Who controls Parliament? Instead of building a robust system, we have bled its vitality, dignity and efficacy

Seven decades, sixteen Lok Sabha and two hundred and fifty one Rajya Sabha sessions later, we have reached a situation where executive doesn’t just have a link to legislature through Parliament, but there is a near-complete Executive take-over of the Legislature. Bit by bit, over these seven decades, every government has contributed to the undermining of the institution of Parliament.

Maansi Verma September 22, 2020 18:58:46 IST
Who controls Parliament? Instead of building a robust system, we have bled its vitality, dignity and efficacy

The concerns expressed by some members of the Constituent Assembly in its meeting on 10 December 1948 proved to be prophetic for what happened in Rajya Sabha on 20 September 2020.

Professor KT Shah, noted economist and a Member of the Constituent Assembly moved an amendment for insertion of a new Article in the Constitution providing for ‘complete separation of powers between the principal organs of the state viz. the Legislative, the Executive and the Judicial.’ Though the framers of the Constitution had already decided on the Parliamentary form of government, Professor Shah advocated for the Presidential system. With respect to the kind of link that Parliamentary form of Government creates between Executive and Legislature, where Executive are also part of the Legislature, he insisted, “The less contact there is between them, the better for both.” His reason was that Executive can offer Ministerships, Ambassadorships and other offices in exchange for votes of the members (of Parliament). Some other Members concurred with him.

Professor Shibban Lal Saxena, a professor of mathematics and philosophy, was of the opinion that Legislature will only pass Bills which the leader of the majority party wantsm making it a “one-man government than anything else.” He cautioned that the Legislature will not be independent, but be submissive to the Executive. Kazi Syed Karimuddin, a skilled lawyer, argued that in Parliamentary system “political opponents are practically crushed, neglected and ignored.” He further contended that in absence of conventions and discipline, our people are not trained to ‘put up with the opposition.’

There were several proponents of the Parliamentary system as well, including Dr. BR Ambedkar who found the Parliamentary System to be more responsible than the Presidential System. He argued that government will be answerable to the legislature through Parliamentary interventions like questions etc. and will be in office only as long as it enjoys the confidence of the legislature. On link between executive and legislature through Parliament, Dr. Ambedkar argued that the work of Parliament is so complex that members of Parliament will need guidance from the executive to ‘carry on the work of the Legislature.’ The amendment moved by Professor Shah was negated.

Seven decades, sixteen Lok Sabha and two hundred and fifty one Rajya Sabha sessions later, we have reached a situation where executive doesn’t just have a link to legislature through Parliament, but there is a near-complete Executive take-over of the Legislature. Bit by bit, over these seven decades, every government has contributed to the undermining of the institution of Parliament.

Parliament convenes only when convenient for the executive, to put its stamp of approval, willingly or not, on all executive proposals. Numbers predict the outcome of a debate and not the substance of the matter being discussed. Providing little to no time to MPs to study a Bill leads to only muted protests as there is no appreciation of the responsibility of a member as a lawmaker. The executive is assumed to already contain all the legislative wisdom needed, to which legislature cannot make any valuable contribution.

Standing Committees are routinely bypassed and if the government agrees to refer a Bill to a Committee for study, it is projected as an act of executive magnanimity. The executive also selectively approves recommendations made by a Standing Committee, with several ignored and amendments to Bills proposed by MPs during a debate are defeated without even the pretense of a discussion on the same. There is an utter disregard for Parliamentary procedures which are not seen as drivers of healthy deliberations but as brakes on ambitions of a government determined to serve its mandate at any cost. Parliament’s authority to seek accountability from the Executive has been systematically weakened and conduct of presiding officers, sworn to uphold the constitutional values of our democracy above anything else, has often left much to be desired.

Therefore, the unfortunate events which transpired on 20 September 2020 would not have come as a surprise to anyone closely watching the developments in the last couple of months and perhaps years.

