How to make our parliament more accountable

How to make our parliament more accountable

The last session of the 15th Lok Sabha brings  to an end one of the most disappointing  periods in the short parliamentary history of  India.

The numbers tell part of the story: this Lok  Sabha saw over 800 hours, or almost 40 percent  of its scheduled time lost to disruptions; the  least number of bills were passed in a full  term, and some important ones without any  discussion; the budget was passed last year  without discussing the expenditure allocation  for ministries; over 40 percent of  Question  Hour was lost to disruptions, implying that  ministers were not held accountable for their  actions. The images include that of pepper  spray, blackout of proceedings, and an  important bill on creating a new state passed  through a voice vote.

What is of even greater concern is that  parliament continued to slide in the  performance of some of its core roles. In a  parliamentary democracy (and indeed, as per  our constitution), the government is formed by  the group of people (party or coalition of  parties) who have the confidence of the  majority of the members (in our case, the Lok  Sabha).

This majority can be tested from time to time,  by any group of MPs. Indeed, this is one of  the fundamental roles of parliament - to  confer legitimacy to the government. The last  session of parliament saw an event when the  legitimacy of the government was challenged  but was not tested.

A number of MPs brought a notice for a no- confidence motion against the government. The  rules of procedure state that a minimum of 50  MPs are required to move a no-confidence  motion -- this will ensure that frivolous  attempts are thwarted.

Also, the no-confidence motion takes priority  over all other business because the  government's legitimacy has to be established  before it proposes policies or undertakes any  executive action. The Speaker counts the  number of MPs to ensure that there are indeed  at least 50 of them who want to move the  action. Though the motion was sought to be  moved in mid-December, the Speaker was unable  to take the count for over three weeks of  sittings, as the house was not in order and  MPs were not in their seats.

Another important role of parliament is as a  body that holds the government accountable for  its actions. This is done in three main ways:  asking questions in the Question Hour, through  parliamentary committees, and through debate  on key issues on the floor of the house. On  all three counts, there could have been a much  better performance. Over 40 percent of the  time of Question Hour was lost to disruptions.  Rajya Sabha experimented for one session with  a change in the time of Question Hour to the  afternoon but was not successful in reducing  disruptions.

Parliamentary committees were also not very  effective in bringing clarity and fixing  accountability after allegations of wrongdoing  -- we still do not have clarity on issues such  as the 2G telecom spectrum allocation or the  allocation of coal mining leases -- despite  reports of the CAG pointing out lapses. As for  deliberation in the house, one can count the  few debates in which MPs brought out divergent  perspectives and had a constructive debate.

Parliament is the only body that can make  national laws. This parliament did pass some  laws with far- reaching implications. These  include the Right to Education Act, the new  Companies Act, the Sexual Harassment of Women  at the Workplace Act, amendments to the IPC  and CrPC to protect women against sexual  violence, the Pension Act, the Land  Acquisition Act, the Food Safety Act, the  Lokpal Bill, and the Whistleblower Act.  However, several important bills were not  passed and will either lapse or will be in the  pending list of the next parliament.

These include the women's reservation bill,  the mining bill, a set of bills related to  higher education, another set related to  corruption, the insurance bill, the forward  contracts amendment bill, the micro-finance  bill and the seeds bill.

Are there any lessons to be learnt and  corrective action taken? Parliament must start  reasserting its position as that of the body  that holds the executive accountable, and not  be subservient to the wishes of the executive.  Perhaps, the most important step that needs to  be taken is to repeal the anti-defection law.  Though the original purpose of the law was to  reduce the instability of governments, it has  ended up being a tool for party bosses to  determine the way MPs vote on each issue.

Thus, it has the perverse effect of stemming  dissent and debate on key national issues. The  government needs only to discuss issues with  opposition leaders, and can avoid making a  case to all MPs, and through them to the  nation, for its legislative and policy agenda.

As we approach the elections for the next  parliament, citizens and the media can ask  prospective candidates on what they will do to  strengthen the institution of parliament.

  After all, this is one of the key institutions  that protects our freedoms and can enable us  to achieve our aspirations. Asking the right  questions and pushing for institutional  reforms can help us move towards a more  deliberative and constructive democracy.

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