Restoring the House

Author - Baijayant 'Jay' Panda

Posted on - 6 December 2011

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This article was published on ‘The Indian Express’ on 6th December 2011





As the depressingly familiar routine of parliamentary logjam plays out yet again,it is worth examining if the rising crescendo of criticism is nearing a tipping point that will finally tilt the balance in favour of a correction. But the reality is that there will be no correction until the root causes,and not just the superficial symptoms,are addressed.

Both the criticisms and the proposed solutions so far treat parliamentary disruptions as the disease,whereas they are merely the symptoms. Notwithstanding a few younger MPs seemingly defying their leaderships with a “no work,no pay” proposal — which incidentally I support,but only as a symbolic gesture — there has not been a serious debate on the root causes.

India’s Parliament contains many obsolete rules and conventions that desperately need changing,without which it is illogical to expect lasting change in its functioning (or lack thereof). These rules are rooted in the restrictions of Raj-era limited democracy,as well as an earlier,more genteel,era when Victorian norms,not rules,governed the settlement of disputes. In other words,they are not built to tackle the conflicts that we must,as a nation,work through.

First,the Raj hangover: well before Independence in 1947,the British gradually started involving Indians in governing India. A series of reforms — such as the Indian Councils Act of 1909,and the Government of India Acts of 1919 and 1935 — gave Indians limited participation. Although elections were introduced,the ensuing elected body fell far short of being a parliament,with authority denied to it in many crucial areas. The idea was to devolve just enough power to keep the natives from rebelling,but mostly just to provide them a platform to blow off steam.

That mindset survives,with successive governments — not just this one — happy to treat Parliament as a platform for the opposition to vent its ire,but not to the extent that it can exert true pressure. That would be too uncomfortable,requiring the government to mobilise its members,utilise its political capital,and sell its agenda to the nation. Instead,every government strongly prefers the easy option of treating Parliament as a toothless debating house,listening to the opposition with an indulgent smile,and then doing exactly as it pleases. Very British Raj,except that we get to take turns being in charge.

This attitude,and the obsolete parliamentary rules which enable it,is at the heart of the problem. This is precisely why the government is loath to agree to debates that require voting — rather oddly,considering that we are a democracy after all — since that would require of it all the above-mentioned labours for the passage of contentious proposals.

This is where that other relic of the past accentuates the problem: the lack of precise rules and dependence on gentlemanly codes for settling disputes. With the exception of a no-confidence motion — that nuclear option threatening the very existence of a government — every other voting motion in Parliament is left to the discretion of the speaker,that is,to consensus between the parties. That provides a veto to every side,making it totally unworkable.

An analogy would be the early days of automobiles,when there were so few of them that no hard and fast traffic rules were needed; if two happened to be at the same junction at the same time,both drivers could be counted on to arrive at a genteel and courteous solution to who would go first. Today,that just would not work; without traffic lights and roundabouts,there would be utter chaos.

Indian democracy has come a long way in these 64 years; it has empowered millions of the previously disenfranchised,and it has become far more competitive. In line with this,its highest legislative body now needs precise traffic rules to function efficiently. What might these rules be?

To begin with,an attitudinal change can and should be facilitated by doing away with paternalistic relics of Raj-era limited democracy. One example: private members’ bills. By convention,these are never passed by Parliament,acting only as moral suasion on the government. In fact,even to introduce such a bill,an MP needs to seek the president’s permission! No such permission should be needed,and the convention of not passing them should be turned on its head. When it becomes normal for MPs — and not just governments — to author bills that become law,parliamentary participation will prove far more attractive.

Another example of paternalism is that,even after Parliament passes a law,the government has the discretion of delaying its notification,that is,implementation. That should go; any law passed by Parliament should automatically become the law.

Most importantly,voting motions should be commonplace in Parliament,as is the practice in most evolved democracies. Governments routinely reject opposition demands for voting motions with the taunt that they would entertain only the mother of all voting motions,the motion of no-confidence. That is a non-starter,since the opposition will almost never have the numbers for it. And why should there be only two extreme alternatives of either a toothless debate or a no-confidence motion? There is plenty of room in the middle for voting debates that keep the government on its toes without jeopardising its continuance.

But safeguards are needed to prevent the opposition from using flimsy excuses to punch above their weight class. The best way to balance both is to do away with consensus and discretionary powers to decide what should be a voting motion; instead,replace those with a precise rule requiring a demand from a substantial minority of MPs,say 33 per cent. If one of every three MPs asks for a voting motion,there ought to be one.