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Winter session gives UPA a chance to take up important bills

Parliament has a backlog of 122 Bills at the end of the monsoon session. Bills pending in the Lok Sabha will lapse after the 15th Lok Sabha is dissolved, writes NK Singh.

ht view Updated: Dec 04, 2013 11:54 IST

The silly season is just about to end. Parliament meets this month for a short winter session of just 12 sittings. The silly season has been generally defined as a holiday period for the media characterised by 'exaggerated news stories, frivolous entertainment and outlandish publicity stunt'. Serious writings and reporting begins with the commencement of the parliamentary session. Unfortunately, in the Indian context, given the declining credibility of Parliament, this description may have been turned on its head.

Recent analysis suggests that the number of days that Parliament meets every year has been steadily declining. Compared to 120-140 days that Parliament used to meet in the 1950s and 1960s, it is now meeting for just half the time. Even during these curtailed sessions the number of days when serious business is transacted has dramatically shrunk. Repeated suggestions for benchmarking with other democracies that the parliamentary calendar should be predictable and fixed has not found favour. This would have meant that the minimum number of days that Parliament meets is stipulated and the calendar for these sittings pre-determined. This would make for better planning and obviated uncertainties. Further, subjecting the parliamentary calendar to state election cycles injects unpredictability and in some way undercuts the sanctity of Parliament. Constitutional changes which would mandate that elections to both state assemblies and Parliament are held simultaneously has eluded political consensus. Reforming Parliament would be a centrepiece of any governance reforms. While the immediate future does not look too optimistic, hopefully some day these reforms will receive the priority they deserve.

As we approach the penultimate session of the present Lok Sabha, what are the expected outcomes? This would be the last legislative session since the budget session next year would be a vote-on-account session namely to authorise expenditure pending the presentation of a full Budget by the new government. There have been attempts in the past to misuse the vote-on-account session for making promises, announcements, and commitments much against propriety or convention. These are scarcely honoured by the new government. So, what does the winter session look like?

First, every Parliament session in recent times has been preceded by an overarching theme. For instance, in the current Lok Sabha a full session was washed out on the issue of constituting a JPC on the issue of spectrum allocations. Two more sessions faced the same fate on the issue of lokpal and coal block allocations. Will this session have a similar overarching subject? I suspect this will be the outcome of the elections in five states whose results would be available at the commencement of the session. If the UPA does well in these states there would be momentum in their efforts to enact some important legislations. If it is the other way round, the Opposition would read this as a mandate for change in 2014. There would be conjectures on whether the prime ministerial candidate of the main opposition party has made a decisive change. In a business as usual scenario, a predictable electoral path without decisive swings could send political parties to their drawing boards leaving the electoral outcome of 2014 open. The psychological backdrop of the forthcoming winter session would be determined on which way these results play out.

Second, the hesitation of the government to take up any legislation where there is a slightest doubt that the Bill may not be passed needs rethinking. Except for money bills governments are not morally obliged to resign if some legislations fail. Nor does their reputation suffer irretrievably. In coalition governments, the ruling party needs to be bolder and pursue legislations even if sometimes their outcome appears problematic. This requires a mindset change given that coalition politics are invariably based on a narrow calculus of numbers.

Finally, what is realistic in terms of some of the daunting pending legislations? Parliament has a backlog of 122 Bills at the end of the monsoon session. Bills pending in the Lok Sabha will lapse after the 15th Lok Sabha is dissolved. Those in the Rajya Sabha would no doubt subsist. Clearly some important but complex financial legislations, like the Direct Tax Code and the GST are unlikely to be enacted in the winter session. However, there is some expectation on the Bill to raise the equity cap in respect of the insurance sector from 26% to 49%. This will also impact the pensions Bill where the foreign equity has not been specified but made equivalent to the cap prescribed in the insurance Bill. Notwithstanding the huge energy and urgency displayed in the earlier years of the UPA 2, there are 13 Bills of the human resource development ministry ranging from educational tribunal, Innovation University, unfair practices and foreign education institutions pending enactment. It is unlikely that any of these will get through given the lackadaisical approach of the ministry. The Judicial Standards and Accountability Bill and the constitutional amendment Bill on Judicial Appointments Commission received wide consensus across the political divide and the latter was also adopted in the Rajya Sabha. Perhaps the constitutional amendments may need to be revisited along with judicial accountability Bill as amended by the standing committee. It would also be in everybody's interest if the slew of anti-corruption legislations including the lokpal, The Whistleblowers' Protection Bill, The Prevention of Money-Laundering (Amendment) Bill, and the Benami Transactions (Prohibition) Bill, receive parliamentary assent before the next elections.

If indeed these legislations are enacted it could yet be a blazing end even in the last months of this Lok Sabha. Decisive action and bi-partisan consensus are necessary to retrieve the sullied reputation of Parliament. Each one of us is individually and collectively responsible to restore the centrepiece of our governance rubric. Only in the coming weeks will we know if silly season has for the present truly ended.

NK Singh is a Rajya Sabha member and a former revenue secretary

The views expressed by the author are personal