Parliament, reform thyself
Subhash C. Kashyap
Representative democracy and parliamentary institutions have endured in India for five decades and more. It is a great tribute to their strength and resilience. To say that Parliament of India is not effective would be a gross overstatement. Bashing Parliament and parliamentarians has become a fashion with self-proclaimed intellectuals. This has to be deprecated because other institutions have perhaps declined more.
Parliament in our polity is the supreme representative institution of the people. And, for that very reason, public perceptions about the functioning of Parliament are very important. It cannot be denied that during the recent decades, there has been a tremendous erosion in the respect and esteem for parliamentary institutions and the legislators in general.
There is an overwhelming consensus, in the academia and in civil society fora on what is called "decline of Parliament". Our founding fathers adopted for us a system of representative parliamentary democracy. But, if the representatives of the people themselves lose the faith of the people, there is every cause for serious concern.
An overview of developments in parliamentary institutions since the first Lok Sabha reveals some very interesting and some disturbing facts. The number of days on which the Houses of Parliament sit each year and the time that is devoted to transacting business has come down considerably in recent years. Even when they do meet, often little gets done. In the face of disturbances and shouting, the Houses have to be adjourned frequently. This is so irrespective of who is in power. This was so during the BJP-led government and it is the same under UPA.
Parliament was conceived as the legislature or the law-making body, but of late law- making has ceased to be even the most important of its functions either qualitatively or quantitatively. From about 48 per cent, it has come down to occupy less than 13 per cent of its time. The character of Parliament has also changed as a result of changes in membership composition.
There were times when our Parliament could legitimately boast of having some very outstanding and accomplished parliamentarians who could do honour to any parliament in the world. Once when a member drew the attention of Acharya Kripalani to the fact that he was criticising the Congress Party which had attracted his own wife, the quick-witted Acharya retorted: "All these years I thought Congressmen were stupid fools. I never knew they were gangsters too who ran away with others’ wives". The whole house roared with laughter.
When Dr. Ram Manohar Lohia was pleading for Stalin’s daughter Svetlana being given asylum in India on the ground of her marriage with an Indian, the charming lady member, Tarkeshwari Sinha, interjected to say that when Dr. Lohia was not married how could be talk of conjugal sentiments? Dr. Lohia hit back: "Tarkeshwari, when did you give me any chance." Later, on one occasion, the heavy-weight member, Piloo Mody, was accused of showing disrespect to the chair by speaking with his back towards the Speaker, Mody defended himself by saying "Sir, I have neither front, nor back, I am round." Such wit and humour is the most effective instrument for managing tensions and keeping tempers cool. Of late, it has largely disappeared from the Houses of Parliament.
Until 1977, i.e. for the first 30 years of Independence, the Opposition while small in number was more effective and had greater impact potential. Perhaps, it was so because of the high quality and character of membership on both sides and largely because a stable government and secure leadership could show greater magnanimity and accommodate Opposition viewpoints without losing face. Once while rejecting an amendment moved by Rajaji, Nehru said: "You see Rajaji, the majority is with me". Rajaji retorted: "Yes, Jawaharlal, the majority is with you but the logic is with me". Nehru laughed with the House and accepted Rajaji’s amendment. Such gestures are hardly conceivable now.
There has been a distinct change in the content, canvas and culture of debates right from the first Lok Sabha days. In the earlier Lok Sabhas, there was much greater emphasis on discussion of national and international issues. Increasingly more regional and even local problems are coming to acquire greater relevance and importance for our members. We are more and more looking at national problems from regional, communal, linguistic or otherwise parochial angles rather than the other way round.
There has been in recent years quite some thinking about devaluation of parliamentary authority, deterioration in the quality of members, poor levels of participation and the like. Today, one notices a certain cynicism towards parliamentary institutions and normal parliamentary processes and the parliamentarians. We have an unending debate in regard to the falling standards in the conduct of legislators as evidenced by poor quality of debates, niggardly attendance in the legislatures, unruly behaviour of members, scenes of pandemonia and the like. Legislatures having members with criminal records, role of money and muscle power in politics are the most common topics of popular discussion today.
Sanctity of means has lost all value, meaning and relevance. If dacoits, smugglers, gangsters and foreign agents can help put us or sustain us in power, we are prepared to compromise with them. We do not hesitate to buy stability through corruption, bribery, distribution of spoils and yielding to the pressures and blackmail brought by partners and supporters.
Right or wrong, the people feel that the new breed of politicians in all parties are generally selfish, power-hungry, greedy, dishonest hypocrites and power merchants for whom the nation comes last and the welfare of the people is at the bottom of priorities. Their only concern is to amass wealth and somehow get to and stay in power. They are so busy in the struggle for power that they have no time or energy left for serving the people. The people are aghast and, and what is worse, they feel helpless. We must deliberate on the highest priority basis why things have come to such a pass and what can be done to restore the legislatures and legislators to their old glory and bring about a renaissance of democratic faith and parliamentary culture.
