whatsoever. Even otherwise demands for grants of only a few major ministries are taken up for discussion in the House and all others are passed without discussion. To some extent the situation has now improved since the budget demands are referred to the parliamentary committees for scrutiny. However, most reports of the committees are perfunctory and do not make any impact on the working of the government. This is partly due to the fact that there is no independent scrutiny of the budget proposals for want of requisite expertise. To fill this void steps have been taken in some western democracies to create a separate Budget Office for Parliament which is suitably staffed by experts in the concerned disciplines. It is high time such an office is set up in India as well.
It is an open secret that the misbehaviour of members is often orchestrated by the political parties. It is reported that leaders of concerned parties chalk out a strategy for the conduct of their members during the day and individual member has hardly any option but to abide by the dictates of the party. If parliament business is to be improved ways will have to be found to hold the political parties responsible for the misbehaviour of their members. It is only the pressure of public opinion which can make a difference to the situation. This purpose can be served if the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha secretariats bring out a report card of the conduct of each political party at the end of each session. Such report cards will inevitably get wide publicity leading to adverse comments by the public, wherever called for.
Making laws is perhaps the most important function of Parliament. Unfortunately, at present it receives the least attention of the law makers. Bills are often passed at the speed of lightening and within a short span of 10-15 minutes as many as 8-10 bills are passed without any discussion. Since there is no provision for a "sunset clause" by which an Act becomes extinct or can come up for review at the end of the specified period, any half baked legislation passed in this manner remains on the statute book for years together. It is often argued that since Bills are scrutinised by the concerned parliamentary committees there is nothing wrong with the present system of passing Bills in this manner. However, this argument does not hold water for various reasons. First, not all Bills are referred to the parliamentary committees for scrutiny. For one reason or another, government brings some Bills before parliament without submitting them to the committee. Second, even if a Bill is scrutinised by a committee it cannot be presumed that it needs no further modifications or refinements. Third, the deliberations of parliamentary committees are not open to media and it is not known as to what stand individual members or their parties take on the subject. In such a situation to presume that the committees are the best judge on the given subject and represent the opinion of the House can hardly be sustained. In fact every report of the committee must come before the House for discussion, after it is made public and all stakeholders are given an opportunity to comment thereon. Examination of a Bill by a committee should be only a step in the process of deliberations on the Bill and cannot be a substitute for discussion of the Bill in the full House.
Ideally, the work of the committees itself needs to be improved in various ways. One of these would be to make the deliberations of the committee open to the public and the media. The specious and untenable argument which is currently put forth against this suggestion is that this will lead to members of the committees playing to the galleries, as happens in the House, and the members will tend to take party lines on the subject. But, the experience shows that most of the times the deliberations in the committees are on party lines and follow the policies prescribed by the concerned parties. It is also necessary that the committees are provided with assistance of experts and knowledgeable persons in the field. This would make the committees’ work much more productive and meaningful. Therefore the entire committee system needs to be revamped altogether if the deliberations in the committees are to be considered as the substitute for discussion in the House. If the suggestion made earlier that the Parliament must meet for at least 130 days in a year is implemented, there would be enough time for detailed discussions on legislative measures.
Conflict of interest has emerged as a major concern in the recent years. Parliament has now become a club of millionaires and as can be expected has inevitably a number of vested interests. Another recent phenomenon of several prominent persons in industry and business becoming members of Parliament. If Parliament is to be a truly representative body, obviously one cannot object to industrialists and business tycoons becoming MPs. But it has to be ensured that vested interests are not permitted to bend the policies of the government. In the recent years it has been seen that MPs representing particular interests and lobbies have been made members of the concerned subject committees, thereby providing them an opportunity to influence the working of the concerned ministries. Strict rules need to be framed to safeguard against these eventualities. For this purpose registers of interests need to be maintained by both the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha secretariats. It must be made mandatory on members to furnish the information pertaining to themselves and their dependants on their holdings of shares in companies, directorships of the companies etc. Such registers are maintained by the parliamentary bodies in a number of western democracies but the response to this suggestion in India has been lukewarm so far. In fact information contained in these registers must be in the public domain and people should be able to access this information on payment of a reasonable fee. Functioning of every MP must be adjudged on the basis of his interests and he should not be permitted to ask questions, participate in the discussions or seen to bring direct or indirect pressure on the government to sub- serve his interests.
