India’s highest chamber of democracy, the Parliament, has not been able to conduct any business in the current winter session. Already, about half of the current session has been disrupted by daily pandemonium in both the chambers. Last year too, the winter session of Parliament was a complete washout.
It is ironic that while all MPs continue to profess their desire to debate the issues of the day in the House, they cannot agree under which rule the debate ought to take place. The problem is more structural than political, as is commonly believed.
Parliamentary discourse often degenerates into disruption over whether a debate should be followed by a vote (as was the case with the Indo-US nuclear deal), or should all major parties agree to the motion to be voted upon even before the debate begins, ensuring majority support for the motion (this happened in one of the last debates on price rise), or should a JPC be formed to inquire into an issue (as with the 2G scandal), or should a discussion take place to highlight the sense of the House, to be communicated to the parliamentary committee dealing with the issue? The last was the case with the Lokpal matter.
On the issue of FDI in retail, the government could avoid a debate either by offering to roll back the decision, or by holding back the implementation of the decision. The governing coalition could also try to get its allies on board, and cobble together the necessary numbers even before the debate.
Unfortunately, debate has become the first casualty of the political logjam in Parliament. There is little denying that the credibility of political leaders, cutting across party lines, is at an all-time low. Yet, rather than showcasing their debating talents, making persuasive arguments, inviting thought-provoking responses, parliamentarians have increasingly been in the news for frequent disruptions.
The latest estimate is that an hour of Parliament costs the taxpayer about R25 lakh, and a day’s disruption costs R25 crore. But the damage to Parliament’s credibility cannot be measured in terms of money alone.
However, voting is a necessary element in any parliamentary democracy, though not sufficient by itself. Democracy requires respect for dissent. Also, democracy is not just a numbers game. Following an effective debate, a minority opinion of today may become the majority view of tomorrow, by persuading people and winning over friends.
In recent times, there have been a number of suggestions from MPs to find a way out of the present quagmire. Even the vice-president has urged the parties to restrict the use of whips only to money bills and confidence votes, when the survival of the government is at stake, in order to allow free and open debate. Other have called for more frequent votes on important issues in Parliament, and the freedom to vote according to individual conscience, not necessarily follow the party whip. One MP has suggested that special sessions of Parliament be held each year, specifically to discuss legislations and policies of national interest, without partisan agendas. Some younger MPs have reportedly adopted a “no work, no pay” approach.
Ruling parties have responded to frequent disruptions by gradually reducing the number of days the House sits in a year. When Jawaharlal Nehru was the leader of the Lok Sabha, Parliament used to sit for about 140 days in a year. Today, this number is down to around 80 days (see chart 1). But this seems to have only added to the problem of disruptions. Based on the estimate made by PRS Legislative Research, the time when Lok Sabha functioned effectively has steadily declined between the 8th Lok Sabha and the 14th Lok Sabha, from over 110 % to about 85% (chart 2). In the past, the time lost due to disruptions was often made up by sitting longer or extra days, but this tradition too has been lost. In the current 15th Lok Sabha, about 28% of the effective time has been lost, in the past two-and-a-half years. The present Lok Sabha is on course to set a new low in effective time utilised in the House.
On the one hand, parliamentary debate has degenerated. On the other hand, important Bills are being passed without almost any discussion. A report by the National Social Watch Coalition found that in the 14th Lok Sabha, barely 173 MPs actually spoke on legislative issues while the House passed nearly 40% of the Bills with less than one hour of debate.
Chart 2: Effective time utilised in the Lok Sabha
The Lok Sabha
Actual time utilised in comparison to the schedule time available in Percentage
Eighth Lok Sabha (1985-89)
Ninth Lok Sabha (1989-91)
Tenth Lok Sabha (1991-96)
Eleventh Lok Sabha (1996-97)
Twelfth Lok Sabha (1998-99)
Thirteenth Lok Sabha (1999-2004)
Fourteenth Lok Sabha (2004-09)
A Liberty Institute analysis found that in the 14th Lok Sabha, there were merely 20 instances of divisions over 323 Bills that were considered, which is a voting record of only 6%. A closer look at the statistics reveals that only 5 out of these 20 instances were motions concerning Bills. There were 8 constitutional amendments (for which a division is mandatory) and the rest were miscellaneous motions, including a no-confidence motion. Again, not surprisingly, there has been a steady decline in the number of instances when elected MPs are called upon to debate and vote on issues of vital importance (chart 3).
Chart 3: Instances of Divisions in the Lok Sabha
It is time to recognise that disruptions in Parliament are not just a reflection of the declining political acumen of our time. Enlightened political leadership may help, but will not be able to deal with the symptoms. The real root of this parliamentary disease is the Tenth Schedule of the Constitution, popularly known as the anti-defection law that was passed in 1986, with almost total unanimity across the political class and the intelligentsia.
This anti-defection law has empowered political parties at the cost of democratic debate, particularly within Parliament, since defying a party whip can lead to disqualification from the House. Since MPs can’t vote as per the merit of the debate, but must follow the party diktat, there is no reason for MPs to prepare for a debate. Consequently, many MPs don’t even bother to attend the House during important debates. And if MPs can’t debate meaningfully, then disruption becomes the main form of registering one’s opposition.
Let us stop bemoaning the loss of parliamentary discourse, look at the root of the present problem, and try to revive good parliamentary practices. Here are a few suggestions.
- First, restrict the party whip and invocation of anti-defection law to money bills and confidence votes.
- Second, a no-confidence vote must be accompanied by a confidence vote on an alternative leader of the House and government, so that each term of the Lok Sabha can run its full mandate of five years.
- Third, a mid-term poll can only be called if two-thirds of the members of the House supports the motion.
- Fourth, allow debate on all major issues, and extend sitting of the House where necessary to allow members to express their opinion.
- Fifth, allow members to vote on issues and legislations as per their conscience.
- Sixth, even if the government loses a vote on a specific issue, this need not reduce its capacity and legitimacy to function effectively.
- Finally, allow the government to pursue its policies, let the ruling side argue its case, and win back the support of a majority of MPs.
Note: This Analysis was done by Liberty Institute in 2010. Anyone interested in recieving the original report may contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org