NIGHTMARE ON PAR­LIA­MENT STREET

THE WORST FIVE YEARS IN HIS­TORY

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LEAST TIME ON LEG­IS­LA­TION FEWEST BILLS PASSED LESS DE­BATE THAN EVER BE­FORE MOST DIS­RUP­TIONS

Ev­ery morn­ing while Par­lia­ment is in ses­sion, Shailen­dra Ku­mar, 53, the Sa­ma­jwadi Party MP from Kaushambi, reaches the Lok Sabha li­brary at 8 a.m.. Over the next two hours, he goes through news­pa­per clip­pings and mag­a­zine ar­ti­cles and makes writ­ten notes on the is­sues sched­uled for the day. He puts these in a file, im­mac­u­lately pre­pared for Ques­tion Hour. Then, through the day, he watches in de­spair as ses­sion af­ter ses­sion is lost to dis­rup­tions and the is­sues he wants to raise dis­ap­pear in a haze of se­nior lead­ers rush­ing to the well of the House to shout each other down. From 2009 to 2014, Ku­mar has been present 97 per cent of the time, par­tic­i­pated in 342 de­bates, asked 162 ques­tions and in­tro­duced three pri­vate mem­ber’s bills. He is just one of sev­eral MPs left frus­trated as po­lit­i­cal par­ties have turned the pul­pit of leg­is­la­tion into the theatre of the ab­surd.

While the im­age of Par­lia­ment has steadily de­clined over the past two decades, it has reached its low­est point un­der the 15th Lok Sabha. Data from Delhi-based think tank PRS Leg­isla­tive Re­search con­clu­sively proves that this is the worst Lok Sabha in In­dia’s his­tory. It has 74 ma­jor bills pend­ing and passed 20 bills with less than five min­utes of dis­cus­sion. It has spent a stag­ger­ingly low 13 per cent of its to­tal time on leg­isla­tive busi­ness. To top it, in 2010, MPs gave them­selves a 200 per cent raise in salary, mak­ing this the most ex­pen­sive Par­lia­ment ever. The first Lok Sabha, from 1952 to 1957, will be re­mem­bered as a beacon of hope and pos­si­bil­ity. The tenth, from 1991 to 1996, en­acted poli­cies that opened In­dia’s doors to the world. As the fif­teenth edi­tion now comes to a dra­matic close, it will prob­a­bly be as­so­ci­ated for­ever with the mould of stag­na­tion.

“This is the worst Lok Sabha I have ever seen and I say it with a great deal of sad­ness,” says for­mer Union min­is­ter Jaswant Singh, a nine-time MP. “Par­lia­ment lis­tens much less and has be­gun to protest much more. This is an in­di­ca­tion of the greater tur­moil and dis­con­tent in our so­ci­ety at large but the lead­er­ship of the 15th Lok Sabha

has also de­clined sharply,” he says.

The floor of the Lok Sabha has been wit­ness to de­bates that have in­spired awe and shaped the course of the coun­try. “Forty years of tri­als and tribu­la­tions have gone into this man­date. We have worked hard for it, we have strug­gled for it and won the hearts of the people. We have toiled 365 days of ev­ery year as a party,” Atal Bi­hari Va­j­payee said pas­sion­ately as his 13-day-old govern­ment faced a no­con­fi­dence mo­tion in 1996. The speech was tele­cast on Do­or­dar­shan for the first time, beam­ing the con­duct of law­mak­ers into draw­ing rooms, be­com­ing part of din­ner ta­ble con­ver­sa­tions and wa­ter cooler analy­ses.

In 1963, Ram Manohar Lo­hia shook up Par­lia­ment when he wrote a pam­phlet against the Rs 25,000 spent daily on then PM Jawa­har­lal Nehru when the ma­jor­ity of people in the coun­try lived on 3 an­nas a day. Nehru cor­rected him, say­ing that ac­cord­ing to the Plan­ning Com­mis­sion, that fig­ure was more like 15 an­nas (lit­tle less than a ru­pee). Lo­hia de­manded a spe­cial de­bate and as he spoke, mem­ber af­ter mem­ber gave up time to him as he elo­quently de­mol­ished the Plan­ning Com­mis­sion’s num­bers.

Such de­bates have now given way to push­ing, slap­ping and scream­ing as stan­dard par­lia­men­tary be­hav­iour, cul­mi­nat­ing with an Andhra Pradesh MP try­ing to as­sault those around him with pep­per spray on Fe­bru­ary 13. A week later, TV broad­casts showed a TDP MP man­han­dling Ra­jya Sabha Sec­re­tary-Gen­eral Shumsher K. Sher­rif as he tried to snatch a doc­u­ment. It was enough to make Bai­jayant ‘Jay’ Panda, Biju Janata Dal MP from Ken­dra­para, tweet that he was go­ing back to his con­stituency as Par­lia­ment was a waste of time.

It is not just the loss of dig­nity and in­tel­lect alone that plagues Par­lia­ment. Fig­ures avail­able with PRS show the House’s out­put has been on a steady trend of de­cline. In the 1950s, In­dia’s Lok Sabha sat for an aver­age of 127 days a year. Since the year 2000, it has man­aged an aver­age of just 72 days a year. Be­tween 1952 and 1989, it typ­i­cally passed nearly 65 bills a year. That num­ber has fallen steadily to about 40 bills a year. From 1962 to 1991, ev­ery Lok Sabha con­sis­tently crossed the 100 per cent pro­duc­tiv­ity mark, mean­ing that they worked well be­yond the time al­lot­ted to them—11 a.m. to 6 p.m. for Lok Sabha and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. for Ra­jya Sabha. In con­trast, the 15th Lok Sabha has clocked in a 63 per cent pro­duc­tiv­ity.

