Photo: Vipin Kumar/HT
Photo: Vipin Kumar/HT

The limits of control in Parliament

India's opposition has little procedural room to do anything other than exactly what it is doing now

The current intransigence in the Rajya Sabha over the goods and services tax (GST) and other legislation is the latest and most extreme version of the unconstructive opposition that has plagued India’s Parliament for a few years. It is tempting to focus on the protest venue, but revising the Rajya Sabha alone would miss a larger opportunity to create space for the kind of discussion that India—in fact, any democracy—needs. If bicameralism is now up for discussion in the name of balance, parliamentary process should be considered as well.

Before the hackles rise, since my name is clearly foreign, I am a long-time resident of India, but I am not a citizen. I sometimes write about Indian institutions in comparative perspective. This column draws on an academic paper published in 2008.

Parliamentary process is currently stacked against constructive debate. It awards the government substantial control over what comes up for discussion, limits the avenues for alternatives to be articulated and seriously considered, and more or less precludes coalitions that cut across government and opposition lines. In doing so, it also effectively absolves the opposition from any responsibility to highlight specific problems, propose new solutions and build issue-based coalitions around common interests. If delay, disruption and shouts of ‘no’ are the only feasible forms of public dissent, it’s hard to ask people to hold their representatives accountable for more.

The opposition has little say on the agenda for discussion. India’s rules allow for somewhat stronger government control over the agenda than many other parliaments. Its business advisory committee—the body that sets the schedule—is comparable to peers, but other parliaments keep room for exceptions. The UK, Canada and others, for example, each have about 20 dedicated opposition days, when the opposition party gets to set the agenda for debate. In the short run, such practices may be a recipe for a circus; in the long run, it puts the ball in the opposition court to do something that voters see as worthwhile.

The opposition has limited scope to place amendments on the table. The Indian government can more easily prevent or ignore amendments than its peers by limiting what goes to committees, ignoring amendments that come from committees (though it conventionally doesn’t), and unilaterally suspending debate to move to vote. The rules of procedure require grants to ministries and departments to be examined by committees, but this provision can be suspended by majority vote. Most other parliaments require committee consideration across the board for bills, and nearly all have some kind of requirement to accept amendments for full discussion. France, Greece, Ireland and the UK have similar provisions for suspending debate, but most parliaments require super-majorities or consensus to speed bills through. Restricting discussion may be handy for passing bills in the short run, but it also prevents the kind of dissent that comes with suggestions beyond simple vetoes. It allows the opposition to complain about being ignored rather than forcing it to subject its alternatives for consideration.

Further, the India’s relatively strict Anti-Defection Act limits the prospects for constructive compromises through issue-based coalitions. The law requiring members of Parliament to obey their party’s whip was passed in 1985 to limit horse-trading, but it also turns Parliament into a numbers game along strict partisan lines. This law has survived a challenge in the Supreme Court, but both the Law Commission (1999) and the Dinesh Goswami committee on electoral reforms (1990) have recommended limiting use of the whip to allow individuals to represent their constituencies rather than their party leaders once in a while.

It may again be time to consider a more balanced approach that allows members of the ruling party to vote with the opposition in some cases. This could encourage the opposition to come up with alternatives that a majority of representatives can back. Let voters be the judge of whether it’s a horse trade or a genuine act of representation.

Even the Rajya Sabha, the body that’s now become ground zero, is more of a check than a forum for balanced debate. Delaying bills passed by the Lok Sabha is about all its members can actually do for any matter other than a constitutional amendment. If the Rajya Sabha actually rejected a bill or proposed an alternative version, the government could call a joint sitting in which the council of states, constitutionally capped at half the size of the house of the people, would generally be outvoted. These joint sessions don’t actually happen often, but the threat is always there.

In short, India’s opposition has little procedural room to do anything other than exactly what it is doing now and what it has done in previous governments. Amending the rules to open up more space for actual discussion would be a gamble. But it might also set out a challenge for the opposition to rise to and be a basis for higher expectations about how dissent gets expressed. As long as the floor is open for ideas, there’s a lot of parliamentary experience around the world to consider.

Jessica Seddon is the founder and managing director of Okapi Research & Advisory.

Comments are welcome at theirview@livemint.com

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