Arbitrary and frequent revision of pay and allowances of MPs has become a matter of concern. No one grudges a reasonable increase in the emoluments of MPs from time to time but the modality for the purpose is equally important. Ideally, the question of revision of emoluments of MPs should be referred to an independent commission of experts as in the case of pay commissions for government employees. The report of such a commission should be made public and stakeholders should have an opportunity to comment on it. After such a scrutiny the report along with the governments proposals for pay revision could be placed before Parliament for its consideration. But presently these issues are considered only by a committee of MPs and thereafter the proposals are rushed through the House, most often without any discussion. This is clearly a case of conflict of interest. India is perhaps the only democracy in the world in which emoluments of MPs are decided in such an arbitrary manner. Somnath Chatterjee, during his tenure as the speaker had made concerted efforts to have a committee of experts for pay revision appointed but the proposal was turned down by the leaders of political parties. The government also seems to be reluctant to force the issue.
In the context of coalition politics in the country some precepts need to be re-examined. For example, the concept of public mandate in favour of or against a particular policy. Under the present ‘first past the post’ system, the candidate getting the maximum number of votes is declared elected and often the winning candidate gets hardly 10-15 percent of votes. By no stretch of imagination, can this be called a public mandate. The present union Home minister, P. Chidambaram won his election by a slender majority of a few hundred votes and is presiding over one of the most important ministries in the central government. It is high time three reforms are made in the present electoral system. The first is to make voting compulsory for every citizen. In a number of countries such a provision already exists and has led to substantial improvements in the voting percentages. With large scale disillusionment and disenchantment with the parliamentary democracy, voting percentages have come down steeply in several urban areas and metropolitan cities. Answers must be found to address this issue and the best way of doing it is to make voting compulsory for every citizen. This is particularly necessary in India since public holiday is given on the election day. There can therefore be no excuse for a person not to go and vote but it is possible that a person may find each of the candidates unfit for his vote. To take care of this situation an option must be provided to the voter to choose to vote for ‘none of the above’ candidates. With this modification there can be no excuse for a person not to go and vote. Finally it must be laid down that a candidate must get a minimum of 50% +1 vote to be eligible for being declared elected. If no candidate wins the requisite votes in the first round, there must be a run off election with the two candidates getting the maximum number of votes.
Political parties having negligible number of seats in Parliament are seen to be dictating the decisions of the government. This is primarily due to the anxiety of the government to continue to remain in power at any cost. As a result, decisions taken by the government have at times tarnished the image of the country internationally and has led to loss of credibility of the government in the country. The so called compulsions of the coalition politics, often described in misleading terms as "coalition dharma" has brought the very concept of the electoral mandate of the people into serious question.
Several precepts and practices pertaining to Parliament hark back to the British era. In fact a great deal of the Constitution itself is based on the Government of India Act of 1935. One such practice pertains to the address of the president. In the initial years president used to address each session of Parliament. Fortunately, later, wiser counsels prevailed and now the president addresses only the first session of the year. The president’s address is primarily a patchwork of paragraphs submitted by individual ministries and makes a very dull and drab reading. This has been the situation year after year. Nearly 20 hours of Parliament’s time in each House is spent on discussion on the president’s address and the reply to the discussion by the government. This valuable time can be saved by doing away with the president’s address altogether. This is a long overdue reform and the only explanation for its non implementation is lethargy of successive governments and lack of political will.
At the time when the Constitution was framed its founding fathers had not realised that they had reduced the powers of Parliament in very critical areas. The Constitution does not require that international treaties, agreements and covenants be approved by Parliament. Over the last few years the ambit of these international commitments has increased substantially and is no longer confined only to the foreign policy issues. Thus trade, aid, environment, human rights and other commitments bind the actions of the government in diverse ways. It is necessary that there is a broad national consensus on these matters to strengthen the hands of the government in their implementation. And such a commitment can come only with the approval of the highest national forum. It is therefore imperative to amend the Constitution to lay down that all international treaties, agreements and covenants will have to be approved by Parliament before they become effective.
