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Sunday Sentiments


    Posted On July 24, 2022

    By Karan Thapar

    As the monsoon session of parliament gets underway and we celebrate the 75th anniversary of Independence it’s worth asking how effectively is parliament functioning? Is it meeting our expectations or letting us down? Statistics gleaned from PRS Legislative Research raise disturbing questions and suggest worrying conclusions.


    Let’s start with the Lok Sabha. The 16th, which was the last full Lok Sabha, worked for 1,615 hours, 40% lower than the average for all full term Lok Sabhas. In the ’50s and ’60s Lok Sabhas almost touched 4,000 hours. Clearly the amount of time it now spends at work is shrinking.


    Both the key functions of the Lok Sabha have been adversely affected. The first is passing bills. In the 15th, 26% were passed within 30 minutes. Though that has come down to 6% in the 16th, only 25% of bills are now referred to committees compared to 71% and 60% in the earlier two Lok Sabhas. So is legislation getting the scrutiny it deserves?


    The second function is to hold the government to account. But in the last four Lok Sabhas Question Hour only functioned for 59% of its scheduled time. In the Rajya Sabha it was down to 41%. Disruptions are ensuring that the opportunity to question is squandered. No doubt the behaviour of MPs is partly to blame but the Speaker’s or the Rajya Sabha Chairman’s allegedly partisan failure to enforce discipline remains the main cause.


    It seems the situation in state legislatures is worse. Last year they only met for an average of 21 days and in 2020 nearly half the bills passed by state assemblies were cleared on the same day they were introduced.


    What’s particularly worrying is the emasculation of MPs, which can be directly blamed on the anti-defection law. They are meant to be representatives with a right to voice their opinion but they’ve become slaves of their party leadership. Because the law prevents MPs voting differently to their party whip and even speaking against their party stand, Chakshu Roy of PRS Legislative Research, says: “This law has fundamentally changed the nature of parliament and state legislatures.”


    To give MPs back their freedom we need to limit the applicability of the anti-defection law to finance bills and votes of no-confidence and leave them free to differ from their party leadership on other issues.


    The situation in the Rajya Sabha is, arguably, worse. Constitutionally it was meant to be a revising chamber, where legislation passed by the Lok Sabha could be re-thought, and also a chamber to express the concerns of the states. The anti-defection law has crippled the first function whilst legislation passed in 2003, breaking the link between states and candidates for the Rajya Sabha, means state representation is severely impaired. So has the Rajya Sabha lost its raison d’etre?


    This means when you look at the way parliament has developed since independence, it seems party leaderships have been strengthened at the cost of MPs and political parties have gained at the cost of legislatures.


    There are, however, two conventions we could adopt from the House of Commons that might help remedy matters. Britain has a weekly practice of Prime Minister’s Question Time, which includes a direct exchange between the PM and the Leader of the Opposition. It enforces accountability whilst providing the opposition an opportunity to question the most powerful in the land. We need something similar.


    The other convention concerns the Speaker. In Britain, once elected, the Speaker resigns from his party and if a sitting Speaker stands for re-election he’s uncontested. This effectively breaks the link between the Speaker and his party, thus ensuring impartiality. This is another convention we should adopt.


    Finally, there’s a question PRS Legislative Research really can’t help answer. Has the quality, talent and skill of our MPs improved over the last 75 years? Do we have better MPs than seven decades ago? If the functioning of parliament – in terms of time, debate and scrutiny – has diminished since 1947, it’s unlikely the answer will be yes.

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