Ambedkar had laid great stress on the Parliamentary system being a more ‘responsible’ system where the Executive will be responsible for the Legislature. But every avenue to extract accountability from the Executive is being compromised. Government’s decision to cut short the Budget Session of Parliament in March this year, a day before imposition of a unilateral decision of nationwide lockdown, caused Lok Sabha to pass the Finance Bill 2020 within minutes without any discussion.

During the long period of more than five months of Parliament not being in session, Executive promulgated eleven ordinances, including the controversial agriculture related ordinances.

Even as several countries across the globe moved their parliamentary work online, not just our Parliament, but our Standing Committees also remained dysfunctional for more than three months. The preparations of holding the Monsoon Session of Parliament, with MPs being physically present started two months ago and yet, after a five month gap, only an eighteen day short session was convened with each House scheduled to sit for only four hours everyday.

The unprecedented circumstances and short time was cited as a reason to do away with question hour, but didn’t prevent the government from keeping an ambitious legislative agenda of close to forty bills. Whether Members are raising matters of urgent importance or speaking on Bills, they are being asked to rush with their speeches and in several cases, being asked to confine themselves to a minute only. What meaningful deliberation is possible in the present state of affairs?

Of the nineteen Bills that have been passed by both Houses in this session, only two were studied by Standing Committees. Executive’s hesitation to send Bills to Committees for review is confounding even as ample evidence exists of the usefulness of this exercise. In the Monsoon Session itself, government withdrew three Labour Codes (Occupational Health, Safety & Working Conditions Code, Code on Social Security and Industrial Relations Code) which were introduced in 2019 and thereafter referred to Standing Committee for review.

According to the statement given by the labour minister while withdrawing these Bills, the Committee recommended 233 amendments to the Code of which government accepted 174 leading to substantial changes in the Codes. The Minister therefore withdrew the earlier Codes and introduced new ones. When such possibilities of improvements exist, what prevented the government from referring the two agriculture related Bills also to Select Committee for review, as demanded by the Opposition in Rajya Sabha, which ultimately became the bone of contention leading to protests?

On the first day of Monsoon Session, the motion to suspend Question Hour came up for discussion and voting in Lok Sabha and while speaking against the Motion, a member asked for division. The Speaker denied the request without citing any reason and the motion was passed through a voice vote. Voice vote is the preferred form of voting on motion and bills as it is anticipated that government has majority. It is also easier and quicker.

However, any member can ask for division which paves way for recording of votes. Division is the only way to know for certain that a motion or a bill has majority support and to record, for posterity, the vote of each member present and voting.

It is being said that on 20 September 2020 the government was not sure of its numbers and wanted to prevent division on the Bills or on the motion to send Bills to Select Committee, which the Opposition MPs were protesting about. The protest was because MPs were being prevented from seeking division and the protest became the reason for not allowing division. For division to happen, there must be order in the House, but even for Bills to be passed by voice vote, House must be in order. How did it deem appropriate to the Deputy Chairman to deny division to MPs but at the same time proceed with clause by clause voting on Bills amidst din and chaos? Several amendments were also moved by MPs which also couldn’t be voted upon. The questionable conduct of some of the protesting MPs further dented an already broken system.

While this is what happened in Rajya Sabha in the afternoon, later in the night, Lok Sabha cleared as many as four Bills within an hour. We need to seriously introspect on what metric needs to be applied to measure the quality of deliberations and manner of passing of Bills in Parliament.

The concerns expressed by Members of Constituent Assembly seven decades ago on the ills and perils of Parliamentary system manifested in the last couple of days in the most disturbing manner. This indicates that we adopted a system and instead of making it more vigorous and robust, we have let it bled of its vitality, its dignity and its efficacy. Till we demand better from our institutions, the question that will continue to haunt us is - if the present Parliamentary system is positioned to check the Executive which is expanding its sphere of influence and power or has it capitulated before the Executive?

The author is a lawyer, public policy researcher and founder of Maadhyam, a civic engagement initiative

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