(Co-Author: DR B RAMASWAMY)
The Indian Parliament represents the kind of democratic politics that few could have envisaged when universal suffrage was introduced in 1951. Its composition, especially in the Lok Sabha— the lower house or House of the People—has been a reliable index of the changing political preferences of Indian voters. The social composition of Parliament has changed considerably over the years, reflecting the general fluidity of power that has come to characterise Indian politics. India has become one of the most intensely politicised societies in the world, and many of these tensions are reflected in the debates and even in the chaos in Parliament.
From its inception as an elite coterie of British educated lawyers, its members today are drawn from a variety of social strata and occupations. In the twelfth Lok Sabha, lawyers were the third largest occupational category behind “political and social workers” and “agriculturists”, the former presumably a cover for many professional politicians.
An analysis of the members of the Lok Sabha elected in the fourteenth general elections in 2004 showed that India’s parliamentarians are both substantially richer and more criminally inclined than the electorate. Over half of the members of Parliament (MPs) have assets of over Rs. 5 million and more than a quarter have more than Rs.10 million, and nearly a quarter had criminal cases against them. Parliament, however, continues to lag behind in the representation of women, which has hovered between 8 per cent and 10 per cent. Through quotas, a certain number of seats have been earmarked for historically marginalised groups—notably the Scheduled Castes and Tribes—and this has ensured the representation of these groups in Parliament. Consequently, while imperfect, Parliament is a reasonable representation of the diversity of social interests.
Article 324 of the Constitution mandates the Election Commission of India (ECI) to supervise, direct and control elections to the offices of President, Vice President, both houses of Parliament (Lok Sabha & Rajya Sabha), State Legislative Assemblies and State Legislative Councils. Similarly, 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution in 1992 facilitated creation of State Election Commissions (SECs) as authorities mandated to perform the above duties for constituting the third tier of Government in both rural and urban areas (Panchayati Raj institutions, municipal bodies, etc.). There are 31 SECs in the country. Simultaneous elections should imply that elections to all the three tiers of constitutional institutions take place in a synchronised and coordinated fashion. What this effectively means is that a voter casts his vote for electing members for all tiers of the Government on a single day. Having said that, the third tier institutions are primarily a State subject as per the Constitution. Further, considering the facts that elections to the third tier institutions are directed and controlled by the State Election Commissions and their sheer numbers in the country is significantly large, it would be impractical and possibly impossible to synchronise and align election schedules of the third tier with that of Lok Sabha and State Assembly elections. Accordingly, for the purposes of this note, the term “Simultaneous Elections” is defined as structuring the Indian election cycle in a manner that elections to Lok Sabha and State Assemblies are synchronised together. In such a scenario, a voter would normally cast his/her vote for electing members of Lok Sabha and State Assembly on a single day and at the same time. To clarify further, simultaneous elections do not mean that voting across the country for Lok Sabha and State Assemblies needs to happen on a single day. This can be conducted in a phase-wise manner as per the existing practice, provided voters in a particular constituency vote for both State Assembly and Lok Sabha on the same day.
The concept of simultaneous elections is not new to the country and in-fact the country started its first election cycle to Lok Sabha and State Assemblies simultaneously post-independence in 1951-52. This synchronised cycle continued till the end of third Lok Sabha when it finally got disrupted during the fourth Lok Sabha and has continued so ever since. In the current situation, the country witnesses elections to about 5-7 State Assemblies every year (except few exceptional years). Such a situation ends up adversely impacting all the key stakeholders – the Government (both Union and the State Governments), government employees/officials on election duty, general electors/voters, as well as political parties and candidates.
Parliament is supposed to be a union of exemplary orators, with a grass-roots touch. Unfortunately, one is rarely inspired by the quality of India’s parliamentary debates nowadays. Parliamentary debates, which once focussed on national and critical issues, are now more about local problems, viewed from a parochial angle. With niggardly attendance by our Members of Parliament (MPs), poor quality of debates and pandemonium marking the proceedings, there is seemingly little value that a parliamentary representative can add to the policy discourse.
Consider the utilisation record. Each minute of running Parliament in sessions costs Rs. 2.5 lakh, which is utilised poorly. Between the 1950s and the 1960s, the Lok Sabha used to meet for an average of 120 days in a year. In comparison, in the last decade, it has met for an average of 70 days a year. Its productivity in the 2016 winter session was 14 per cent, while that of the Rajya Sabha was 20 per cent.
In comparison, the British House of Commons has met for an average of 150 days a year over the last 15 years, while the U.S. House of Representatives has met for 140 days in the same period. Most Parliaments are in session throughout the year. While our Parliament lacks the power to convene itself, it should have a minimum mandated a number of days to meet — with the National Commission to review the working of the Constitution recommending 120 and 100 days for the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha, respectively. Odisha has already shown the way, mandating a minimum of 60 days for the State Assembly to sit. Without Parliament meeting often, it will be derelict in its duty to hold the executive to account.
Meanwhile, political power continues to be a male bastion. The Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha have not seen women MPs cross the 12 per cent mark.
