Reforming parliamentary rules

Author - Baijayant 'Jay' Panda

Posted on - 26 November 2014

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This article was published on ‘The Times of India’ on 26th November 2014.





Article Title:”Parliament interruptus: Reform ambivalent rules from Raj era to reduce House disruptions”

There are moments in a nation’s history when its leaders are able to make decisive turns that can have long-lasting effects. Examples include India’s lurch leftwards with bank nationalisation in 1969, China’s sharp turn towards a market economy in 1978, and indeed India’s own economic reforms of 1991.

Such moments are not always available. For instance, just after India’s 2009 elections UPA II, with a renewed mandate, had such a window for perhaps 12 to 18 months. During that period, before the Adarsh revelations triggered a tsunami of scandals, the then PM could arguably have pushed through many significant reforms despite some uncooperative coalition partners. By contrast, in its last couple of years, battered and bereft of political capital, no amount of decisiveness could have overcome his government’s eroded credibility.

These inflexion points apply not only to economic policymaking, but to political and structural reforms as well. There is much ongoing analysis of the present government’s approach to economic reforms and its repositioning of foreign policy, but the scope for political reforms deserves more attention.

Though the last session of Parliament was the most productive since 2005, with Lok Sabha functioning for 104% of its scheduled time and Rajya Sabha 106%, deeper scrutiny shows that much more improvement is necessary. For instance, Lok Sabha saw only 24% of the listed questions being answered orally, and that was the highest in a decade!

There are some systemic flaws in the way Parliament functions, which desperately need reform. Most public discourse on this subject centres on the need for the Speaker to impose strict discipline in Lok Sabha (and in Rajya Sabha by the Vice President, who chairs it). Of course, that is necessary. Indeed, the two presiding officers are authorised to eject or suspend disruptive members, and are further empowered by many all-party resolutions to this effect. This 16th Lok Sabha is already beginning to see more of this.

But Parliament cannot function better only with stricter discipline, unless we also resolve its structural fault lines. For instance, the single biggest reason for disruptions has been lack of agreement between government and opposition on setting the agenda for discussions, and whether a debate should be voted on or not.

The past decade has seen Parliament largely paralysed because of this. Either the government would stonewall a demand by hundreds of opposition MPs to discuss — or vote on — an issue, or a tiny group of opposition MPs would hold Parliament hostage unless they had their way.

This happens because of ambivalent rules from the Raj era, when the precursor of our Parliament was created. Meantime, legislatures of most modern democracies have evolved straightforward rules so that what should be listed for discussion or voting is not something that leads disruptions. The UK Parliament has certain days dedicated to matters to be listed by the opposition. And even otherwise, if at least 40 MPs demand that a matter be listed for discussion, it is.

In India’s Parliament, a minimum of 1-3 MPs’ signatures are needed to request most matters for listing, but thereafter there is no hard and fast rule; it is left to the Speaker’s discretion, which in practice means that, even if large numbers of MPs have signed, it depends on consensus being achieved in the all-party Business Advisory Committee.

The only really non-discretionary rule about listing matters is the no-confidence motion, for which at least 50 MPs must sign. This is an extreme ‘nuclear option’, which does not serve the purpose for the everyday cut and thrust of Parliament. Which is why recalcitrant governments, knowing full well they enjoy a majority, often taunt the opposition to go for a no-confidence motion in lieu of agreeing to debate something that might be even mildly embarrassing.

A far better option would be to replace the Speaker’s discretion, euphemism for an elusive consensus, with simple but binding rules. These would reduce the listing (or not) of discussions and voting to a simple matter of a stipulated minimum number of MPs signing for them. Further, the minimum number of MPs should be higher, depending on the importance of the issue.

For listing the gravest issue, a no-confidence motion, the minimum number of MPs needed should be raised from 50 to 150 — in any case, it requires 272 to succeed! That would make it less frivolous, and also add more stability to the government. But equally, the listing of lesser matters ought to be made far easier. Ideally, a discussion should be automatically listed if at least 50 MPs sign for it, and a voting discussion if at least 100 MPs sign.

There are many other such ambivalent or discretionary practices that ought to give way to simple, binding rules. For example, conflicting interpretations about appointing the Leader of the Opposition should be replaced with an election for the post, with only opposition MPs voting.

Other practical measures such as starting the day with Zero Hour and shifting Question Hour to the afternoon (for both houses) would vastly improve productivity. And party whips should be limited to only no-confidence motions and money bills.

The first single-party majority government in a generation, led by a gifted communicator, now has a window to initiate such long overdue reforms.