Yet another area which has been kept out of the purview of Parliament is the oversight of intelligence and crime investigative agencies such as the CBI, Directorate of Enforcement and so on. The intelligence agencies namely the Intelligence Bureau (IB) and the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) are presently scrupulously kept out of the purview of Parliament and the Executive guards its turf in the matter vigilantly. However, this is not in keeping with the trends and practices in a number of western democracies such as United Kingdom, United States, Australia and New Zealand. Unfettered powers of the government pertaining to these powerful institutions can no longer be left unsupervised by Parliament. The manner in which the oversight of these institutions is to be carried out can be carefully spelt out as has been done in these countries. Thus Parliament should not have the power to go into specific cases of surveillance and enquiries. Its role should be confined to the discussion of the broad policy matters and the overall image, efficiency and contribution of the institutions.
The Centre-State relations are becoming increasingly complex and sensitive. The States have a feeling that, under one pretext or another, the Centre is making in-roads into areas which are in the domain of the States. There are increasing complaints that there is a lack of dialogue between the Centre and the States on crucial matters such as the National Counter-Terrorism Centre (NCTC), setting up of Lokayuktas, Naxalism, jurisdiction of the Railway Protection Force and so on. This lack of trust between the Centre and the States is becoming increasingly evident in their opposition to Central initiatives in a number of crucial areas. In this context the role of the Rajya Sabha, which by its name signifies that it is the chamber of the states, assumes importance. The Constitution had visualised that Rajya Sabha should be a chamber representing the States and that its approval will be necessary in matters affecting the interests of the States. Thus, for example, creation of any new All India Services requires specific approval of the Rajya Sabha. If a law is to be passed by Parliament on a subject in the State List, approval of the Rajya Sabha is imperative. Rajya Sabha is thus an integral part of the federal structure adopted by the Constitution. Unfortunately, in matters of election of members of Rajya Sabha this principle has been compromised with the blessing of the Supreme Court. Till recently, a person could not contest the election to the Rajya Sabha unless he was a resident of that State. This led to a number of prominent central leaders and ministers filing blatantly wrong affidavits claiming that they were residents of the concerned States. The NDA government has to be faulted for bringing forth an amendment to do away with this requirement of residence for contesting election to Rajya Sabha. This was challenged in a Public Interest Litigation before the Supreme Court but surprisingly that court held that the legislation was intra virus and that anyone could contest from anywhere in the country. According to the Supreme Court, requirement of residence was not a part of the test of federalism. This meant literally turning the argument on its head but since this is the decision of the highest court there is nothing that can be done except to amend the law on the subject. But such are the vested interests of all political parties in accommodating their favourites in the Rajya Sabha by back door that it is unlikely that this legislation will ever be repealed. Given this situation, question needs to be asked whether there is need for a second chamber at all which is just a replication of the Lower House. Increasingly there is nothing to distinguish the Rajya Sabha from the Lok Sabha in terms of their composition, conduct of business, indiscipline, shouting brigades, walk-outs and so on. It can no longer claim to be a House of Elders in which issues are debated objectively, dispassionately and in depth. Time has therefore come to seriously consider abolition of the Rajya Sabha and the second chambers (Legislative Councils) in States in which they are in existence. This suggestion is fully justified in the light of the experience gained so far. In fact, Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi were not in favour of the second chamber. But it was retained in the Constitution as a compromise. However, Dr Ambedkar had clarified in the Constituent Assembly that if at any stage the second chamber is found to be inconvenient or unnecessary, it could always be abolished. That time has come now.