“Things used to be dif­fer­ent,” ex­plains Jaswant Singh. “I re­mem­ber that for the Maruti na­tion­al­i­sa­tion bill there was a full night de­bate in which the govern­ment was made to ex­plain clause-by-clause. This Lok Sabha has also not had a sin­gle mean­ing­ful de­bate on the Min­istry of De­fence. Or on the con­duct of for­eign pol­icy. It used to be a cus­tom that when­ever the prime min­is­ter or ex­ter­nal af­fairs min­is­ter went out of the coun­try, he would re­turn and give a re­port to Par­lia­ment. Those cus­toms have been done away with.” The in­ac­tion in Par­lia­ment has a knock-on ef­fect in the states. In his book Rogue Ele­phant, Si­mon Denyer, the for­mer Wash­ing­ton Post In­dia bureau chief, says that the state As­sem­bly sat for an aver­age of just eight days a year in Arunachal Pradesh from 2000 to 2010 while Haryana man­aged just 14 days.

What ex­plains this de­cline? C.V. Mad­hukar, a co-founder at PRS, ar­gues that a ma­jor rea­son is the pass­ing of the anti-de­fec­tion law in 1985. This has made it less nec­es­sary for MPs to do their home­work be­cause no mat­ter what they think, they will need to go with the party whip. The sec­ond is the growth of coali­tion pol­i­tics and the pres­ence of smaller par­ties that make it im­pos­si­ble to pre­dict when and how an is­sue will be brought up.

A third rea­son, that has more re­cent rel­e­vance, is the Jekyll and Hyde na­ture of Par­lia­ment’s equa­tion with na­tional tele­vi­sion. The prospect of con­tin­u­ous cov­er­age en­cour­ages MPs to con­vert the House into a stage for a va­ri­ety of is­sues and a way of scor­ing

po­lit­i­cal points. It was telling that when the Te­lan­gana bill was fi­nally passed by Lok Sabha af­ter a marathon af­ter­noon ses­sion on Fe­bru­ary 18, it was ac­com­pa­nied by a TV black­out. For the first four min­utes, Lok Sabha TV put out a mes­sage say­ing that the House was ad­journed while pro­ceed­ings were still on. As news of the stalled tele­cast reached the Op­po­si­tion benches, there was a furore over the al­leged cen­sor­ship. At 3.04 p.m., it be­gan re­lay­ing an­other mes­sage that said live tele­cast would re­sume shortly. The tele­cast was re­stored over an hour later, with the Lok Sabha sec­re­tariat claim­ing that a tech­ni­cal glitch had caused the trans­mis­sion fail­ure.

“News­pa­pers used to carry each par­lia­men­tary de­bate in de­tail which prob­a­bly gave MPs an in­cen­tive to have their say. With the era of TV news, only the sen­sa­tional stuff gets fo­cus,” says a se­nior min­is­ter.

How do we re­form Par­lia­ment and get it back on track? The Con­sti­tu­tion en­trusts Par­lia­ment with the job of keep­ing a watch on the govern­ment, yet, con­versely, only the govern­ment has the power to con­vene Par­lia­ment. “In sev­eral coun­tries, a ses­sion of Par­lia­ment can be con­vened if twothirds of the MPs are in favour and this is prob­a­bly one change that can be con­sid­ered,” says Chak­shu Roy, head of out­reach at PRS. In 2011, Ra­jya

Sabha MP Ra­jeev Chan­drasekhar wrote to the Prime Min­is­ter mak­ing a sug­ges­tion in the same spirit. He asked for three spe­cial ses­sions of Par­lia­ment in a year, each for five days, to de­bate the ma­jor is­sues fac­ing the coun­try. So far, there has been no re­sponse from the PM’s of­fice.

The anti-de­fec­tion law is an­other area that could do with amend­ment. Vice Pres­i­dent Hamid An­sari has pre­vi­ously sug­gested that MPs should be re­quired to vote on party lines only when the fate of the govern­ment hangs in bal­ance. On other de­bates they should be al­lowed to vote ac­cord­ing to their will. In 2010, Congress MP Man­ish Te­wari had in­tro­duced a pri­vate mem­ber’s bill which sought to amend the Con­sti­tu­tion on sim­i­lar lines. In the 60 years that Par­lia­ment has func­tioned, there has been no at­tempt to change the way it func­tions. The truth is that while ev­ery­body knows what needs to be done, there has been a lack of po­lit­i­cal will or con­sen­sus for re­form.

In the mean­time, the pol­i­tics of dis­rup­tion continues to bring Par­lia­ment to a vir­tual stand­still. In 2012, then-par­lia­men­tary af­fairs min­is­ter Pawan Ku­mar Bansal said that each dis­rup­tion to Par­lia­ment cost the ex­che­quer Rs 2.5 lakh a minute. The real losses, in terms of a leg­is­la­ture that does not work to en­act pol­icy, must surely run into bil­lions.

Back in the 1970s, Piloo Mody, co­founder of the Swatantra Party and one of Par­lia­ment’s leg­endary speak­ers, was ac­cused by the Indira Gandhi govern­ment of be­ing an “agent of Wash­ing­ton” for his pro-mar­ket views. The barbs went so far that he marched into Par­lia­ment wear­ing a huge badge pro­claim­ing “I am a CIA agent”. When the Speaker asked him to re­move it, he did so, re­mark­ing “I am no longer a CIA agent”. There was wit then, now there is only farce. Fol­low the writ­ers on Twit­ter @jayantsri­ram

and @KDscribe

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3 BILLS WERE PASSED IN 2013 WIN­TER SES­SION, LOW­EST AMONG ALL SES­SIONS

PAR­LIA­MENT HOUSE IN THE BACK­DROP OFGANDHI’S STATUE

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