Making words count
Measuring the quality of legislative debates
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.