NIGHTMARE ON PARLIAMENT STREET
THE WORST FIVE YEARS IN HISTORY
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
15th LOK SABHA
ONLY 39 PER CENT OF THE TOTAL TIME WAS DEVOTED TO QUESTION HOUR N THE 15th LOK SABHA
3 BILLS WERE PASSED IN 2013 WINTER SESSION, LOWEST AMONG ALL SESSIONS
PARLIAMENT HOUSE IN THE BACKDROP OFGANDHI’S STATUE