More than anything else, Jawaharlal Nehru was a builder of institutions. He believed that democracy was best suited for a country of India’s diversities and pluralities and to address the myriad challenges facing the nascent republic, with the active participation of the people.… He held the view that the full potential of the individual would be realised under conditions facilitated by the flowering of democracy. As he said once: “We have definitely accepted the democratic process. Why have we accepted it?… Because we think that, in the final analysis, it promotes the growth of human beings and of society; because, as we have said in our Constitution, we attach great value to the individual spirit of man to grow… We do want high standards of living, but not at the cost of man’s creative spirit, his creative energy, his spirit of adventure… of all those fine things of life which have ennobled man throughout the ages. Democracy is not merely a question of elections.”
Over the last six decades, our people have shown to the world their commitment to work a democratic system in the country and have proven, time and again, that their political judgment cannot be taken for granted. They have been doing so by demonstrating exceptional prudence and uncanny wisdom in the exercise of their franchise. These qualities were reflected when they brought about changes in the central government six out of the 14 occasions that we went through the general elections — in most cases, proving the political pundits and the astrologers wrong. In fact, every succeeding election has reflected a deeper commitment of our people to parliamentary democracy.
Sustenance of a vibrant parliamentary democracy all these years has, no doubt, been one of our significant achievements since the attainment of freedom, earning us world-wide recognition. Parliament has also rendered great service by charting the path of social engineering with a great sense of responsibility. <b1>
It is through the legislatures that the people in a representative democracy hold the executive or the government accountable to the people, which constitutes the most distinctive feature of a parliamentary system of government. In fact, the very status of Parliament in our constitutional set-up, its extensive powers, the various parliamentary devices, like the question hour, the zero hour, half-an-hour discussion, short duration discussion, the calling attention notices, adjournment motions, the no-confidence motion, the system of committees and even the special mentions, are all meant to facilitate Parliament in discharging the crucial function of ensuring executive accountability to the people through their duly-chosen representatives.
To discharge its constitutional duties, it is essential that Parliament functions smoothly and by the rules of procedure that are devised to facilitate its orderly functioning. To raise appropriately the issues of people’s concern, their expectations, demands, their fears, frustrations and anxieties before the House, to draw the government’s attention and, thereby, to obtain assurances from the ministers on the floor of the Houses, it is essential for members to follow strictly the rules of procedure and conduct themselves with the utmost sense of responsibility, and with dignity and decorum.
The question hour has a special significance in ensuring executive accountability to Parliament. It is during the question hour that the members can elicit information about different aspects of administration and governmental activity that has a bearing on the day-to-day lives of the people. This is the most effective device to enforce executive accountability to Parliament.
The parliamentary committees play a vital role in ensuring accountability in governance. A good deal of parliamentary work is transacted by the parliamentary committees, which are treated as mini-Parliament. They play an important role in scrutinising governmental expenditure and in overseeing policy formulation. In my humble experience, the committee system functions with efficiency, professionalism, unity of purpose and commitment to larger national causes, as the members usually rise above partisan considerations in dealing with the matters before the committees.
Today, unfortunately, after six decades of our Independence, we have come to a stage when questions are being asked about the utility and relevance of Parliament in our polity and, indeed, about the workability of our democratic set-up based on the parliamentary system. Because of the competitive and confrontational politics that has overtaken the country today, Parliament cannot appropriately discharge its essential functions. While the public perceives a general decline in all our institutions of governance, it is Parliament and the state assemblies that have come in, it seems justifiably, for strong criticism....
Some sections within Parliament and the state legislatures are viewing many of our well-conceived parliamentary procedures as dispensable luxuries. Of late, devices like the question hour are being seen as totally avoidable democratic extravaganzas. Forced adjournments of the House amount to the denial of opportunities to raise and discuss important issues in Parliament, thereby undermining the greatness and vitality of the most important constitutional institution, to the detriment of the people.
It is a matter of agony for the presiding officers that several legislations of far-reaching importance are passed by Parliament without any serious discussions. The most glaring instance where the concept of executive accountability to Parliament is compromised is with regard to the management of the financial business of the government, including the presentation, discussion and passage of budgetary proposals, the demand for grants and others. There is a growing feeling of resentment and concern in the country, and justifiably so, when the budget of a billion-plus people is passed without any discussion, due to wholly unmerited disruption of the proceedings.
A recent study has indicated that in the first three years of the 14th Lok Sabha, already 26 per cent of parliamentary time has been lost due to disruptions. During the Budget session this year, the Lok Sabha lost a total of 73 hours (34 per cent of its scheduled time) due to frequent disorders. Only 11 of the slotted 25 Bills were passed in the recent monsoon session of Parliament. In that session, the Lok Sabha lost 40 per cent of its time due to adjournments and the Rajya Sabha lost 49 per cent. As many as four Bills were passed without any discussion in the Lok Sabha. If the Lok Sabha worked 124 hours in the monsoon session of 2006, it worked only 65 hours in the monsoon session of 2007. With each minute of parliamentary time costing the public exchequer to the tune of about Rs 26,000, such disruptions result in wastage of taxpayers’ money and amount to a great disservice to the country and to its democratic order.
Nobody talks of an alternative to, or substitute for, parliamentary democracy today. Therefore, with the realisation that it is out of our Parliament that the leadership that runs the affairs of our country emerges, we have to ensure that political workers, specially young men and women with commitment and dedication to the cause of the people, come into Parliament and actively participate in working the system. We must always remind ourselves that the country has a vested interest in having a robust and functional Parliament, so that it remains strong, with a pro-people and progressive governance structure.
Somnath Chatterjee is Speaker, Lok Sabha
This is an edited extract of the Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Lecture he delivered on November 14 at Jawaharlal Nehru University.