A strategy to resurrect our parliamentary discourse
To resolve Parliament's logjam will need structural changes in the rules of agenda setting and more dedicated time for debate.
In 1926, while writing in the Asiatic Review journal, parliamentary reporter Edwin Haward compared the proceedings of the House of Commons in London with the Central Legislative Assembly in Delhi, and decided in favour of the latter.
“The most striking difference between the two Houses is in the mildness found in Delhi. The visitor to the House of Commons is, I think, struck by the forcible way in which that body readily expresses itself at any given moment … There is seldom anything approaching that in the Assembly [in Delhi]. Indeed, one is tempted to believe that most members would rather go without their food than say an angry word,” he wrote.
Things have certainly changed since then, and how. The shouting of slogans has replaced the mildness. And in the last decade, choreographed disruption rather than thoughtful debate has dominated our parliamentary proceedings. The latest manifestation of this unfortunate trend played out on the national stage for most of March, when members of the Treasury and Opposition benches prevented Parliament from working in the second half of the budget session.
This deterioration in the functioning of our national legislature has been gradual. The first Parliament in 1952 saw some sharp exchanges, raised voices and walkouts. The tenor of this disagreement increased slightly in the second Lok Sabha. There was an instance of the deputy speaker suspending a Member of Parliament (MP), obstructing the functioning of the House. The errant member refused to leave the legislative chamber and had to be physically carried out by marshals. Other than this isolated incident, whenever the presiding officer asked an obstructing MP to withdraw from the House, they complied, and the debate continued. But from 1962, disruption became a regular affair in the third Lok Sabha.
In its first session, Lok Sabha suspended Mani Ram Bagri, an Opposition MP, for seven days for obstructing proceedings. Bagri, an active participant in House proceedings, would go on to disrupt the President’s address the next year – an unprecedented feat at that time. During this first five-year term in the Lok Sabha, he would get suspended for over 30 days. The presiding officer would also ask him to withdraw from the House multiple times.
But Bagri was not alone; the lower House also suspended stalwart MPs such as Ram Manohar Lohia and Madhu Limaye. And towards the end of the third Lok Sabha, the House suspended eight members in its penultimate session. It was the first significant instance of penalising multiple MPs for disrupting House proceedings.
MPs such as Bagri were overzealous and unreasonable at times. But they had reasons for disrupting parliamentary proceedings. As Opposition legislators, they felt that their voices were not being heard in a House where the ruling Congress commanded a brute majority. The initial parliamentary response to their disruptive behaviour was that the Speaker asked them to withdraw from the House. If that didn’t work, the House suspended the offending MPs from participating in its proceedings. The suspension meant they could not participate in deliberations in the legislative chamber. And Parliament secretariat also removed any questions they asked from the list to be answered by the government.
But the practice of disciplining disrupting MPs by suspending them did not solve the problem of disruptions for the third and subsequent Lok Sabhas. It was because punishing legislators did not address the underlying reason for their behaviour. And this was the shrinking space in Parliament for Opposition MPs to raise issues uncomfortable to the government. This issue is at the root of disruptions even today.
When legislatures started in pre-Independent India, they constituted inbuilt majorities for the British, and this position continued till the Montague Chelmsford reforms of 1919. These reforms increased the representation of Indians in the national legislature. But that did not mean that these Indian members could keep the unelected British government in check. To avoid legislative scrutiny, the Governor General would convene the Central Assembly infrequently. And since the government was not answerable to the people, the legislature’s rules prioritised the government’s business. It left limited space for discussion by Opposition MPs on other issues. The net effect was that Indian legislators in the Central Assembly enjoyed limited – and sometimes symbolic – opportunities to hold the government to account.
When India became Independent, our Constitution framers modelled our legislative framework on the pre-independent British model. They tilted the balance in favour of the executive by giving it the power to convene Parliament. Their idea was that the government would call a session of Parliament when it had some business to transact. Following this logic, the rules of procedure of independent India’s Parliament also continued to prioritise government business. As a result, the structural space for Opposition legislators to hold the government to account roughly remained the same in pre- and post-independent India.
So, if we want to solve the problem of parliamentary disruption, our national legislature needs to change its rules. One simple one would be to give dedicated time to Opposition parties to debate a particular topic in Parliament. For example, in the House of Commons, Opposition parties get 20 days in a parliamentary session when they determine the agenda of parliamentary discussion. In 2022, 36 separate subjects of debate were taken up during these Opposition days. In January this year, on an Opposition day, the Commons debated the issue of non-domicile tax status. It was an issue that gained public and political prominence because British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s spouse had claimed such a status, allowing her to save on taxes.
There is already precedence in the rules of procedure of both Houses for something similar. For example, in a parliamentary week, every Friday post-lunch, two-and-a-half hours are reserved for individual MPs to discuss their legislative proposals and other national issues. Similarly, Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha could decide the number of days on which Opposition parties could set the agenda for debate in the respective House. It would give the Opposition dedicated time to hold the government accountable on subjects they feel the government is reluctant to debate. The government would also have the opportunity to check the Opposition’s sincerity in having a debate and putting forth its stance on contentious issues rather than disrupting. Measures such as this could ensure that Parliament becomes an area for discussion for issues that are a priority for both the government and the Opposition. A structural reimagination of the national legislature will help it make a sincere effort in avoiding disruptions and achieve its true deliberative potential, befitting the world’s largest democracy.
Chakshu Roy is the head of legislative and civic engagement, PRS Legislative Research
The views expressed are personal