Rethink the functioning of India’s Parliament
To do justice to the vision of the Constitution’s drafters, and encourage greater deliberation, Parliament needs a set of structural changes
There is a simple test to judge a parliamentary session. Former Lok Sabha Speaker GMC Balayogi came up with it. At 46, he was the youngest Speaker, and according to him, “All’s well if it doesn’t end in Well.” He was referring to the well of the House. It is the area before the Chair of the Speaker occupied by secretariat staff. In our parliamentary functioning, it is a sacred space. Here, Members of Parliament (MPs) take their oath of office before beginning their responsibilities as lawmakers. The well is also where MPs assemble to disrupt the proceedings of the House. An empty well during House proceedings is, therefore, a good sign. And the hope is that, on the Balayogi test, the upcoming 19-day winter session will pass.
Parliamentary disruptions are a symptom of the critical problems afflicting our legislatures. Repealing the three farm laws will address one contentious subject that caused a parliamentary logjam over the last year. However, an effective Parliament requires rethinking of two fundamental areas of our legislative functioning. One — who should convene Parliament and what should it discuss? Two — what changes are required to encourage deliberation and ensure scrutiny in Parliament?
Our Constitution empowers the government to convene Parliament. The only responsibility it casts on the government is to ensure that there should not be a gap of six months between two Parliament sessions. So, earlier this month, the government announced the dates of the winter session. If the session goes according to plan, then the legislature of the world’s largest democracy would have met for 60 days this year to discuss the myriad problems facing the country. Over the last two decades (excluding the general election and the previous year when the pandemic curtailed House sittings), Parliament met for an average of 71 days in a year.
Since the Constitution visualised a case when Parliament was not in session, it gave the government power to make laws in an urgent situation. These laws had to be brought before Parliament for approval in the next session. Using this power, the government promulgated three laws (called ordinances) between the monsoon and the upcoming winter session. One of them deals with a drafting error in the Narcotics Act. The other two, earlier this month, provide a mechanism for extending the tenure of the director of the Central Bureau of Investigation and the Enforcement Directorate. These two ordinances will be a point of contention during the session.
Since the Constitution allowed lawmaking in the absence of Parliament, it incentivised all governments from 1952 to resort to the ordinance route for making laws. Fewer Parliament sitting days also means that the government squeezes all its work (laws and budgets) into the three sessions of Parliament. For example, in this 19-day winter session, the government plans to discuss 31 legislations and a supplementary budget. Parliamentary rules prioritise government business over all other discussions. As a result, the executive corners most of the legislature’s time to discuss its agenda, leaving less time for the Opposition to highlight other national issues.
The government’s powers to convene the legislature and promulgate ordinances are both colonial legacies. Our Constitution-makers carried them forward in our founding document. They hoped that governments would not use these powers after Independence in the manner that the colonial masters did. However, since Independence, governments haven’t lived up to that expectation. In other mature democracies, Parliaments meet through the year on a fixed calendar. They sit for anywhere between 120 to 150 days and take breaks in between for festive and other occasions. Their meeting schedule also enables MPs to tend to their constituencies. In countries such as the United Kingdom, Opposition parties get a fixed number of days to highlight important issues.
The rules of parliamentary procedure need to be overhauled to encourage debate. For example, during the monsoon session, the demand for discussing the alleged Pegasus phone hacking led to the washout of the entire session. A similar situation might arise in the upcoming winter session when the Opposition tries to raise the subject of the Lakhimpur Kheri violence. The rules of procedure of the two Houses do not allow debate on matters pending in court. There are precedents disallowing a discussion because of this rule.
For example, in the winter session of 1974, the government filed a charge-sheet in a licence scandal case a few hours before the sitting of Parliament. It then argued that MPs could not discuss the matter since it was sub-judice. Now, issues pending in courts are routinely debated in the media unless expressly barred by the court. The sub-judice rule creates a situation where a topic can be discussed on national television but not by MPs in Parliament. The rule aims to prevent legislative debate from prejudicing judicial proceedings but stifles MPs from debating on issues. Parliament could amend its procedure to encourage discussions and also protect the sanctity of judicial proceedings.
In the winter session of Parliament, the government plans to introduce, debate and pass 26 new bills. All these legislative proposals are complex and will have a significant impact on different policy areas. These bills are on diverse subjects, such as bringing more competition into the electricity sector, enhancing demand for renewable energy, and regulating cryptocurrency. Another legal proposal will overhaul the Emigration Act of 1983. A debate on the floor of the two Houses will not give MPs the opportunity to scrutinise such diverse laws effectively. As a result, Parliament will not do justice to its constitutional responsibility of rigorously examining laws before passing them.
Parliament has a mechanism for referring government bills to its specialised committees for scrutiny. Over the years, these committees have done an excellent job of making valuable suggestions to strengthen complex government bills such as the Labour Code and DNA Technology bills. However, the rules currently do not require all bills to be mandatorily referred to parliamentary committees.
As a result, ministers often request the presiding officers to not refer bills of their ministry to committees. Parliament should amend its rules and send all government legal proposals to its subject committee for scrutiny and strengthening.
In 2000, the Central Hall of Parliament was the venue for celebrating the 50th anniversary of our Republic. On this occasion, then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee said, “Let this be our resolve today: We shall leave institutions above all, our Parliament and our State legislature for the coming generation in a condition vastly better than the condition in which we found them; in discharging our duties in them, our conduct will be such as would have done the Founding Fathers proud. That would be a fitting way to repay our debt to them. That would be the one tribute worthy of them.”
As we celebrate the 75th anniversary of our Independence, Prime Minister Vajpayee’s words should catalyse us to rethink the functioning of our Parliament.
Chakshu Roy is the head of legislative and civic engagement, PRS Legislative Research
The views expressed are personal