Parliament taken for granted

The Indian parliment should be a pillar for  the so called world largest democratic system in the world. But it is not functioning as intended and seems dysfunctional. Bills are passed with hardly any debates, while the MPs are enjoying their lavish perks. One of the reasons is that the MPs themselved are not adequately trained or educated, according to the writer of this article.

Elections are held in India on regular basis, where voters can select their representatives.  This is the main criteria in deciding whether a country is democratic, according the most widely held Western political belief.  It seems the democracy is an end to itself, and not a means to the end. There is also little thoughts being given  wheather the conditions are ripe for democracy to be implemented. 

I like using India as basis of discussion on Chinese governance system. They are approximately of same size, and India started in last century with better shape the China. But today, there is just so much problem with India, but the Western media as a whole choose to ignore. They prefer to zoom into any imperfection with the Chinese system, and magnify it many times. There is an article in SMH that mentions that 40 millions jobs would be lost in China, just because someone quoted it.  I have asked myself what could be the reason for creating so much bad publicity on China, while ignoring their houses which are actually on fire.  Is it because they regard Chinese people lives more highly? No, it’s the opposite – the problem is more fundamental. It has to do with the mindsets of the people and their insecurities.


You would think parliament is pivotal to India’s system of governance. Wrong. Over the years, the cavalier manner most governments have treated parliament point to its increasing irrelevance in the larger scheme of things.

The balance of power has markedly shifted in favour of the executive. Both the executive and the judiciary have gained at the cost of parliament, even though for any government to survive it is still absolutely necessary that it commands a simple majority in the House of the People (Lok Sabha).

The decline of parliament has not come about overnight. But recent excesses have highlighted the utter failure of parliament to retain a semblance of control over the executive.

Last December, the Manmohan Singh government pushed through as many as eight legislative Bills in the Lok Sabha in a matter of 17 minutes. Yes, 17 minutes. Some of these Bills were important, others controversial. Among them was the proposed amendments to the Criminal Procedure Code.

Yet, no debate took place. With a voice vote the Lok Sabha gave its assent to all these Bills amidst slogan-shouting from the opposition. The Government had its way and parliament lost its in the process.

The Government also showed little concern for parliamentary traditions and dignity, skipping altogether the customary winter session last year. Instead, the truncated monsoon session was reconvened during the peak of winter in mid-December.

In July, parliament was not adjourned sine die after the Government “managed” a wafer-thin majority on the controversial nuclear deal.

Fearing that a new session could prompt the opposition to move a no-confidence motion, it decided to re-convene the monsoon session in winter. Rules do not permit more than one no-confidence motion per session.

A simple measure of the decline of parliament is the number of days it is in session. In the first decade after the founding of the republic in 1952, parliament on average met for 150 days in a year.

The first prime minister, the late Jawaharlal Nehru, was a conscientious follower of the Westminster model, regularly attending parliament and actively participating in the proceedings.

Decorum was observed by members. Even though the opposition strength was small, it boasted of a number of brilliant parliamentarians who kept the government on its toes.

The slide began some time in the mid-60s. The late prime minister Indira Gandhi, Nehru’s daughter, took parliament for granted. The number of sessions came down to about 80 days in a year.

Naturally, with fewer sittings, fewer legislative Bills were passed. In the initial years, the number of Bills passed each year was nearly 70; now it averages less than 50, and that too without much debate and deliberation.

Discussion and debate are integral to any democratic system. Indians are ill-served by their representatives when key legislative measures are passed without even a cursory mention of their pros and cons. Without parliamentary oversight, the executive often gets away with arbitrary actions.

Indeed, 2008 marked the nadir of parliament. Quite aside from the strange spectacle of the monsoon session being continued at the height of winter, the number of sittings touched a record low of 46.

Given that a good number of those sittings were lost in unprecedented scenes of bedlam – now such a common occurrence that it hardly makes news – the actual working days would not be more than 20.

Disruptions, adjournments, name-calling, disregarding presiding officers, tearing of the agenda papers, etc, seem to have become second nature to the honourable members.

As a result, much of the legislative business of the government is pushed through without even a perfunctory debate.

It has now become routine for parliament to hurriedly pass the demands of grant of various ministries at the fag end of the annual budget session with a voice vote without any pretence of going through a discussion.

Neither the past performance of a ministry nor its future plans and expenditure outlays are scrutinised in any meaningful way when the guillotine is applied to secure the pro forma parliamentary sanction.

Some years ago, after dedicated TV channels began a live telecast of the proceedings, it was hoped that members would be at their best behaviour and keen to participate in the proceedings to impress their respective constituents.

But television cameras only made them more audacious, louder and noisier in their behaviour. Also, the live telecast did not help deal with the perennial problem of lack of quorum, especially in the post-lunch sessions.

Without doubt, the main cause for the decline of parliament is its members. With the deepening of the democratic process in recent years, especially after the backward caste reservations in the mid-80s, a large number of MPs lack formal education.

A substantial number even have criminal backgrounds.

Most are unable to contribute to the debate in any meaningful way because of both lack of interest and intellect. Often even ministers come across as ignorant, unable to coherently answer questions listed against their names.

Yet, all is not lost. Because parliament is remiss in scrutinising issues, invariably the task is performed by various standing committees of members drawn from both Houses. Unless the Government is otherwise determined to have its way, it normally does not disregard the recommendations of the committees.

Though these committees are expected to work on a bipartisan basis, unfortunately on crucial issues members are split on party-lines, thus frustrating the very purpose of constituting them in the first place.

Paradoxically, despite the decline in the functioning of parliament, the salary and perks of members over the years have increased manifold.

Quite aside from a daily allowance for sittings whenever the House is in session, each member gets a handsome monthly salary, free accommodation in New Delhi, free electricity, water and telephone connections, unlimited first-class rail travel for self and spouse plus an attendant, 36 annual round air trips throughout the country, sitting fees, including travel allowance for inter-session meetings of parliamentary committees.

There are a number of other listed and hidden perks which make the honourable MPs one of the richest in the developed world.


About kchew

an occasional culturalist
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