The antidefection Act was passed with considerable fanfare during the Rajiv Gandhi regime. The experience of the working of this legislation needs to be closely reviewed to take some major corrective actions. It can be seriously questioned whether the law has led to any reduction in the defections. As in Karnataka, for example, this law had no impact. The powers to decide cases of defection have been given to the presiding officers and this has clearly been counter-productive. Often political considerations have weighed with the presiding officers in taking decisions. At times decisions have been inordinately delayed to suit the convenience of the ruling political party. In several cases decisions given by the presiding officers have been set aside by the Supreme Court. Looking to the importance of the subject, it needs to be seriously considered if powers to decide defection cases should be entrusted to the Election Commission of India. The president /governor can be authorised to take decisions on the recommendation of the Election Commission. Appeal over such decisions would lie with the Supreme Court. The second most important amendment which is necessary pertains to the definition of the word ‘defection’. As at present, any member voting against the party line comes within the ambit of defection. As a result, there is hardly any freedom left to the members to express their views on any subject in the House, if it is not in keeping with the party line. sThis has resulted in making the whole system moribund. It is interesting to note that in England, which is considered to be the mother of democracy, ruling party members are free to express their views on any subject and even to vote against the proposal of the government. This was amply evident recently when the Bill for restructuring the House of Lords had to be deffered by the ruling party due to the intense opposition in Parliament, including from its own members. The same was the case in respect of important legislations such as on issue of national identity cards and surveillance practices in the country. If individual members are not permitted to exercise their judgement on issues coming up in the House it can become a travesty of democracy. Defeat of the government on any legislation need not necessarily be considered warranting resignation by the government, unless it is on an important budgetary matter or highly important national issues. In fact, no whip should be issued by political parties to its members on any subjects, except in exceptional circumstances. Such an amendment to the anti-defection Act will bring about a qualitative change in the functioning of Parliament and improve the credibility and acceptance of the institution.
Joint Parliamentary Committees (JPC) is an important instrument for holding the government accountable for its actions and inactions. Unfortunately, this instrument has been blunted in India for various reasons. A number of reports of JPCs have been ineffective in addressing the issues and holding the government accountable. The most prominent of these is the Bofors case. It was wrong on the part of the opposition parties to have boycotted the JPC, thereby enabling the government to completely whitewash the entire affair. Equally disappointing was the report of the JPC on Bank scam. The deliberations of the JPC on 2G spectrum scam seem to be heading in the same direction. It will indeed be unfortunate if, in case after case, the instrument of JPC is blunted and loses its credibility. Ways must be found to adopt the best practices from other countries in such parliamentary enquiries. It is seen that in England even the Prime Minister is called to give evidence before the committees and is cross examined closely, wherever necessary. We have much to learn from these instances.
The Constitution had envisaged that a separate law will be passed to deal with the matters pertaining to the staff of Parliament. Australia and New Zealand have enacted such laws which ensure independence of Parliament from the Executive and at the same time prevents arbitrary actions. Though six decades have elapsed since the setting up of Parliament, such a law has not been enacted in India so far. In the name of independence and autonomy, the presiding officers of Parliament have often indulged in arbitrary actions. It is in the larger interest that situation is not permitted to continue in this manner any longer. A legislation can provide the requisite checks and balances in the system, without compromising the autonomy and independence of Parliament.
A great deal of what has been stated above is equally applicable to the functioning of state legislatures. In fact in several states their functioning is worse than that of Parliament. The duration of sessions has been curtailed considerably and often legislature sessions are held only for the purpose of getting the budget and supplementary demands passed, and transaction of other urgent government business such as conversion of ordinances into laws.
Finally, it must be stated that parliamentary democracy in India has failed on another important test of encouraging grass-roots democracy. Indian democracy is more a "hereditary and dynastic democracy" in which ruling families have perpetuated their hold on parliamentary institutions for years together. There are now ‘first families’ at all levels, and not just the national level. Prime minister Manmohan Singh is a former member of the Indian Economic Service and the vice president, Hamid Ansari, and the speaker, Meira Kumar, are former members of the Indian Foreign Service!!
The disenchantment with the functioning of parliamentary democracy in India is largely due to the deficiencies which can be easily remedied if there is a political will for the purpose. But as in other critical matters, the hopes and aspirations are buried with the same lament.
1. The paper is largely based on the writer’s latest book, India’s Parliamentary Democracy on Trial, Rupa & Co., New Delhi, 2011.
2. The word Parliament includes state legislatures.