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Mainstream, VOL L, No 38, September 8, 2012

Disruptions and Parliamentary Accountability

Thursday 13 September 2012


by Nivedita Giri

A key function of Parliament is to oversee the working of the government by holding it to account for its policies and actions. There is a huge uproar across the country that, like in the 2G allocation, the government arbitrarily allocated the mining lease which has led to the exchequer incurring a loss of staggering Rs 1 lakh 86 thousand crore. (CAG Report) The Opposition, especially the BJP, finds a parallel with 2G: A. Raja, the Minister, then resigned; the Minister of Coal, the PM, must resign too. The BJP disrupted the entire winter session of Parliament last year on their demand for a JPC, and they are doing so now for the PM’s head.
Apart from the loss of several crores due to disruption, is it correct, for the sake of account-ability, to disrupt the parliamentary functions? Certainly not. In fact, the BJP MPs are failing in their own accountability as parliamentarians. The burden of my argument here is that the BJP’s behaviour is unparliamentary, and a serious omission of accountability. I hold no brief for the Congress as well as the Congress does not seem to follow standards, as it reacts opportunistically to political pressure and events. Let us look deeper into the accountability issue.

What is Accountability?

Accountability usually refers to an authoritative relationship in which one person is entitled to demand that another answer for—that is, provide an account of his/her actions. This form of accountability assumes that the agent from whom such answerability is demanded is both self-aware and in possession of the necessary means to cause an event or an action to occur. It denotes a hierarchical notion of relationship and equates accountability with answerability. Some authors term this relationship as ‘compliance accountability’.

However, accountability covers more than simple answerability; it embraces the requirement that governments take note systematically of the full ranges of public opinion in the formulation and implementation of law and policy. Accountability is about power, about decisions and actions and they can impose sanctions on public officials or bodies that do not live up to their responsibilities.

Effective public accountability in democracies requires a set of supplementary procedures and institutions in addition to elections. Interestingly, accountability manifests itself variously as issues of legitimacy, transparency, efficiency, and representativeness.

Why is accountability of the government/executive to Parliament important? There could be two possible answers. First, because it is connected to the sovereignty of Parliament; it is a means by which the executive’s powers can be subordinated to the representatives of the people. So it is constitutionally significant. Secondly, because it fulfils the ‘expressive’ role of Parliament in providing a forum for discussion of government activity, an important function in any democratic system.

Accountability is the Key

The traditional association of accountability with answerability, referred to above, implying limited, direct and mostly formalistic response to a demand is too narrow an interpretation of what is meant by public accountability. According to the school of thought propounded by Ramzek and Dubnik, accountability is a means by which public agencies and their workers manage the diverse expectations generated within and outside an organisation. (Public Administration Review, London, vol. 43, 1987) This definition implies that management will attend to diverse expectations and position their agencies for proactive and reactive responses. Managers then become active participants in framing and articulating the standards by which they are judged rather than submitting to passive compliance. This definition shifts the emphasis from outside control over bureau-cracies to administrative control and management of outsiders. The problem of this definition, as argued by O’Loughlin, is that it changes the traditional understanding of the concept of accountability (Administration and Society, California, vol. 22, 1990), which stresses on the importance of ‘calling to account’.

The system of calling to account is the core of the Westminster type of government as well as Indian. This system demands that the governments give account of their activities to Parliament. Both Parliaments have used similar techniques to enforce accountability of the governments; the most widely used technique is through questions. It is commonplace that most Parliaments modelled after Westminster question the “government Minister on the floor of the House”. In addition to questioning Ministers, several other mechanisms are used for demanding accountability—adjournment motions, call-attention motions, zero hours etc.—but not disruption, paralysing proceedings, running into the well, shouting slogans, creating pandemonium and chaos.

Parliaments thus have built-in mechanisms for regulating internal accountability. These mechanisms, mentioned above, promote a participatory approach to decision-making. They also ensure that Parliament is seen to be transparent, consultative, participative and democratic. Improving accountability thus largely depends upon the attitude of the Members of Parliament. They have to draw a balance between confrontation with the government and the Opposition and rendering the government accountable. For Members it is not easy sustaining the government or the Opposition, and taking action as public watchdogs. These are conflicting roles. The conflict and mistrust between political parties are powerful behavioural and cultural factors.

The Role of Parliament

In modern democracies, Parliament is the important and definitive link between citizens and the government. It has a unique role in any representative democracy. It is the key to holding the government to account on behalf of the public. The citizens need a body that can call the government to account, that can ensure that the government answers for its actions and those of the civil servants. Parliament is the body through which the government is called to account between elections, the body that ensures that the voice of the electors, individually and collectively, is heard by the government. The health of the political system rests on having an effective Parliament, and if Parliament is disrupted, the whole democratic edifice is disrupted.

Transparency and accountability are bedrocks of parliamentary democracy. Transparency means final control and scrutiny as accountability concerns the executive and administrative discipline. These twin concepts draw upon the fundamental principles that no taxation and expenditure without the people’s consent and authority is exercised through Parliament, through their elected representatives. Further-more, Parliament exercises control over the executive; it embodies the will of the people—hence it is sovereign.

Parliament articulates and mobilises public opinion while showing responsiveness to the public. Parliament also reflects and articulates issues of public concern, which governments have to respond to. Although there are agencies even outside Parliament which hold the executive accountable, yet Parliament is at the apex of a system of accountability—drawing on the investi-gations of outside regulators and Commissions (in this case CAG) enabling the members to deliver better.

On the role of Parliament to control the executive power, “Ministers are entitled to hold their offices as long as they hold the confidence of Parliament.” This quote expresses the concept of ministerial responsibility running parallel to the concept of parliamentary sovereignty. This concept refers to the ultimate accountability of every Minister for the work of his Department and area of responsibility to Parliament. So the PM, as the Minister of Coal, cannot escape this procedure, nor can the BJP escape its account-ability as a body of MPs.

Hence in the interest of the healthy democracy, the parties must go back to Parliament and use the parliamentary methods; they should not undermine themselves, and the supremacy of Parliament in our democracy.

Dr Nivedita Giri is an Assistant Professor, Political Science, Kalindi College, University of Delhi and the author of Comparative Parliamentary Committees in Britain and India: A Study in Accountability.

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