In 2012, India ranked 20th from the bottom in terms of representation of women in Parliament. While the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments enabled the reservation of 33 per cent of seats in local government, political representation by women candidates continues to be subdued, with no significant rise in the number of women MLAs in recent Assembly elections; women constitute less than 10 per cent of the Assemblies in Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Assam, Kerala and Puducherry. This needs to be changed dramatically, beginning with the passage of the Women’s Reservation Bill (108th amendment) reserving 33 per cent of all seats in Parliament and State legislatures for women.
Now, parliamentary legislation is often criticised for being hastily drafted and being rushed through Parliament in an ad hoc and haphazard manner. In 2008, for instance, 16 Bills were passed with less than 20 minutes of debate. The non-passage of private member Bills doesn’t help either. Only the second half of every Friday, during a parliamentary session, is devoted to debating private member Bills. To date, only 14 private member Bills have been passed.
We need a systematic approach to legislative engineering and prioritisation — the parliamentary committee, an unfashionable institution, long out of vogue, can assume institutional importance in this process. For a backbencher MP, such committees offer a place to raise issues in the general public interest and conduct advocacy amidst legislative engineering. As highlighted by the Law Ministry, we require a constitution committee. Instead of constitutional amendments being presented to Parliament like ordinary pieces of legislation in the form of Bills, often at short notice, it would be desirable to have the committee conduct an appropriate prior scrutiny before the actual drafting of the proposal for constitutional reform.
DEBATES AND RESEARCH
Even the individual voting record of MPs remains unknown. With no record maintained of the voting record associated with each MP, it is difficult to distinguish their individual progressive or conservative nature, let alone their leadership abilities. Currently, the anti-defection Act punishes MPs who deviate from their parties’ stated position, with the risk of losing their seats.
The Anti-Defection Act needs to be recast, and used only in the most exceptional circumstances, while allowing MPs free rein on their self expression. The U.K., for example, has the concept of a free vote allowing MPs to vote as they wish on particular legislative items.
In this context, most MPs have limited or no research staff, leaving them bereft of expert in-house advice — budgetary expenses allocated for their secretarial staff and constituency expenditure leave little for conducting primary research. Parliament’s Library and Reference, Research, Documentation and Information Service (LARRDIS) currently has a sanctioned strength of 231 staffers but employs 176, about 8% of the total strength of the Lok Sabha secretariat. In comparison, the Congressional Research Service, a part of the Library of the U.S. Congress, employs 600 people, of whom 400 are policy analysts, attorneys and sectoral experts, while the Congressional Budget Office has an additional 200 people. Other parliaments offer funds to hire research teams for MPs. Investing in Parliament’s intellectual capital is necessary and additional budgetary support should be provided to LARRDIS while assisting MPs in employing research staff.
We also need an institutionalised process to raise the quality and rigour associated with the budget scrutiny process. India needs a parliamentary budget office, akin to the U.S. Congressional Budget Office, which can be an independent and impartial institution devoted to conducting a technical and objective analysis of any Bill with spending or revenue raising requirements. Other countries have led the way with such entities established in Kenya, South Africa, Morocco, the Philippines, Ghana and Thailand. India’s citizens need a more robust legislative system that offers public representatives — our MPs, Ministers and the Prime Minister — a greater sense of authority. However, one must stand warily against rank populism infecting our body politic. Parliament should be a space for policy and not for politics. We need to undertake reforms to ensure that it is recast as such.
In 2002, when the Indian Parliament celebrated its fiftieth anniversary, Indian commentators rued the palpable decline of what Jawaharlal Nehru had termed as the “majesty” of Parliament. With much of Parliament’s time wasted on rowdiness and disorder and theatrics replacing debate, there are serious concerns of whether it has become “dysfunctional”. While “unparliamentary” behaviour by individual MPs has undoubtedly robbed Parliament of the mystique that often underpins authority, its weakness as an institution of accountability stems from many factors, both within and outside the institution. While the Indian state and India’s public institutions need wide-ranging reform, Parliament faces an even more daunting challenge.
First, Parliament is increasingly becoming ineffective in providing surveillance of the executive branch of government. We are mindful that the oversight function of the legislative branch of government is always likely to be highly politicized. Parliament is, after all, a political body that represents constituent interests, brokers’ deals and advocates views in a partisan manner. Nonetheless, even relative to these limited expectations, one would expect the oversight function to be stronger in an era where there is widespread disenchantment with government and resource scarcity is acute—rather than the converse.
Second, there is an ever-growing gap between the complex demands that modern legislation places upon MPs on the one hand, and their capacity and inclination for attending to that legislation on the other.
Third, the profusion of political parties in Parliament, most of which are institutionally weak, has substantially increased the barriers to collective action. While parliamentary democracy remains robust, there are significant institutional challenges facing Parliament.
Whether Parliament has been successful as a means to control the exercise of executive power is a more debatable matter. One of the most precarious episodes for parliamentary democracy was the “state of emergency” that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared in 1975. Most political analysts believe that this was done to preserve her political position and was not warranted by the national interest. There is also a general sense that the procedural norms that are the basis of parliamentary practice began to erode, particularly after the mid-1970s. The weakening of political parties, the multiplicity of political parties represented in Parliament—from five in the first Lok Sabha to nearly 40 in those elected a half-century later—and the changing nature of constituent services and re-election incentives have all transformed the institution of the Indian Parliament. But despite many shortcomings, Parliament has endured as an institution.
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