Constructive debate: Keystone of sound laws

The only way for political parties to resolve their differences is through dialogue not disruption
Last Updated 14 August 2022, 03:10 IST

Post lunch on a Friday is a quiet time during a parliamentary session. The government has no business on its agenda, and many Members of Parliament (MPs) use this opportunity to head back to their constituencies to be with their people. Other MPs use this time to discuss matters of national importance. In the first week of the monsoon session, Rajya Sabha MPs were engaged in a nuanced discussion on healthcare in the country. They talked about the high cost of healthcare migration for health reasons and opportunities to improve the country’s health facilities. The discussion was calm, reasoned and analytical—the epitome of parliamentary debate. But such a discussion was a rarity in the session.

The ruling and opposition parties wasted half the monsoon session. The Finance Minister was down with Covid, and the two sides could not agree whether to discuss the issue of rising prices in her absence or wait for her to recover and return to Parliament. Contributing to the stalemate was the opposition’s insistence on debating the subject under a specific provision of the rules of procedure and the government’s reluctance to do so.

The two sides could have resolved these issues. A senior minister could have put across the government’s view on rising prices in the absence of the Finance Minister. In the last Lok Sabha, when the Finance Minister was undergoing medical treatment, his ministerial colleague presented the budget. Perhaps the government was not agreeable to this course of action. In that case, the discussion could have started in the absence of the Finance Minister and continued until she recovered from her infection. After all, Parliament discussing an issue over multiple days is not uncommon. For example, in Lok Sabha, the discussion on promoting sports in the country started in the budget session and continued in the monsoon session.

The opposition and the ruling party could also have broken the deadlock over the choice of procedural device for the price rise debate. The opposition could have insisted that the discussion take place promptly and softened its stance on suspending government business for holding the debate.

Similarly, the government could have given in to the opposition’s demand and negotiated when the discussion would take place. For example, in the 14th Lok Sabha (2004-09), the Speaker admitted and the government agreed to discuss multiple national issues under adjournment motions.

And more recently in 2016, the Rajya Sabha discussed subjects like demonetisation under the rule that requires suspension of government business.

Deadlocks in Parliament are not new. They occur because of a hardening adversarial posture of the ruling party and the opposition’s uncompromising stance to draw political mileage.

On being elected as the Lok Sabha Speaker, Shri Somnath Chatterjee pointed out that the public was criticising MPs for their failure to maintain the decorum and dignity of Parliament. He said, “The behaviour and conduct of some legislators have become the subject of justified criticism and in some cases even of ridicule. Unfortunately, there is developing more and more an attitude of confrontation than cooperation in our political life which finds its reflection in the House.”

This lack of political consensus led to the washout of the monsoon session. In terms of Parliament’s productivity, it was the second-worst session since 2019. And it is unlikely that the situation will improve. Data from previous Lok Sabhas indicates that parliamentary proceedings get more disrupted as general elections come closer. The only way out is for political parties to resolve their differences through dialogue rather than disruption.

Opposition diminishing

The quality of lawmaking is one of the casualties of a disrupted Parliament. A day before the beginning of the monsoon session, the Chief Justice of India (CJI), Justice N V Ramana, remarked, “The country is witnessing a decline in the quality of legislative performance. We have a form of government where the executive is accountable to the legislative. However, space for leaders of the opposition is diminishing in absence of thorough debate and politics has become acrimonious. Political opposition should not transform into hostility which is being seen these days which are not signs of healthy democracy...” He also added that a burden is imposed on the judiciary due to imperfections in the process of law-making. Adequate debate and discussion would aid the crafting of better laws.

The CJI’s concerns are timely. In the monsoon session, the government informed Parliament that since 2016, aggrieved individuals had challenged 27 central laws before the Supreme Court. In our constitutional setup, the legislature makes laws, and anyone can challenge the legality of these laws before the judiciary. During the judicial review, the courts examine the legislature’s intent while making the law. When Parliament passes bills in a hurry during disruptions without adequate scrutiny, there is no clarity on why the legislature was making a particular law.

Standing committees

The lawmaking duty of Parliament does not involve blindly agreeing with the government’s proposed Bills. It has to examine every Bill thoroughly and make recommendations to strengthen it. The departmental Standing Committees of Parliament are responsible for this detailed scrutiny of Bills. The work of these committees becomes vital because their closed-door nature allows them to focus on the technical aspects of law rather than its political connotations. They also invite experts and stakeholders to share their insights on a prospective law to improve it. As a result, Bills examined by committees are more likely to be better formulated than those only debated on the floor of the two Houses. But our parliamentary procedure does not require Bills to be mandatorily examined by a parliamentary committee. Very often, ministers will urge the Presiding Officers of the two Houses not to refer their Bills to a parliamentary committee as it would delay their passage. Since 2019, parliamentary committees have only scrutinised 13% of the bills passed by Parliament.

Parliamentary disruption and inadequate legislative scrutiny require urgent attention. The sessions of Parliament cater mostly to the government’s needs for passing laws and budgets. And since successive governments have convened Parliament for shorter durations, it further reduces the space for the opposition to raise national issues, since sessions are packed with government business.

Ideas like dedicated days for the opposition to set the agenda for debate, mandatory scrutiny of Bills by committees and discussion of committee reports on the House floor strengthen the highest lawmaking body in our country. Former Vice President of India, Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, summed it up when he remarked, “the quality of governance in a democracy will critically hinge on the quality of business transacted in Parliament.” As we celebrate 75 years of independence, we should remember that a robust Parliament is the foundation on which our democracy stands.

(The authors are with PRS Legislative Research, New Delhi)

(Published 13 August 2022, 15:29 IST)

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