As an Indian citizen, I was thrilled to see the parliament doing just what it is designed to do during this Monsoon session: Debate and pass laws. I congratulate you on presiding over the passage of a dozen bills, including the Companies Bill and Pension Fund Bill, first introduced in 2005 and 2009 respectively. In the teeth of opposition from the chatterati, your members demonstrated rare unity in enacting the Food Security and Land Acquisition Bills. Disruptions finally yielded the floor to debates. We witnessed the Prime Minister making a combative intervention and Sonia Gandhi delivering an impassioned speech to push through food security legislation.
Surely you can make such parliamentary functioning routine? I would like to humbly offer some constructive suggestions which will enable you to ensure that parliament does its job even better:
1. Modify the Anti-Defection Act
Currently, MPs who deviate from their parties’ position earn a fatal whipping and lose their seats. Please push for modifications to the anti-defection law so that it applies only in cases where the government’s survival is at stake. Today, as inner-party democracy has declined overall, MPs have little opportunity to draw attention to perspectives different from those of their parties’ leaders. You must allow for “conscience” votes so that MPs can express their choices fearlessly.
2. Accord private member bills more space and respect.
Please open up the space for private member bills. This will allow a variety of ideas to bubble up from the grassroots. Governments will be able to listen to non-mainstream points of view and provide official support whenever appropriate. This will enable your MPs to truly become lawmakers. They will quickly learn to master topics of concern to some section of the public and propose bills that address problems that might otherwise get ignored.
3. Televise parliamentary committee proceedings.
Bipartisanship and well-researched discussions are often the hallmarks of parliamentary committees. Yet this crucial aspect of the parliamentary process is well-hidden from the public. Your MPs will earn public recognition and respect if they carefully interrogate issues and officials during committee hearings. People will know who to approach to raise issues related to some pending legislation. (However, for all this to happen, you must provide MPs with competent research staff too).
4. Enable “Public Interest Legislation.
Please create a system that will enable MPs to hear the viewpoints of affected citizens and initiate appropriate policy responses. Yes, parliament already has in place a Committee on Petitions whose mandate is to do exactly this, but you need to empower and reimagine its functioning.
If your MPs are seen as more approachable and capable of acting on issues in a timely manner, people will approach them rather than the judiciary. The courts have partly expanded their policy interventions and intruded into your space because they have a public interest litigation platform to address matters of importance or of immediate concern. But judicial interventions may not be the appropriate way to deal with complex policy problems so your creating an alternative process is vital.
5. Bring Transparency to the Clash of Interests
Before legislation is passed, various publics and groups find a way to articulate their viewpoints to key political decision makers. In India this usually happens behind the scenes. Please bring this process out into the open. The public should be able to find out which groups are able to access the political system and how. Sunshine is the best disinfectant.
Decades ago, the economist Albert Hirschman wrote a book called “Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations and States.” He argued that when people cannot express “voice,” they will choose to “exit.” Clearly, when the people of India are not able to express their voice through their elected representatives, they will choose to exit parliamentary avenues and look for solutions among the judiciary and civil society.
Your role allows you to push for innovations that will restore the balance and strengthen the constitutional separation of powers in the realm of policy making. Even at this late stage, you can leave a legacy by restoring parliament’s primacy and its legitimacy in the eyes of every Indian.
M. V. Rajeev Gowda
M. V. Rajeev Gowda is Professor, Indian Institute of Management Bangalore and part of the Congress party’s team of spokespersons. These views are personal.