The media reports that the Union Cabinet is mulling over truncating the forthcoming winter session of Parliament, given the schedule for assembly elections in Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat announced by the Election Commission. Already the monsoon session was lost over the Coalgate scam. Last year's winter session was wasted due to the government's obduracy over not agreeing to a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) to probe the 2G spectrum scam. The irony is that the government eventually agreed to constitute a JPC.
Apart from such loss of parliamentary time due to disruptions, of late the sessions have begun to get truncated due to elections to some assembly or the other. Last year's budget session had to be truncated due to similar reasons. Parliament's primary responsibility of supervising the financial allocations under the budget had to be guillotined. Thus, the government escaped from parliamentary scrutiny. In a country of our vastness and diversity, elections to various state assemblies are bound to occur frequently as scheduled. Parliament, however, should not suffer as a consequence, in the discharge of its duties.
The centrality of our Constitution lies in the sovereignty of the people. This is exercised by those elected to the legislature. The executive is accountable to the legislature, which, in turn, is accountable to people. Thus, the efficiency of this mechanism that translates this sovereignty of 'We, the people' depends on the duration and proper conduct of parliamentary proceedings. The government of the day may find it convenient to escape Parliament's scrutiny and thus being unaccountable to it. This, however, has the potential to undermine the very constitutional scheme of things in our country.
The recent record of parliamentary sittings tell a sad story. The 14th Lok Sabha was marked by the least number of sittings in our Parliament's history. During the course of its five years, it sat on 332 occasions - an average of 66 days a year. Worse, 24% of this time was wasted in disruptions and adjournments. The British Parliament, on the contrary, sits for at least 160 days a year.
Apart from making the government accountable, Parliament is also mandated with the sole authority to legislate and to draw the government's attention to matters of public importance. Without adequate number of sittings, Parliament cannot discharge these responsibilities.
The current election campaign to the presidency in the US has once again generated a debate whether India should move towards a presidential form of government, a change that the BJP has advocated since 1991. The continued parliamentary impasse in our country feeds such a debate.
A presidential form concentrates all powers in one leader. The president inducts key personnel to run the State apparatus who are not directly accountable to Parliament. By advocating this system, the BJP, being the political arm of the RSS, facilitates the objective of converting the secular democratic character of the Indian republic into its version of a rabidly intolerant fascistic 'Hindu Rashtra'. The constraints of a coalition under the parliamentary system circumscribe the BJP's efforts to impose its hardcore communal agenda.
After much debate, the parliamentary system was preferred by the Constituent Assembly because it best serves the secular foundations and the federal character of India's political system and, at the same time, is both accommodative of and responsive to our rich diversity and social plurality.
Late President KR Narayanan, speaking on the Golden Jubilee of our republic in Parliament's Central Hall, said: "The form of government, the parliamentary democratic form, was chosen by the founding fathers after deep thought and debate. In the Constituent Assembly, Dr Ambedkar explained that the drafting committee in choosing the parliamentary system for India, preferred more responsibility to more stability, a system under which the government will be on the anvil every day. Thus the parliamentary system was a deliberate and well-thought-out choice of the Constituent Assembly. It was not chosen in imitation of the British system or because of the familiarity with it that India had acquired during the colonial period."
We, thus, "preferred more responsibility to stability which could slip into authoritarian exercise of power." The dangers of authoritarian instances, like the Emergency of 1975, will only multiply if we abandon this system. In any case, what is true in a monolingual country like the US cannot be relevant in India given its vast social plurality and multilingual character.
The only way to negate the dangers posed by the erosion of parliamentary scrutiny is to ensure, through a constitutional amendment, that Parliament meets mandatorily for at least 100 days in a calendar year. Further, the timetable of the schedule for these 100 days must be pre-announced. This will help other constitutional bodies like the Election Commission to choose dates for election that do not conflict with parliamentary sittings. Currently, upon the advice of the Cabinet, the President of India summons Parliament. Though there is some sort of a tradition regarding the timing of the sessions, there is never a certainty. A declared timetable will provide that certainty.
This will have an additional advantage. Very often the prime minister is away on foreign tours when Parliament is in session. These mutually agreed dates for State visits with other countries won't come in conflict if there is a declared timetable. The PM must attend Parliament to face scrutiny and, thus, ensure that the government is accountable to Parliament which, in turn, will be accountable to the people.
In our Parliament's 60th anniversary, these important changes must be undertaken to further strengthen our parliamentary democracy.
Sitaram Yechury is CPI(M) Politburo member and Rajya Sabha MP
The views expressed by the author are personal