Recent sessions of Parliament have heard much criticism of the conduct of members by both speaker of the Lok Sabha and chairman of the Rajya Sabha. Television cameras have beamed images of the sometimes unruly conduct of members of Parliament (MPs) into millions of homes.
TV coverage of incidents such as wads of cash being waved by opposition members in the Lok Sabha during the 22 July trust vote tends to leave a lasting negative impression about Parliament and MPs in our minds.
In many ways, we have reason to be upset at the way the 14th Lok Sabha functioned. If we want to fix the system, it would be useful to look at some issues faced by the institution. And it is important to remember Parliament is expected to be separate from the executive—it is expected to keep the government under scrutiny and not be subservient to it.
One set of issues is concerned with the institutional constraints that are imposed by the system. Parliament cannot convene by itself, except when the government chooses to.
This became evident when the government did not convene Parliament for a long time in 2008, resulting in just 46 sittings of the Lok Sabha during the calendar year—the fewest in any year—and combined the winter session with the monsoon session to avoid a no-confidence motion.
The anti-defection law is another case in point of a self-imposed institutional constraint. This law has reduced MPs to a mere headcount. For even an ordinary Bill to be passed in Parliament, all MPs of a party need to vote along party lines when they are issued a whip, or they are liable to be disqualified from Parliament.
Another issue pertains to the capacity of MPs to engage in meaningful debate. No MP can be an expert on all the varied subjects that come up for debate. But MPs have no personal staff to help them with research on issues concerned with legislation as well as functioning of the government. Contrast this to the 30-member staff that US senators have to enable them to take informed decisions.
Given these and other constraints, what legacy is this Lok Sabha leaving behind? It has passed some significant legislation such as the Right to Information Act, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, the Special Economic Zone Act and the Land Acquisition and Rehabilitation Act. What is worrying is that some Bills were passed with little respect for due process—some were not referred to the standing committees, others were passed in a hurry in both Houses, and yet others passed when there was uproar in the House.
The most worrying aspect of the legacy of Parliament is this: There is not even a collective recognition that there is something seriously wrong with some things in Parliament. The complete lack of acknowledgement that we have a system that is close to broke basically means that we are postponing the diagnosis of a disease that needs to be treated. For all the accolades that we get for our democracy, the least we can do is to have a Parliament that seeks to establish its role as a credible institution and not one that is at the mercy of the executive. This is a breakdown in our delicate governance structure that India can ill-afford.
The author is director of PRS Legislative Research, New Delhi. Respond to this column at firstname.lastname@example.org