Monsoon session: India’s parliamentary democracy is in crisis
The normalisation of disruption and the steamrolling of legislation in the monsoon session are warning signs that parliamentary functioning needs an urgent overhaul. If this pattern continues, the new Parliament building will be a modern and spacious venue for a dysfunctional institution.
Political disagreement on discussing issues such as the alleged Pegasus phone hacking and farm laws led to the washout of the session. There was only one exception. The ruling party and the Opposition reached a rare consensus on a constitutional amendment bill, which clarifies that states can maintain their list of socially and educationally backward classes. But the debate on the amendment was an aberration in the larger story of how Parliament passed laws during the session.
The two Houses went through the motions while passing 15 other laws. Amid continuing disruptions, Lok Sabha, on an average, took less than 10 minutes to pass a law, and Rajya Sabha passed each law in less than half an hour. The passage of these laws was more in form than in substance. In Lok Sabha, there were 13 bills in which no Member of Parliament (MP) spoke other than the minister in charge of the bill.
The political debate in the two Houses on a law is often in addition to a careful examination of the government’s legislative proposal by a parliamentary committee. And this aspect of legislative scrutiny continued to weaken in the monsoon session. The government introduced 11 bills in the session and pushed them through Parliament without scrutiny by standing committees. Only 12% of the government’s legal proposals have been sent to committees for scrutiny in the current Lok Sabha. This number was 27% in the 16th (2014-19), 71% in the 15th (2009-14) and 60% in the 14th (2004- 09) Lok Sabha.
Amid the slogan shouting and the raising of placards, the government accomplished almost all of its legislative agenda. The one significant piece of law that it did not bring before Parliament was an amendment to delicense electricity distribution. The government also brought in a law to end retrospective taxation and another one to increase private sector participation in public sector insurance companies.
A casualty of parliamentary disruption was the ability of the Opposition to hold the government accountable for its functioning. With Question House barely operational, ministers neither had to orally answer questions nor face pointed follow-ups on the work done by their ministries. MPs were able to get written answers from the government on various issues, including the handling of the Covid-19 situation, the vaccination drive, and deaths due to the pandemic. While Rajya Sabha was able to deliberate on the pandemic, in the Lok Sabha, no such discussion could occur due to disruptions.
Finally, this is the fourth consecutive session that has been cut short. The pandemic led to the curtailment of two sessions in 2020. This year, political parties agreed to end the budget session 11 days ahead of schedule to campaign in state elections. The monsoon session is yet another reminder that the institution needs to rethink how it deals with disruptions. It does not have any effective mechanism to reign in political parties for the conduct of their MPs. And since MPs disrupt Parliament on the instruction of their political parties, disciplining them hasn’t worked.
Parliament can change its rules to give MPs more teeth in questioning the government and empower its committees to become critical stakeholders in the law-making process. This will increase the stake that MPs have in the effective functioning of the institution, and disincentivise them from disrupting it. But this alone will not stop parliamentary disruptions.
The socialist leader and former minister, Madhu Dandavate, once remarked that a sense of accommodation by the treasury benches and a sense of responsibility by the Opposition benches is the balance essential for the smooth running of Parliament. And this balance can only be achieved by both sides working together to uphold the dignity of Parliament.
Chakshu Roy is the head of legislative and civic engagement, PRS Legislative Research
The views expressed are personal