Mak­ing words count

Mea­sur­ing the qual­ity of leg­isla­tive de­bates

Governance Now - - PARLIAMENT - Kaushiki Sanyal

In 2016, 38 bills were en­acted in par­lia­ment. Dur­ing that year, on av­er­age, the time spent on leg­isla­tive de­bate (with­out in­ter­rup­tions) was 23 per­cent in the Lok Sabha and 16 per­cent in the Ra­jya Sabha (cal­cu­lated from the PRS Leg­isla­tive Re­search data).

Time is, how­ever, just one mea­sure of the qual­ity of leg­isla­tive de­bate. Analysing the con­tent of the de­bates would pro­vide a glimpse of the na­ture of is­sues raised by par­lia­men­tar­i­ans and whether they ad­e­quately cap­ture the gamut of is­sues that may be re­lated to the leg­is­la­tion.

Not many stud­ies ex­ist on leg­isla­tive de­bates the world over, although the pace has picked up dur­ing the last two decades. ma­jor­ity of the work fo­cused on analysing po­si­tions of leg­is­la­tors or why leg­is­la­tors par­tic­i­pated in de­bates. At­tempts to mea­sure dis­course qual­ity were scarce. In 2003, schol­ars from the Uni­ver­sity of North carolina, marco R Steen­ber­gen et al, de­vel­oped a ‘Dis­course Qual­ity In­dex’ to mea­sure the qual­ity of de­lib­er­a­tions. They pro­posed that speeches be as­sessed un­der the fol­low­ing heads: (a) level of par­tic­i­pa­tion in de­bate; (b) level of jus­ti­fi­ca­tion; (c) con­tent of jus­ti­fi­ca­tion; (d) level of re­spect to­wards the ben­e­fi­ciary group; and (e) level of con­struc­tive pol­i­tics.

In the In­dian con­text, there is a per­cep­tion that the qual­ity of par­lia­men­tary de­bates has de­te­ri­o­rated, es­pe­cially com­pared to the early 1950s, when stal­warts such as Nehru, mavalankar and AK gopalan were Lok Saha mem­bers. But there is no em­pir­i­cal anal­y­sis on the sub­ject. There­fore, analysing the con­tent of speeches through a Qual­ity of Leg­isla­tive De­bates In­dex could elicit in­for­ma­tion on the na­ture of dis­course on a leg­is­la­tion, the level of pre­pared­ness on the sub­ject and the im­pact on the fi­nal out­come, that is, a leg­is­la­tion. The qual­ity of the de­bate can se­ri­ously af­fect the ef­fi­cacy of these laws them­selves.

At his first Bha­iron Singh Shekhawat lec­ture re­cently, pres­i­dent Pranab mukher­jee stressed the need to im­prove the qual­ity of In­dia’s par­lia­men­tary de­bates. Here’s an ex­am­ple. While dis­cussing the re­cently en­acted ma­ter­nity Ben­e­fits (Amend­ment) Bill, 2016, al­most all mps wanted to in­clude the un­or­gan­ised sec­tor but none sug­gested how this could be achieved. Hardly any MP touched upon its fi­nan­cial im­pli­ca­tion on the pri­vate sec­tor, par­tic­u­larly Smes or on so­lu­tions at­tempted else­where.

Blame it on the anti-de­fec­tion law of 1985 or to the gen­eral de­cline in par­lia­ment as an in­sti­tu­tion, par­lia­men­tary de­bates are no longer what they used to be. While check­ing in­dis­crim­i­nate de­fec­tions, the anti-de­fec­tion law has re­duced mps to a mere head­count fol­low­ing party lines.

one way to en­cour­age mps to im­prove their qual­ity of de­bate is to ob­jec­tively mea­sure and re­port the qual­ity of de­bates, bring­ing pub­lic fo­cus on this is­sue and in­cen­tivis­ing bet­ter in­puts from mps. De­vel­op­ing an ob­jec­tive met­ric for as­sess­ing the qual­ity of de­bates would force our par­lia­men­tar­i­ans to pay at­ten­tion to their key role as law­mak­ers and be more in­formed on the sub­ject. It is to be hoped that this would, in turn, stem the tide and re­store par­lia­ment to its for­mer glory.

I have de­vel­oped an out­line, a frame­work for an in­dex to mea­sure the qual­ity of leg­isla­tive de­bates for the pur­pose.

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