As the National Commission on the Constitution found, the fundamental challenges before the nation today are economic and technological. Parliament has a decisive role in refashioning the national economy, keeping in the forefront the ideals of a self-reliant economy that serve the real needs and aspirations of our vast masses. Parliament can play this historic role only if it consciously reforms its procedures and prioritises its work.
A constitutional way would have to be found to meet the situation when no party or leader is able to form a government. Parliament has to discharge its responsibility. One simple constitutional remedy may be for the Lok Sabha to elect its leader. The person so elected may be asked to form the government and the government so formed may be made removable only by a constructive vote of no confidence.
The information explosion, the technological revolution, the growing magnitude and complexities of modern administration cast upon Parliament other vastly extended responsibilities. Inadequacy of time, information and expertise with Parliament results in poor quality legislation and unsatisfactory parliamentary surveillance over administration. Inadequacy of education and training in the sophisticated mechanics of parliamentary polity and the working procedures of modern parliamentary institutions has adversely affected the performance of both the legislators and the bureaucracy.
Adequate efforts have to be made to develop the essential prerequisites for the success of parliamentary polity – discipline, character, high sense of public morality, ideology-oriented two or three-party system and willingness to hear and accommodate minority views. Several of the archaic practices and time-consuming procedures most unsuitable for present-day needs have to be changed.
Members, irrespective of their party affiliations, have themselves become a new caste, parts of the establishment and co-sharers in the spoils. Again, some honourable exceptions apart, politics and membership of Parliament have emerged as a wholetime, highly lucrative, hereditary profession for a majority of those involved. There is general apathy among Members, ministers and the public at large in the work of Parliament.
Legitimacy of government and of representative institutions under the system are inextricably linked to free and fair elections and to the system being able to bring to power persons who truly represent the people’s will and have the necessary abilities to govern. The representative credentials of our elected representatives have come to be questioned. There are hardly any ideological or programmatic considerations in voting. Almost all parties and candidates are busy building their vote banks on the basis of caste, communal, linguistic or other such identities or through clandestine control of the electoral processes.
Despite the Election Commission and Supreme Court efforts, the number of crime- tainted Members has increased. Distortions have also crept into the representative character of Parliament through the operation of the electoral system. Majority of those declared elected happen to have secured only minority of votes. Therefore, it seems it would be necessary to reform the electoral system and the political party system before Parliament can be made more effective.
Role expectation of Parliament is linked with the role perception of the State. Economic reforms should lead to cutting back on government involvement and drastic reduction in the role of the State in national economy. This should naturally get reflected in the reduced role for Parliament and its Committees. Also their processes, control mechanisms, debating and decision-making procedures would have to be revamped and made faster. Floor management techniques would have to be professionalised at the level of whips, parliamentary officials and the presiding officers.
For Parliament, it is of the utmost importance constantly to review and refurbish its structural-functional requirements and from time to time to consider renewing and reforming the entire gamut of its operational procedures to guard against putrefaction and decay. The case for reforming Parliament to make it more effective is unexceptionable and, in a sense, has always been so. The real question is of how much and what to change to strengthen and improve the system. We have to be clear about the precise need, the direction and the extent of the reforms that would be desirable at present. It is obvious that mere tinkering first-aid repairs and trifling cosmetic adjustments would not anymore be enough. What is needed is a full-scale review. We have to be prepared for fundamental institutional – structural, functional, procedural and organisational – changes.
Parliament in the future would be relevant only as a dynamic institution ever adjusting its functions and procedures to the changing needs of the times. If democracy and freedom are to endure, if representative institutions are to be made impregnable, it is essential to restore to Parliament and its members their traditional esteem and honour in the affections of the people. Reforming Parliament in essential respects is already a categorical imperative.
Parliamentary reforms would have to include: building a better image of Parliament as belonging to the people and not to MPs and establishing a new rapport between the people and Parliament; improving the quality and conduct of members; reducing expenditure on Parliament and making membership financially less attractive and more motivated by the spirit of sacrifice and service; quashing forthwith the unconstitutional MPLAD Scheme; improving information supply and efficacy of committee scrutiny; legislative planning and improving the quality of laws; setting up standing committees on the Constitution and on the economy – subjecting constitutional amendments to closer committee scrutiny and raising economic policy to non-party levels; codifying privileges; improving working of parties, floor management and parliamentary time table; and rationalising and modernising rules of procedure to meet today’s needs.
Finally, parliamentary reforms would have to be a part of an integrated approach to reforms in all sectors – in education, judiciary, legislature, administration and the rest.
Parliamentary institutions are very precious plants and unless nursed with care, they tend to wither away. In today’s situation, there is every case for appointment of a Parliamentary Reforms Commission or a Study of Parliament Group (as was done in the UK) to consider the various issues and policy options to make Parliament a more effective instrument of socio-economic development and national rejuvenation.
— The writer is former
Secretary-General, Lok Sabha, and author of the six-volume ‘History of
Parliament of India.’