As an institution, Parliament is central to the very idea of democracy and was assigned a pivotal role in our Constitution by the founding fathers of the republic. Parliament is responsible for legislation—laws of the land—by which people govern themselves. It must ensure accountability of governments—on policies or actions—to the people. It should engage in discourse and debate on issues that concern the nation and the citizens. However, the significance of the parliament has diminished in stature and significance. Indeed, it is now more a symbol than the substance of a vibrant democracy that has taken deep roots among our people.
How can we say that the significance of Parliament has diminished over the years?
- The process of legislation has become slow and lagged. Laws are often passed in rush with little scrutiny and no follow- up rules. In some cases, it takes sessions together for a bill to become law.
- Parliament, which was meant to invoke accountability, has almost forgotten its role. Now, the only means are questions asked by MPs, many of which are pedantic, unclear or on behest. Besides, these questions are often answered with less or hidden facts by the government.
- Discourse and debate on issues of national importance were an attribute and highlight of Parliament during the first two decades of the republic, until around 1970. But this has eroded and diminished with the passage of time. There is discussion but it is often partisan—sometimes a dialogue of the deaf—between groups where party lines are sharply drawn. Thus, differences lead to protests in the form of walk-outs or rushing to the well of the house.
- Number of days when the parliament meets and discusses the relevant issues have also gone down. Even when the Parliament sits and meets, there is more noise than debate, more shouting than listening, and more statements than engagement or debate.
- The criminalization of politics is another concern. Reports show that 34% of the MPs in the 2014 Lok Sabha faced criminal charges, as compared with 30% in 2009 and 24% in 2004. Across parties, candidates facing criminal charges were more than twice as likely to win as compared to those with a clean record.
Reasons for the diminishing role of the parliament:
The factors underlying these developments and deterioration are not rocket science. The barriers to entry in politics are formidable. The only access comes from kinship or money. And muscle power matters as a determinant of success.
Also, there are institutional constraints on the performance of MPs as well. The allocation of time for MPs to speak is proportional to the strength of their political party in the house and its leadership decides who gets to speak and for how long. The speaker of the Lok Sabha or the chairman of the Rajya Sabha have little discretion in the matter.
The only other opportunities for MPs are during question hour or zero hour. Answers to unstarred questions are simply laid on the table of the house. Starred questions are too many. Only a few come up for discussion. And these are just not taken up if the concerned MP is not present at the time. In zero hour, the speaker or the chairman have the discretion to invite an MP to speak, buttime is too little and speeches are often drowned out in pandemonium.
MPs also do not quite have the freedom to speak in our Parliament as in other democracies. For one, they are afraid of what the party leadership might think, which could affect their future. For another, party whips are a problem. Any violation of whip could lead to an MP’s expulsion from the house.
Parliament also does not meet or work long enough and there are institutional constraints on its performance while working.
What can be done?
It is essential to recognize the complexity of this problem before we can find or design solutions. The answers lie, inter alia, in electoral reform through public funding of elections, combined with political reform that mandates disclosure on the sources of financing for political parties, and sets rules for elections within political parties to foster intra-party democracy that has been stifled not only by dynasties but also by oligarchies.
Almost 70 years after we began life as a republic, there is a clear and present danger that we could be the world’s most vibrant democracy with the world’s least effective, and perhaps most dormant, Parliament. It is time for MPs in India to reclaim their rights in Parliament as representatives of the people. Also, the time has come for citizens, whom it represents, to evaluate that performance.